Detroit studies restoring passenger trains to Michigan Central Station

Ford Motor Co. bought the long-shuttered Michigan Central Station last year for $90 million and is in talks about restoring passenger service to the iconic building. (Photo courtesy of Krupa)

Michigan Central Station was dedicated in 1914 and brought generations to Michigan as the auto industry boomed.The last passenger train left the station on Jan. 5, 1988. (Photo courtesy

The depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. (Photo courtesy of

After Amtrak service ended, Michigan Central Station began a long decline until it became one one of the city’s best-known blighted buildings. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Owned by the family of the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Michigan Central Station was open to trespassers and vandals for years. (Photo courtesy of George)

The Michigan Central Station remained structurally sound, however, and was purchased last year by Ford Motor Co., which will spend $1 billion renovating it and the surrounding area. (Photo courtesy of Southen)

Last summer, Ford Motor Co. opened the station to the public for the first time in decades, and tens of thousands toured the building. (Courtesy photo)

DETROIT –  More than 30 years after the last passenger train left Michigan Central Station, Ford Motor Co. and regional leaders are studying whether Amtrak service can return to the iconic building, Bridge Magazine has learned.

A $30,000 feasibility study commissioned by the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority is underway and should wrap up by month’s end, and discussions are ongoing between Ford, the City of Detroit and other transportation officials, said Kyle Burleson, executive director for the Port Authority.

The development comes one year after Ford bought the building –  which had become one of Detroit’s best-known symbols of blight –  for $90 million and announced plans for a $1 billion restoration. The Dearborn-based automaker plans to bring 5,000 jobs to the building and surrounding area to work on autonomous and electric cars.

The big question is not only how much it would cost to restore passenger rail service at the 106-year-old building, but where to get the money.

“Is this something we can do in a... millage? Is it something foundations can step up to the plate for? We just don’t know,” Burleson told Bridge.

“The goal right now is to try to figure out what it would cost then determine where we go from there.”

The news comes as Amtrak is considering restoring train service from Detroit to Toronto, which stopped in 1971. Service restoration was indicated as a future possibility in a line item in Amtrak’s annual grant request to Congress, as first reported in Curbed Detroit.

Related: Plans on track for passenger train from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, group says

The passenger rail lines that remain at Michigan Central Station could serve as a hub that the federal government wants to connect Chicago to Toronto, said Burleson of the Port Authority.

“The timing was kind of perfect. Hopefully it all fits together and something develops out of it,” he said.

Burleson said Ford officials approached the Port Authority about the study, and talks have included officials from Wayne County, the City of Detroit, regional officials and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said he couldn’t confirm discussions but issued a statement saying Amtrak is “exploring places it can modernize and expand its services and network.”

“A Chicago/Western Michigan-Detroit-Toronto corridor is one of the services where we see promise,” according to the statement.

Currently, Amtrak runs passenger train service in Detroit through a small station in Midtown with other nearby stops in Royal Oak, Dearborn and Ann Arbor.

Ford officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, while a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he wasn’t aware of any discussions.

Detroit’s Ellis Island

The possibility of returning train service to the station has been bandied about for years. The building’s former owner, the family of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, also explored the idea.

Michigan Central Station is one of the best-known buildings in Detroit, if not all of Michigan.

For 75 years, it was the state’s equivalent of Ellis Island, bringing generations to Michigan for jobs and sending thousands off to wars, according to the website

And for the past generation, it’s been a haunting reminder of Detroit’s decline. Train service ended in 1988 and the building fell into disrepair and became an international symbol of “ruin porn.”

“It has been going from famine to feast in terms of one of Detroit’s most iconic abandoned buildings,” said Dan Austin, an author, historian and founder of that catalogues the city’s architectural legacy.

“It’s a building no one thought could be saved. It hasn’t seen anything but vandals and scrappers in years. And to tell you that Ford is coming in there and not only going to renovate it and restore it to all its glory, but make it a train station again? It’s hard to believe.”

Austin said train service could be a big win in a region that has spent decades discussing but failing to act on improvements to regional transit. Expanding train service from Detroit to Ann Arbor has been discussed for years, and is part of the master plan for the Regional Transit Authority created in 2013 to improve transit. Southeast Michigan voters rejected a millage in 2016 for improvements, though.

Besides funding, other hurdles remain including cooperation from freight train operators. Canadian Pacific Railway currently runs freight trains on tracks near the historic station, said Michael Frezell, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The state is aware of the ongoing feasibility study but it’s still too early to know what kind of arrangement could be worked out between passenger and freight train operators or the costs involved, Frezell said.

