Trains are speeding up in Michigan

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While anti-rail fervor has hit a high-water mark in the past two years and major intercity rail projects have been canceled in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, progress is still being made in other states. Despite neighboring both Ohio and Wisconsin, the state of Michigan has remained fairly committed to upgrading its intercity rail network.  The result is that two Amtrak routes will soon be running at 110 miles per hour on a shared stretch of track. The Chicago–Detroit–Pontiac Wolverine and Chicago–Port Huron Blue Water are the first services outside of the Northeastern U.S. to see such speeds in the modern era.

It seems a bit strange that faster trains would appear in Michigan before much of the rest of the country. Why would the home of Detroit, the seat of America’s car culture, get faster trains before other parts of the country? For one, the distance between Chicago and Detroit is only 281 miles, only 2/3 of the distance between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and comparable to Chicago–St. Louis. Secondly, Amtrak has directly owned a 98-mile chunk of the route for at least a decade now, the longest segment of Amtrak-owned track outside the Northeastern U.S.

While almost all of the country’s passenger rail network outside of the Northeast is limited to 79 mph, the Amtrak-owned track from Porter, Indiana to Kalamazoo, Michigan has been incrementally improved over the last dozen years. The line began allowing speeds of 90 mph in 2002 following installation of positive train control (PTC) signaling technology and other upgrades. In 2005, top speeds were bumped up to 95 mph. Now, following a period of upgrades and testing, the federal government recently gave the go-ahead to running at top speeds of 110 mph on a regular basis.

It’s great to see a line finally reaching that target. Planners have been looking at building a Midwest Regional Rail System centered on Chicago since the mid-1990s. Even with today’s limited passenger rail service, Chicago remains one of the largest hubs in the country—Union Station ranks 4th in number of Amtrak passengers per year, preceded only by stations in New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. The plan has been to upgrade several routes to 110 mph and increase service frequency, making trains much more competitive against car travel, and hopefully boosting farebox income enough so that these lines operate in the black going forward.

However, there’s still a long road ahead. The piecemeal, incremental approach taken so far means that individual upgrades are a bit underwhelming in their impact: Schedules will probably only be shortened by about 10 minutes, and it’s only going to be about 20 minutes faster than the old 79-mph schedule prior to the year 2002 improvements.

A speed boost will soon happen on another stretch of track, however. This past autumn, the Michigan Department of Transportation also began the process of buying another 136 miles of track from Norfolk Southern Railway between Kalamazoo and Dearborn (just west of Detroit), which they also plan to upgrade. 83% of the distance from Chicago to Detroit (and 77% of the total route from Chicago to Pontiac) will soon be under the control of Amtrak and MDOT. Upgrades to this second section from Kalamazoo to Dearborn and the removal of choke points in the Chicago area should allow for more substantial travel-time reductions. The ultimate goal is to get what is currently a 5½-hour journey down to 4 hours or less.

Those upgrades should come pretty quickly: The state of Michigan has already finished the needed environmental reviews in order to proceed with construction. Trains should see speeds climb on that second section within just a few years.

There are three daily round-trips between Chicago and Detroit/Pontiac on the Wolverine, plus one round-trip for the Blue Water to Port Huron. There’s a third line serving Michigan—the Pere Marquette—but apparently it doesn’t make use of the upgraded tracks, instead operating on another, roughly parallel line.

So, you might ask, are there any other places in the Midwest seeing upgrades? When will it start helping us in the Twin Cities?

It seems that Amtrak may be able to reroute a third train onto a segment of the upgraded tracks, the Pere Marquette. It’s hard to tell in the map, but that route apparently runs on a separate line only a short distance away from the Amtrak-owned rails. There may be practical reasons why this hasn’t happened, though.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Illinois is working hard right now on the line between Chicago and St. Louis. It carries the Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle. 110-mph service is expected to begin there in 2014.

As for Minneapolis–Saint Paul, we didn’t have a route selected when funding was handed out to Michigan, Illinois, and others, and we have been impacted by the shifting political landscape in Wisconsin. Funding for the Hiawatha Service extension to Madison was sent back to the federal government after Scott Walker was elected, and he has been opposed to building high-speed rail on other new routes in the state. He has said he supports upgrades to the Empire Builder, though the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has suspended its involvement in enhanced-speed service along the route. They remain willing to discuss a “second Empire Builder” running to at least Saint Paul and possibly farther westward.

Results of a study for that second daily round-trip should be released around mid-2012, but it’s hard to say where the political winds will be blowing at that point. The Minnesota Legislature will be out of its regular session by then, and the Wisconsin recall may happen around the same time. I don’t foresee any new funding being allocated legislatively within the next year, but perhaps some funding sources could bubble up internally within MnDOT and WisDOT after the study is done. And, if Walker does get recalled, hopefully the planning for faster service and frequencies beyond just two daily trains can also resume.

Advocates for more rail service to Chicago will also have to hope for political shifts within Minnesota as well. We currently have a very anti-rail chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Mike Beard (R-Shakopee), which makes progress difficult. There are many reasons to be legitimately critical of rail projects, but an upgraded route between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been shown to have good benefit/cost characteristics again and again and again. Add that to the fact that freight railroads are making massive investments themselves—$13 billion this year alone—and it makes opponents seem pretty out of touch.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at