By Aarne Frobom/MDOT
Two generations of Michigan travelers have grown up without riding -- and maybe without even seeing – a rail transit vehicle. Passenger trains and trolley cars passed out of use in most places 40 to 60 years ago.
Now these vehicles are being talked about again, but with names like high-speed rail and light rail transit. People who have never ridden a train or a streetcar have trouble visualizing what these words mean, so here’s a handy guide to the different kinds of rail transit:
Light rail transit
This means streetcars. More than a dozen Michigan cities had electric street railways between the 1890s and when the last trolley ran in Detroit in 1956. Now, the M‑1 rail project proposes to restore a street railway to Woodward Avenue between downtown Detroit and the New Center. New street railways can come in different sizes and styles, from single streetcars that might run in the same lanes as cars and buses to larger transit cars that might carry 80 to 120 people in the medians of major streets.
Heavy rail transit
These are subways, or similar rapid transit lines running on the surface on their own rights-of-way, like the CTA in Chicago or the Washington Metro. Such lines have fast, electric trains connecting widely spaced stations.
None have ever been built in Michigan -- and none are proposed now.
Bus rapid transit
Bus rapid transit is not a rail service, but a new alternative that provides the benefits of rail transit without the enormous cost of installing track and overhead wires in the streets. BRT is distinguished from ordinary bus service by stations with pre-paid fares, and large buses with multiple doors through which people can exit and enter freely, as on a subway platform.
When combined with traffic signals that turn green for the buses, a BRT system can yield the fast travel of a rail line on dedicated right-of-way. A BRT service may run in express highway lanes isolated from some or all other traffic. Planning is well advanced for Michigan’s first bus rapid transit line on Division Avenue in Grand Rapids.
Bills now in the Legislature would authorize more than 100 miles of BRT routes in the four counties of Southeast Michigan, managed by a new transit agency insulated from the costs of existing systems.
Some vanished means of transportation aren’t being suggested for revival:
Horsecars: Horsecars let Michigan cities grow beyond village size. Horsecar lines were the first street railways, with tiny cars seating a dozen riders, but frequently crammed with many more. Horses were frequent casualties of runaway horsecars, which were stopped only by handbrakes.
Cable cars: In the 1880s, before the perfection of the electric streetcar, steam-powered cable-car lines were the answer in cities that hand grown too big for horsecars. Grand Rapids had an extensive system of cable cars, including the longest route ever powered by a single cable. But it lasted only one winter -- the moving cables that hauled the cars froze up in their slots in the street.
Steam dummies: Before the electric motor, when a 19th-century entrepreneur wanted more than horse power, that meant a steam engine. Some streetcars were hauled by steam locomotives, but the fierce-looking engines scared horses. The solution was to enclose the locomotives in dummy horsecar bodies, which kept horses from bolting. Dummy lines connected Ann Arbor with Ypsilanti, and Owosso with Corunna.
Interurbans: Most cities in the Midwest were connected by large-scale versions of streetcars, operating on their own railroads, and competing with steam-powered passenger trains. These lines connected outlying towns with Michigan cities until auto travel rendered them unprofitable in the 1920s.
These are passenger trains using full-size, locomotive-hauled passenger cars sharing the railroads with freight trains, carrying 300 to 800 people per train. Michigan had one commuter service that ran from Pontiac, Birmingham and Royal Oak to Detroit for many years; another line ran briefly between Jackson, Ann Arbor and Detroit. But both services were abandoned for lack of use in the early 1980s.
Inter-city passenger trains
Passenger trains were once the only means of inter-city travel, and a dense network covered the country. These days, inter-city rail passenger service means Amtrak, which connects 22 Michigan stations with Chicago. Most Amtrak trains operate at up to 79 mph.
MDOT has begun using the phrase “accelerated rail service” to distinguish fast conventional trains from true high-speed rail service.
Michigan’s Accelerated Rail Program on the Chicago–Detroit/Pontiac corridor includes higher speeds between Porter, Ind., and Kalamazoo. Passenger trains on this segment began running at up to 110 mph in February.
Michigan is acquiring the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, which will be upgraded to 110 mph by the end of 2015.
Michigan has kicked off a Corridor Investment Plan which, over the next 18 months, will identify other improvements necessary to increase speeds and frequency over the corridor. This will give Michigan the nation’s fastest trains outside the Northeast corridor, where inter-city passenger trains run up to 150 mph between Boston–New York–Washington. This is frequently called “high-speed rail,” but these are ordinary Amtrak trains accelerated to record speeds.
High-speed rail service
True high-speed trains run at speeds above 125 mph, some above 160 mph. These are lines built on the models of the Shinkansen of Japan or the TGV of France. These are new railroads on straight, level alignments between cities.
No one is suggesting high-speed rail service for Michigan, and there is little likelihood that any true high-speed lines will be built in the United States. Inter-city travelers will probably remain aboard 535‑mph airliners -- and no one is eager to bulldoze new railroads on straight lines through miles of suburbs.