Moving forward

Ford is renovating the train station with the help of a 30-year Renaissance Zone designation from Michigan Strategic Fund that is worth $239 million in tax breaks.

Notably, Ford announced no plans to remove the old passenger train tracks and until now those involved in the project have dodged the question about whether it will again be a train station.

The station is in one of Detroit’s oldest neighborhoods, Corktown, which will receive  $22 million in improvements from Ford through a community benefits agreement with the city in exchange for the tax breaks.

Former Detroit City Council Sheila Cockrel lives in the neighborhood and served on a board that negotiated the community benefits with Ford.

Growing up, she said she remembers hearing nearby train whistles and is excited by the possibility of resumed service.

“There’s a long history of this as a viable transportation node,”  Cockrel said.

“I think it could be a really fascinating and really exciting development for the city and the region.”

Megan Owens, executive director for Transportation Riders United, said the idea also raises many questions, including how riders would get to downtown from the station, which is more than a mile away.

Even so, she said she’s excited by the prospect.

“People just go crazy over it,” Owens said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

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Thu, 04/04/2019 - 6:02am

I would love ❤️ for you to google
The lift up Detroit project

Kevin Grand
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 6:59am

"The big question is not only how much it would cost to restore passenger rail service at the 106-year-old building, but where to get the money.

“Is this something we can do in a... millage? Is it something foundations can step up to the plate for? We just don’t know,” Burleson told Bridge."

We are consistently reminded by mass transit supporters that their is this alleged "support" for their cause.

Why not put that statement to the test?

Tack a fee onto individual Amtrak riders tickets and have them pay for it.

Be upfront about it. Just call it the "MCS Restoration fee" and don't play any shell games with how the money is spent.

What do they have to fear?

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 10:03am

Sure. And while we're at it, we're going to make car owners shoulder 100% of the burden of building and maintaining ALL the roads necessary for their driving pleasure.

Lets scrap the 90% federal, 10% state funding formula for new car infrastructure.

What do they have to fear?

Kevin Grand
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:31pm

We're already doing fhat.

Why do you think that Gov. Whitmer doesn't want to touch the sales tax collected at the pump which doesn't go towards roads and wants to shift 40 percent of her proposed gas tax towards the same?

OABTW, all that stuff you buy at the store...guess how it got there?

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 1:10pm

"We're already doing fhat."

Not true. Check the budget of the city or township and the county you live in. See the line items for roads/transportation? That money doesn't come from drivers, it comes from local taxes. And the stuff you buy? It doesn't need a 6, 8 or 10 lane freeway. All it needs is a 4 lane freeway AT MOST. Any more lanes than that is just a subsidy to commuters.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 5:56pm

I-69, I-275, I-475, I-675...three lanes.

Small parts of I-94, I-696, I-75...four lanes. The rest of it is only 3-lanes.

There's only one freeway in Michigan that has anything close to 8-lanes, and that's I-96 in Detroit (but only for a short distance).

I know not of this wondrous 10-lane highway of which you speak.

I'm certain that many a rush hour traveler would disagree with your assessment on adding lanes around Michigan...which obviously you are not one.

And once the I-75 & I-94 rebuilds around Detroit begin to kick in, your opinion will mean even less.

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 12:06pm

Yes, I live in the Detroit Metro area and I commute to work every day. Your point was that roads are needed to move goods. I have no argument with that. What I am saying is that any road with more than 4 lanes (two in each direction) have:

1) nothing to do with moving goods, as 4 lanes are more than sufficient to move goods
2) are a subsidy to commuters, as their only reason for existing is for their commutes
3) are not paid for by those commuters. Various estimates I have read are that drivers pay approximately 48% of the direct cost of roads and nothing towards the indirect cost, such as noise, air and particulate pollution. City/township and county roads for the most part receive NO money from gas taxes and vehicle fees. So they are not paid for by drivers.

And as far as my "wondrous " roadways, just off the top of my head in the Metro area:

- I-696 from I-94 to Southfield Road - 8 lanes
- I-696 from Telegraph Road to Novi Road - 8 lanes
- I-275 from I-696 to M-14 - 8 lanes
- I-96 from I-696 to I-75 - 8 lanes
- I-75 from Square Lake Road to Joslyn Road - 8 lanes, with the section between Square Lake Road and University Road 9 lanes
- I-75 from I-696 to Springwell Street (just past the Ambassador Bridge) - 8 lanes
- Not to mention a large number of the mile roads throughout the Metro area.

And I have driven them all many, many times over the last 20 years.

