Michigan Rail Roundup

In case you haven’t noticed, passenger rail is hot right now. Over the past few months, there have been a myriad of new projects, studies and celebrations all working to advance passenger rail options in Michigan.

With all of the action that’s been happening, it can be hard to keep things straight. We thought we’d provide a quick roundup with everything you need to know about these exciting new developments.

  1. M-1 Rail construction begins

Crews constructing the new streetcar track in downtown Detroit in October

The M-1 Rail Streetcar is easily one of the most distinct and impressive rail projects Michigan has seen in recent memory. A culmination of private investment, public support and political creativity allowed this highly publicized project to break ground in late July. Project construction has been fun to follow, and more importantly, represents a bright future for economic development and public transit in Southeast Michigan. Service is expected to begin in late 2016.

  1. The Michigan Land Use Institute releases study about a tourist train in Traverse City

The current track that connects Traverse City and Williamsburg | Photo By: Michigan Land Use Institute

Our friends at the Michigan Land Use Institute released an exploratory study in July to uncover and analyze the potential for a tourist train connecting downtown Traverse City to Williamsburg. The study, Getting Back on Track: Uncovering the Potential for Trains in Traverse City, looks at a possible route, similar examples from other states and potential challenges, among other things.

  1. Blue Water & Pere Marquette Amtrak services celebrate anniversaries

Two of Michigan’s Amtrak services celebrated anniversaries early this fall. The Pere Marquette service (Grand Rapids – Chicago) celebrated 30 years and the Blue Water line (Port Huron – Chicago) celebrated 40 years. We are happy to report that these services are not just surviving, but thriving. Annual ridership on Michigan passenger rail has grown by 78% since 2002.

  1. The Chicago – Detroit/Pontiac Passenger Rail Corridor Program releases draft EIS

The corridor via Great Lakes Rail (click the photo to learn more)

Just last week, the Federal Railroad Administration, in coordination with the Michigan, Indiana and Illinois departments of transportation held hearings across the Midwest to discuss the results of the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Chicago – Detroit/Pontiac Passenger Rail Corridor Program. The Program aims to make rail more competitive with auto and air travel in the region.

Proposed improvements, which would be implemented incrementally over the next 20 years, include increased speeds of up to 110 mph, reduce travel time from Detroit to Chicago by up to two hours, increased daily trips from three to ten, new stops and stations, track and car upgrades and more. Read the EIS draft and submit your comments at https://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0658 by December 19.

  1. Troy Transit Center opens

Officials break ground for station construction in November 2012 | Photo By: Mode Shift via Flickr

That’s right folks, after 14 years of debate, the Troy Transit Center opened in mid-October. The beautiful new facility serves Amtrak, SMART bus, taxis and bicyclists and features free parking, all-weather enclosed waiting areas and free Wi-Fi. Despite delays, the center represents a hopeful future for regional transit in Oakland County.

  1. The Vernon J. Ehlers Amtrak Station opens in Grand Rapids

The new Vernon J. Ehlers station in Grand Rapids | Photo By: John Eisenschenk via Flickr)

On October 27, U.S. Senator Carl Levin helped to celebrate the opening of a new Amtrak station in Grand Rapids, named for the former West Michigan congressman, Vernon J. Ehlers. Like the Troy Transit Center, this station integrates bus and rail transportation, including service to the Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit, and offers more amenities to travelers. At the ceremony, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell predicted a bright future for the station, including the possible addition of another daily trip to Chicago.

  1. Technical Study for WALLY Commuter Rail Begins

Visitors to Howell’s Melon Fest in July try out MiTrain cars, which could be used for WALLY

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) announced the start of a new technical study in late October that will dig into the details needed to get the WALLY (aka North-South) Commuter Rail project rolling. The project is designed to connect workers living in Livingston County to jobs Ann Arbor, and could decrease traffic on congested US-23 by 10 percent, while providing a safe, relaxing and efficient alternative to a stressful and lengthy commute.

  1. Coast-to-Coast Passenger Rail study announced
Rail bridge over Woodward Avenue at Detroit's Amtrak Station in New Center | Photo by: Jessica Knedgen

Rail bridge over Woodward Avenue at Detroit’s Amtrak Station in New Center | Photo by: Jessica Knedgen

Not to toot our own horns, but through a partnership between Michigan by Rail, the AAATA and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), a base-level study is set to begin in early 2015 to learn about the potential to re-establish passenger rail connecting Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids-Holland.

We’re calling it the Coast-to-Coast line because it would connect several large Michigan cities (from Lake Huron/Lake Erie to Lake Michigan) that are currently not connected by passenger rail. Thanks to a federal grant, support from the state legislature and a long list of local supporters (who together contributed $20,000 for the local match), we are preparing to hire a consultant to complete the $100,000 study in the coming months.

We’ve got a lot to be excited for when it comes to rail in Michigan. Let me know if I’m forgetting anything in the comments and stay tuned to our blog or Facebook and Twitter pages for updates on these encouraging developments.


Written by Liz Treutel, Michigan Environmental Council Policy Associate 


One response to “Michigan Rail Roundup

  1. Dear Amtrak and Amtrak Passengers of the Detroit-Chicago Route,

    “The purpose of the Program is to enhance intercity mobility along the Corridor from Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac, Michigan by providing an improved passenger rail service that would be a competitive transportation alternative to automobile, bus and air service.”

    This is a valid purpose. However, it is all too common that people confuse purpose with a specific solution. The assumed solution, then becomes the “purpose.” In this case the purpose to be held in mind is: “improved passenger rail service that would be a competitive transportation alternative to automobile, bus and air service.”

    The assumption that increased speed is the only viable solution is not necessarily the only, or even the best, solution in the short term. The concept of increased speed does not make sense without also considering the geometric planning of the train routes themselves. There does not seem to be any consideration of relocating the origination and destination locations within the system to optimize the system. Using current speeds and relocating the origination and destination of daily trips to the mid-point of the route instead of the existing and proposed endpoints of the route would immediately achieve the stated purpose at present train speeds. The improvement of rail beds, tracks and other supporting factors would gradually increase train speed as the report indicates, but there is no need to wait for these improvements in order to provide useful service now.

    The above proposal would solve the current “uncompetitive trip times” immediately, while factors causing delay could gradually be improved as system bottlenecks are removed.

    In my opinion, this is the elephant in the room that no one is talking about. Spending taxpayer money on results that won’t appear until 2035 is a non-starter. By changing the train schedules according to a mid-route origination and destination hub, passengers would obtain reasonable trip times now to the locations that they most want, while gradually observing improvement in service and trip times as the system is improved.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Frank J. Lucatelli, Architect
    Kalamazoo, MI

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