Guest column: A guide to the Michigan world of rail

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.

Commuter trains
Transit history

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.

It is proposed to re-start service between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dearborn and Detroit, with a possible extension to Howell.

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.

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Matt Roush
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:01am
My mother talks about the old elecrric inter-city rail service that roughly followed I-94, I-96, US-131, US-127 and US-23 in Michigan. Too bad we can't bring something like that back. If it had reasonable rates and times, I'd love to ride it -- relax while I'm traveling, or maybe even get some work done!
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 11:06am
Mr. Frobom's gratuitous predictions of the unliklihood of true high speed rail in the last paragraph have no place in what is billed as an informational "guide to the different kinds of rail transit". In spite of vocal and well-funded opposition, California is going ahead with its "true high-speed lines", including plans to pass through suburbs of San Francisco and Los Angeles with no bulldozing of straight rail lines - which is not done in high-speed European or Japanese rail through suburbs in any case. Michigan would be better served if more MDOT specialists were up to date in their understanding of transportation options.
Tue, 09/04/2012 - 5:36pm
I agree the author's comments are random opinions, and are far from reality, and have no place on this website. With that statement, his entire article loses credibility and he sounds like one of the hired guns from the Reason Foundation with that sort of anti-high speed rail jargon. High speed rail will be built all across America, and has already begun in California and is moving forward in several other states as well. The author's statement about how people will remain on airplanes shows how out of touch with reality he really is. Rising global fuel prices (today already almost to $100 per barrel again for oil) is what is driving the deterioration of the entire aviation industry. Oil prices will not only remain high, but are predicted to continue upwards past $200 per barrel. When oil gets that high, there will be no more airplanes flying the friendly skies, and high speed rail will be the only form of transportation that's affordable. That's the reality we face!
John Porterfield
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 12:03pm
In regard to inter-city trains, I believe a study should be done to consider reducing the number of Amtrak routes in Michigan from 3 to 2. Currently, there is a Detroit-Chicago route, a Port Huron-Chicago route, and a Grand Rapids-Chicago route. Why not run the Grand Rapids route further east through Lansing out to Port Huron, and eliminate the the Blue Water route (as I believe it is called). The benefits could be 1) connecting Michigan's second biggest metro area with its Capital, 2) connecting MSU with its Med School in GR, 3) creating more robust ridership on the current GR-Chicago line by extending it to the east, and 4) eliminating a route that travels through relatively sparsely populated areas, but still maintaining a Chicago connection to Lansing and Port Huron (through GR). In essence, 2 parallel routes serving meaningful population centers with ultimate access to Toronto as well (from Detroit and Port Huron). GR is about to build a new train station next to its bus terminal, which might fit well if the Amtrak line is extended to the east. Making 3 routes 2 as suggested, might save money too, if properly engineered.
Sat, 09/07/2013 - 9:44am
Holland and Bangor, that's why.
Sat, 09/07/2013 - 9:46am
Oh, sorry, misread your proposal. The answer is that it is faster from from Chicago to Lansing via Battle Creek than it would be via Holland and Grand Rapids. Your idea is worth thinking about though, if tracks were improved...
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 12:39pm
Well 2 years ago REP.OHN DINGELL released $ 200 Million for the train with STOPS in Ypsilanti >MI so the citizen where able to see the thanksgiveing pared in Detroit...But no tarin stop..and again the next year the train didnot STOP here in Ypsilanti.. Senate BIll HB 6484 Advertising by SEMCOG MDOT Amtrak WHERE IS THE MONEY? WHO got the inerest?payed? THE GOLDEN SPIKE started over 30 years ago STill is not in SERVICE.SO show Us the money and in which bank? THe ligth Train on woodward ...They cannot keep the busses running on time/etc etc.. HIRE a Foreign Company to DOE THE JOB! TGV or japan at least they have there trains running on tracks NOT ON PAPER>!
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 12:49pm
With gasoline over $ 4.00 and the population 50% over 65 and growing every day >The tourist would love to take the train around the STATE and see bought Side/around michigan.. The air pollution cut down and more sunshine for the STATE with SOLARPANELS . WE would also cut down on raod repair and less trucks damage. WAKE up LANSING .......turn your swords into Plowshare.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 3:13pm
MDOT is thinking like government and not as a business. Suppose we consider the proposed transportation system like a business. The traveling public are customers of any system built. Questions need to be answered satisfactorily. Where are the customers traveling from and to locally and long distance? What kind of customers are we designing the transportation system for? People without cars or people with cars? Will the system get people out of their cars? Will people with cars vote to tax themselves to pay for the system? Will people with cars who probably would not use the system vote to tax themselves to pay for the system? I just see that a heavy rail system provides more than high speed buses could provide. By getting a right-of-way and putting rails down puts a down payment that says the system means business like a freeway does for cars.