You seem to think "widen the roads and congestion will go away". Guess what, study after study has shown that doesn't work. For example, the Katy freeway in Texas was widened earlier this decade. Some sections are now 28 lanes wide. And traffic counts show that congestion is worse than before the the freeway was widened. The exact same thing happened with the I-405 widening in LA, traffic is worse than before it was widened.

The old joke about the definition of insanity comes to mind when I read comments like yours. For over 50 years it's been "widen the roads and congestion will end". And in all that time there is not ONE example I know of where widening roads has lessened long term congestion. Care to enlighten me?

Kevin Grand
Mon, 04/08/2019 - 7:33am

A casual observation of traffic going across the Blue Water and Ambassador Bridges, along with the associated traffic backups will easily dispel the need for more lanes to move goods. There is far more movement of goods than I believe you along with most people are aware of.

Texas has something that Michigan does not, an exploding population. Of course after jumping through all of the legal and environmental hoops required to build a road nowadays, a process that easily takes years, is any other outcome honestly expected?

I would say that its safe to say that we do agree with one point: the shell game that politicians absolutely love to lay with budgets MUST stop.

That can easily be done here by redirecting 100% of transportation funds towards actually building roads roads rather than towards superfluous items like landscaping, beautification and mass transit.

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 9:53am

"A casual observation of traffic going across the Blue Water and Ambassador Bridges..."

That is a total non-sequitur. The reason for the backups on the Ambassador and Blue Water bridges is because both cross an international border and traffic has to go through customs and security. If there was complete freedom of movement between the US and Canada the way there now is in the EU traffic crossing the Detroit River over the bridges would be no different than traffic crossing on the Rouge River bridge on I-75.

And yes, the population of Texas is increasing but I notice you make no mention of the fact that after widening the Katy freeway to up to 28 lanes that traffic is worse than it was before the freeway was widened. And you haven't listed any instances where freeway widening has decreased long term congestion.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:31pm

We're already doing fhat.

Why do you think that Gov. Whitmer doesn't want to touch the sales tax collected at the pump which doesn't go towards roads and wants to shift 40 percent of her proposed gas tax towards the same?

OABTW, all that stuff you buy at the store...guess how it got there?

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:46pm

We heard you the first time... no point in repeating yourself (you already do).

David P. Lubic
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 7:14pm

I wonder why this thing causes multiple entries for some people?

Oh well, I hope I avoid it.

Anyway, it is true we subsidize roads and driving. It amounted to an average of about 40 cents per gallon in 2016:

Highway Revenue: $148 billion
Highway Spending: 219 billion
Highway Subsidy: $71 billion

This is essentially with cash flow accounting. Full cost accounting, which would include depreciation charges and all the deferred maintenance, would make things look even worse.

Luke Lee
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:24pm

As Metro Detroit continues to fall behind every single other major metro region investing in transit and attracting jobs and residents, that support will blossom. Talent wants transit, not an eight lane highway out to a Oakland/Macomb county suburb.

Stephen Boyle
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 8:13am

Ford has made its success driving away from mass transit through personal automobiles. It would be very interesting business news for the company to expand its focus by embracing mass transit. The future should include faster transit modes such as maglev rail which has been active worldwide except in America. Our country has an ill fated love affair with personal modes of travel.

Todd Liebman
Sat, 04/06/2019 - 10:07am

It's very interesting. The more people travel, the more business there is for all. People have to get from the station to where they are going, and they will do that in Ubers, Lyfts, cabs, busses, light rail, bikes, scooters, etc. All economic development. I think the smart car people are figuring out that rail brings huge economic impacts that lift all boats. Less congestion from mass transit makes for easier driving for motorists.

J H Harding
Fri, 04/12/2019 - 3:50pm

To the best of my knowledge, Mag-Lev service exists only in relatively short routes and is not economically viable. MAG-Lev construction is expensive and socially disruptive, long before any service operates, particularly when compared with modernization of existing rail infrastructure. The latter can first be concentrated at congestion points, then progressively spread to entire routes. This is the method used in European nations for decades, for both urban rail transit and intercity rail passenger services. California's dismal experience with its "all new" "High Speed" infrastructure mess demonstrates why step-by-step upgrades integrated with new facilities is a better way to go. Such an approach builds increased voter support for needed funding as those voter see and benefit from the initial service improvements. "This is great; how do improve service even more?" is a typical voter/transit user reaction.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:04am

I have a great idea. Take the excess profits from the Q-Line and invest them in the MCR station. Oh, wait, that won’t work. How about if we make something, anything work as projected before we start another folly.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 10:04am

Does this count for PUBLIC roads too?

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 3:41pm

Or the profits from AMTRACK?

