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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Comments

Anna
Thu, 07/11/2013 - 4:32pm
If there was a line running along the west side up to Traverse City, I'd surely ride Amtrack! Getting to Chicago from Muskegon or to Traverse City requires leaving the car somewhere and it would be much more convenient to just walk downtown and hop on the train to visit family.
C. Monroe
Sat, 07/13/2013 - 8:36pm
They could also reconfigure the other 2 routes to go to only Kalamazoo where they would change trains to the Detroit/Chicago train. And in turn I would change the Detroit/Chicago train into an express with stops only in Niles/Kalamazoo/AnnArbor/Metro Airport/Detroit. Then I would add more local trains that will stop in the towns in between. Examples would be Muskegon, Coopersville, or Holland, Jennison(rotating between runs)/Grand Rapids/Byron Center/Wayland/Plainwell/Kalamazoo. This trip would take about 2 hours and then you could connect to the express to either Chicago or Detroit. Another could be Flint/Owosso/Haslett/East Lansing/Lansing/Charlotte/Battle Creek/Kalamazoo.
***
Sun, 07/14/2013 - 9:19am
Adding more frequency of trains is an admirable goal but also means more potential delays with freight trains.
***
Sun, 07/14/2013 - 9:22am
Never mind, I reread the article and it appears that the newly acquired track will be only for passenger trains (is that correct?)
Bob Burns
Sun, 07/14/2013 - 8:38pm
Over the week of July 4th, I took my family of four on Amtrak from East Lansing to Chicago.   The tickets for two kids and two adults were about $140 round trip - total!  When comparing that to driving, parking alone in Chicago would have been $180 for our four nights in town.  Not all fares are that affordable, but considering the cost of gas and the stress of driving, the train is an easy winner. The train was only a bit late on the way to Chicago due to track construction, but was early on the way back.  We left Chicago at 5pm Michigan time and arrived in East Lansing at 8:45pm.  We were shocked by the speed of the train.  The cars were cleaner than a typical airline and were better equipped, plus we did not have to deal with the security associated with air travel. I recommend it. 
John Czarnecki
Mon, 07/15/2013 - 10:04am
I would like to know how many folks from Chicago travel to Michigan versus how many folks from Michigan travel to Chicago? I wonder if we are subsiding tourist travel to Chicago.
Derek Melot
Mon, 07/15/2013 - 11:02am
John, Thanks for reading. This MDOT site http://mdotcf.state.mi.us/public/railstats/ allows you to run a variety of reports on ridership by station. Ann Arbor is the busiest Michigan station on the Wolverine Line. One thing I was told by more than one source was that frequency of service was important in attracting more business travelers.
John Q. Public
Wed, 07/17/2013 - 2:15am
So rail subsidies are about 1% of the state travel budget. I'll bet rail passenger miles are far less than that. This sounds a lot like the "If we build it, we hope like hell they will come so we don't have egg on our face and red ink by the barrel on our hands!" like a lot of the regional airport supporters do.