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With Michigan costs rising, rail group proposes surge in seats for high-speed Amtrak line

Riding the rails in Michigan hasn't been this good for a long time.

More passengers are boarding Amtrak trains on its three lines in the state. Many trains now run over 110-mph-capable track. And work will begin later this summer to bring even more track up to 110-mph speeds.

Yet, come October 1, the state also will have to increase its subsidy for Amtrak service by more than 200 percent.

Some rail advocates are worried that, if action is not taken soon, Michigan will not have enough passenger cars and locomotives to take proper advantage of the improved rail network.

“I personally think we are stalled (on growth), because we don’t have extra equipment,” said John DeLora, who lives in Metro Detroit and serves as national vice chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “Trains are just packed, very full, so you can’t develop more ridership. By adding cars and frequencies (of service), even (the Michigan Department of Transportation) will be surprised at how well the public reacts.”

Michigan, along with California and Illinois, is awaiting the construction of new rail cars with all the modern conveniences, but deliveries won’t start until 2016. And those new cars won’t allow Michigan to ramp up service to bag the customers it needs, says James Coston of Corridor Capital LLC in Chicago.

Coston is part of a small group – ranging from himself  to a former congressman in Battle Creek to an Owosso-based railroad firm -- pushing an unusual plan to use old commuter cars to double the number of trains on the Detroit-Chicago run – eventually.

His firm has acquired 50 old double-decker cars, which he proposes to rehab, with the help of a Michigan firm, Great Lakes Central Railroad. The state would then lease or buy the cars, eventually allowing Amtrak to double the roundtrip runs between Detroit and Chicago from the current three per day to six, and maybe even to eight or 10.

“Chicago-Detroit is the most robust corridor between the coasts. It has two major metros at its ends and significant cities along it, such as Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor,” Coston explained. “It's filling up trains on weekends. … No one can predict how the demand is going to explode.”

The state, however, can predict how its subsidy for Amtrak will increase. On Oct. 1, state spending will go from $8 million per year to about $25 million, the consequence of Amtrak requiring (under congressional mandate) the state to cover the full operating deficits of the Wolverine Line between Detroit and Chicago.

Coston argues that the best way for Michigan to compensate for higher costs is to make more money by increasing capacity.

“In order to push revenue up to help, you need more seats,” he said. “These trains will have more capacity than Amtrak trains, which are, right now, operating at 1,500 seats. We are proposing almost 4,400 seats on daily basis on roundtrips. When you match demand, projections and new capacity and add frequencies, you start to generate enough revenue and trains pay for themselves.”

Tim Hoeffner, the MDOT official in charge of rail policy, says the state has noted the growing demand for rail seats and is intrigued by Coston’s proposal.

“We haven’t committed to this yet,” he said in June, however. “We are exploring the concept. Can it be economically viable and help with our goal of cutting the costs of state subsidy to Amtrak?”

MDOT’s immediate attention is on improving service by addressing a debilitating legacy from Amtrak’s past.

Running on borrowed tracks

When Congress created Amtrak in 1970 from the shrinking remains of a once robust system of passenger rail services in America, it tied its fortunes to the decisions of others – the freight lines that own the tracks Amtrak trains would use.

Thirty years later, as the state of Michigan was increasing its support to broaden passenger service, it ran into the inevitable result: service delays. While Amtrak negotiated slots on the freight lines, small operational hiccups could put the passengers behind the freight, leading to the horror stories of hours upon hours of delay getting, say, to or from Chicago.

But starting around the turn of the century, Amtrak and Michigan began acquiring track. First came the 90-mile distance between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo – which is now, at 110 mph, some of the fastest track in the nation. Then, in 2012, the stretch between Kalamazoo and Dearborn was purchased, using $140 million in federal stimulus dollars.

In late June, the Federal Railroad Administration approved Michigan’s plan to spend more federal dollars – some of which became available after the state of Florida declined aid to do its own higher-speed rail project – to bring that section of track up to 110-mph service. By the end of the 2015 construction season, the goal is to have the approximately 200 miles of track from Porter to Dearborn capable of carrying 110-mph trains.

At that point, says rail advocate and former Michigan Congressman Joe Schwarz, the Detroit/Dearborn to Chicago run could be just four hours on the 300-mile route, making the service competitive with any other mode of transit.

“Who the hell wants to drive from Birmingham to Detroit Metro, then fly to O’Hare and then get to downtown Chicago?,” Schwarz asked. “Rail is the most civilized way to travel.”

Andrew Goetz, who studies rail transit at the University of Denver, says speed is a major – but not the only – factor that influences travelers’ decisions.

“You need speed and frequency – high-quality service at high speed – to be competitive with driving, and more competitive with air,” he said. “I don’t know if one is more than another, but if I had to pick, I’d say frequency is the more important.”

Under Coston’s proposal, which Schwarz is touting, more frequent departures and arrivals would result from several actions spanning the next five years.

First would come the rehab of the 50 old cars, undertaken via an agreement with Michigan to use them as they become available about a year after work began.

Those cars would replace the older Amtrak-owned ones now on the Michigan lines, maintaining current service (three daily roundtrips on the Wolverine Line) and setting the stage for expansion.

By 2016, as deliveries of the new Amtrak cars begin, Michigan would use the rehabbed pieces and the new ones to add more trains over the now-renovated and faster track between Dearborn and Indiana.

“MDOT is reviewing our proposal and financing plans. We are hopeful the state will choose to act in the near future,” Coston said. “Once we have an agreement, we are hopeful of delivering the first trains in 12 months and delivering all (50 cars and locomotives) in 24 to 26 months.”

More service would be appealing to Laurie Arora of Grosse Pointe Park, who is now an occasional rider.

“Riding the train is relaxing and stress-free,” she said, “provided you aren't in a rush. It's still a quaint way to travel. And yes, sometimes it moves slower than a bicycle, but with the right mind-set, it's part of the appeal.”

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