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Incremental improvements are often overlooked. But they’re leading to improved travel times between Detroit and Chicago.
In some good news for the Great Lakes State, the Michigan Department of Transportation recently announced that the state will be seeing faster Amtrak passenger rail service between Detroit and Chicago later this year thanks to track and safety improvements that have allowed for higher speeds and an updated train schedule.
Through a state-federal partnership, Michigan has the longest stretch of publicly owned railroad that’s used primarily for intercity passenger service outside of the busy Northeast Corridor. While Amtrak is already permitted to travel at a maximum speed of 110 mph along a portion of the route between Detroit and Chicago, trains will be traveling at that higher speed through additional sections of track later this year once positive train control is activated and tested and new locomotives roll out on the line.
While those speeds are sluggish compared to global high-speed rail norms, the faster travel times—there will be a 20-minute reduction for trip between Chicago and Detroit, which now takes about 5 hours and 20 minutes—have been part of an effort to improve intercity rail service incrementally that was embraced by the administration of then-President Barack Obama.
Much has been written about how Republican governors, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, turned down federal money for high-speed rail the Obama administration wanted to use to boost infrastructure investments in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Obama’s larger vision of creating a network of high-speed intercity rail connections between U.S. cities never came to fruition due to a variety of political challenges in Washington, D.C. and state capitals.
But Michigan offers up an interesting footnote for Obama’s high-speed rail legacy, one where another Republican governor, Rick Snyder, continued to build upon the state’s investments in Amtrak. Michigan, like some other states, appropriates its own funding that allows for additional Amtrak service. But it also has something that no other state outside the Northeast has.
In 2012, the Michigan Department of Transportation used a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration to purchase 135 miles of tracks owned by Norfolk Southern. The price tag was for the tracks was $140 million.
The MDOT-owned stretch, between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, just outside Detroit, connects to an Amtrak-owned asset: a 97-mile stretch of track between Kalamazoo and an important rail junction southeast of Chicago in Porter, Indiana. Amtrak ended up owning those tracks when the Penn Central Railroad, which was created out of the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads in 1968, declared bankruptcy two years later. That line ended up being the longest-stretch of Amtrak-owned tracks outside the Northeast Corridor. With the MDOT-owned line, passenger trains between Chicago and Detroit run along publically-owned tracks for about 80 percent of the route between the two cities.
That’s 235 miles of tracks under public ownership, something that laid the foundation for state and federal officials to upgrade the rail infrastructure in Michigan to allow for higher-speed intercity trains. On these publicly-owned tracks, freight rail traffic wouldn’t be much of a concern like it is on so many Amtrak routes that travel on privately-owned lines where passenger trains might not get priority.
The railroad acquisition in Michigan and improvements to track infrastructure, signals, crossings and safety systems along the route represent a total federal investment of $347 million.
"At MDOT’s direction, Amtrak work crews have corrected years of deferred maintenance and have taken over dispatching," Joe McHugh, Amtrak vice president of state-supported services said in a statement. "We have created the longest railroad segment outside the northeast that is being made ready for an even more reliable and faster Amtrak service."
But those improvements in Michigan wouldn’t mean much if Amtrak trains were subjected to delays getting in and out of Chicago, which had been a long-standing problem with passenger rail service in the Midwest. Two Chicago-area bottlenecks were largely eliminated during the Obama administration. The first, the Englewood Flyover, on Chicago’s South Side, allows Metra commuter rail trains to pass over tracks used by Amtrak trains; the second, the Indiana Gateway project, improved tracks for passenger trains going in and out of Chicago from points east, including the complex Porter rail junction.
In February 2012, the federal government approved 110-mph speeds for trains along the 97-mile Amtrak-owned portion of the route once positive-train control was installed and activated along the route. For comparison, at the beginning of this century, Amtrak trains were only allowed to travel 79 mph along the same tracks.
As Route Fifty has previously reported, using Amtrak’s faster train service in Michigan offers a nice alternative to driving into and out of Chicago. It’s also a good transportation asset for Kalamazoo, home to Western Michigan University and 75,000 local residents. The city is now about three hours away from downtown Chicago by train, meaning that without traffic, the same trip along Interstate 94 is about two and a half hours, making Amtrak more competitive with driving.
It’s an especially appealing option during the winter, when strong bands of lake-effect snow can lead to major multi-vehicle pileups along Interstate 94 near Lake Michigan. And as most drivers in southern Michigan can attest, driving along the heavily trafficked I-94 can often be a nerve-wracking and frustrating experience.
What comes next for passenger rail service in Michigan? With federal priorities unclear when it comes to financing future infrastructure improvements, that’s hard to say, but the state has been studying a possible new cross-state rail service connecting Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit, cities that currently don’t have a direct passenger rail connection linking them.
That proposal is just a theoretical line on a map. It’s years and millions of dollars away for becoming a reality. As Michigan’s experience with the Chicago-Detroit line shows, it takes a lot of incremental steps to get there.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.