Kim Shiemke
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 9:34am

I have always been excited about the idea that the train station could be renovated. I enjoy train travel. I hope the train runs on wind and solar produced electricity. My next car is going to be a Ford all electric car because the Ford Auto Company has taken the initiative for the renovation of the Detroit Train Depot. Yeah Ford!!!!

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 11:30am

You will have a long wait to get your Ford car. Ford announced that they are getting out of the car business. Maybe an SUV or a truck, but not a car.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 3:48pm

That's a great idea... exccept at night ... when the wind isn't blowing.

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 11:28am

That's right, at this time there is not as the article you attached makes clear. Let us know when this is up and running, scalable and cost effective, until then no there is no way to store power as needed to make wind and solar power a real 21st century thing. Or we could skip all this expensive add on balony and just go with nukes? That just doesn't work for the Enviro-Left.

sam melvin
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:15pm

There are train cabins, never used sitting in Owosso and michigan taxpayer pay a $ 1,000 000 a year for!In 2010 MDOT put out a flyer with the notice :
you will bw taken the train to this years Thankgiving Parde....that 2010 I still save the flyer.and showed it to LT Gov.on the Townhall meeting.

sam melvin
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:40pm

At a time where planes crash. and the sky is crowded...and waiting time at ..etc.
Also since claiming We are Number ONE.we ne the TGV from france or the fast train from assist us in clean AIR and green .and most of all Comfort,dining ,seeing the country from the windows...stop and getting OFF,when you want ..Hurry up.while we are n u m b e r ....

sam melvin
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 12:40pm

At a time where planes crash. and the sky is crowded...and waiting time at ..etc.
Also since claiming We are Number ONE.we ne the TGV from france or the fast train from assist us in clean AIR and green .and most of all Comfort,dining ,seeing the country from the windows...stop and getting OFF,when you want ..Hurry up.while we are n u m b e r ....

Kevin Grand
Thu, 04/04/2019 - 6:06pm

Glad to see that it's not just me experiencing this glitch.

Thu, 04/04/2019 - 7:26pm

Would love to roll from Pontiac to Detroit...

Renee Miller
Fri, 04/05/2019 - 12:02am

Sell Bonds. 5 year and 10 year and 25 year bonds to rebuild the train station.

Fri, 04/05/2019 - 7:14am

A super great idea.

Sat, 04/06/2019 - 5:14pm

Another example of Matty Morons neglect of his properties. This was a beautiful building until he got his hands on it. Also, junked up the railroad property by Grosse Isle pay bridge. Slumlord extraordinaier.

Rail Provocateur
Tue, 04/09/2019 - 4:04pm

When will Amtrak inform all of the interested parties of PRIIA, a congressional act from 2008 designed by an Amtrak officer which charges all non-Northeast Corridor states per Amtrak's full cost allocation methodology, as designed by Amtrak for all such trains operating under a 750 mile route?

PRIIA, with its non-GAAP cost allocations to states, is used to subsidize the deficit-ridden Northeast Corridor, while not charging the states along that Corridor for their Amtrak intercity trains (Boston-Washington). While Amtrak loses on its own Corridor, as well as compounding such losses from not historically charging the major users of the Corridor-regional commuter lines, the states west of the Potomac are bled, stymieing any plans to utilize rail to enhance mobility and economic development.

Due to such excessive charges per PRIIA, Indiana will cease paying $3.5 Million per annum for its 4 x week "milk train" between Indianapolis-Chicago.

Fred Bergin
Tue, 11/12/2019 - 4:58pm

For 43 years working for the New York Central, Penn Central, and
then Conrail, I encountered lots of Changes in railroad operations.
With quite a few existing active rail lines already established coming
into Detroit from the east, central, north, east and south, to me it's
just amazing that not one commuter train has been established.
I remember going to Semta meetings, and being told that the Semta
board at that time was considering keeping the railroad line between
Bay City and Detroit open. Later it was stated that it was not feasible
to remain in operation. Asked why not run commuter service on these
existing lines. Answer, Union and Railroads, Semta could not agree
who would run these commuters. Who suffers? the public.
Just look at our crowded highways and all the oil (gas) being
consumed every day. As Detroit is growing, these auto commuters
I don't think appreciate driving in crowded traffic round trip daily,
and turning around and driving back into the city for and event.
I remember having passenger service daily between Detroit
Michigan Central Station and Mackinaw City. A special train
called the "Timberliner" on Friday night (North), and Sunday night
(south). The crews used to change at Bay city, so the crews would
be home at the end of the run!
Are we in a position today, that we are claiming that we are
not qualified to set down and look at mass transit from the
suburbs to Detroit?!