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M-I Curious takes a look at Michigan's passenger rail system

Jan 30, 2017

Michigan’s passenger rail system doesn’t seem to generate a lot of enthusiasm.

We received this anonymous question on our M-I Curious page: “Why doesn't Michigan have a good passenger train system?”

The question simply begged for clarification, such as, “Who says?” and, “What would you consider good?”

Although the question got a lot of votes, we never heard from "Anonymous" again. 

So we went to the Amtrak station in Ann Arbor to see what we could see.

The train is late, but the train is still great

When we arrive, the train is due any minute, so the passengers are huddled on the platform, despite the cold and the wind.  There are rueful groans when the announcer says the train will be 30 minutes late.

But honestly, there’s more of a sense of camaraderie among the passengers than anger. 

Dawn Shapiro is taking the Wolverine to Chicago for the weekend.  She takes the train frequently, and admits it’s often a little late. 

But she still thinks train service in Michigan is pretty good, and it’s better than driving.

Map showing Michigan's three Amtrak routes, the Wolverine, the Pere Marquette, and the Blue Water
Credit Amtrak

“I could have taken a car,” says Shapiro. “But by the time you park a car in Chicago and go through the hassle of driving and the price of gas, I think it's actually cheaper to take the train, and it's a lot more relaxing.”

Shapiro says there’s wi-fi on the train, so you can catch up on work or social media, or you can read a book.  She rides business class because there’s more comfortable seating and more legroom. 

And she sings the praises of Amtrak employees.  “They’re always so cheerful and friendly,” she says.

In December, on-time performance for Michigan routes was 50%.  It was significantly better for the full year, at 71.4%. 

Shapiro's train does, in fact, arrive just about 30 minutes later, and she and the other passengers get on.  The train departs quickly, to make up time on the way.

(We go back to the Ann Arbor Amtrak station a couple months later.  That time, the train is right on time.)

‘Course, it ain’t what it used to be.

Michigan's Wolverine, Blue Water, and Pere Marquette lines link 23 cities in southern lower Michigan with Chicago and beyond.  The Wolverine makes three round trips a day, the Pere Marquette and Blue Water make one.

Which doesn't exactly sound bad.  But, maybe our Anonymous was thinking about what used to be - back in the day.

“There was a time when you could get just about anywhere in Michigan on rails,” says Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at the Henry Ford.  He says at its peak, Michigan had a web of more than 8,700  miles of track for long-distance and interurban trains. 

“You could travel from Monroe here, near the Ohio state line -- and you’d have to change trains a few times – all the way up to Ironwood, Michigan.  You'd take a ferry ride, but it would still be on the railroad network across the Straits of Mackinac.  So really, you could go from one end of the state to the other on trains, throughout the lower peninsula and upper peninsula," Anderson said.

It could be worse, Anonymous

Anderson says the train companies started going broke, one after the other, after cars and modern roads built with subsidies and taxes came along. 

The federal government stepped in to prevent the complete demise of passenger rail by creating Amtrak in 1971.

Later, the government transferred ownership of 135 miles of track to the state of Michigan, from Kalamazoo to the western border.

And through Republican and Democratic administrations in Michigan, the state has supported Amtrak with up to $50 million annually.

Without all this, our state would have no passenger train service at all.

The future for passenger rail is getting brighter

John DeLora founded the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.  He thinks for a peninsula state to have this much service is actually pretty remarkable. 

And he says there are lots of improvements, some already completed, and more on the way.

“Michigan has just finished a major track rehabilitation project at the end of October,” he says, “and the track is now in the best condition I've ever seen, and I've been riding that line for over 50 years.”

Within the next 12 to 18 months, Amtrak will have new, more fuel-efficient locomotives pulling the coaches.

Here's the best part.  Amtrak trains already are going 110 miles an hour on some sections of track in Michigan thanks to new safety technology. 

“They're already competitive in speed with driving,” notes DeLora, “and as the track projects continue, they're going to be faster than driving.”

Which means, as early as the end of this year, it could take only four hours to travel by train from Detroit to Chicago.   

Could train service ever expand?

We don’t want to give Anonymous too much hope, but there are studies looking at adding a new commuter line from Howell to Ann Arbor - and a line from Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

But, everyone agrees the state legislature isn’t going to pay the bill for new projects.  Voters in counties along any new routes would have to pay for them, in addition to any federal grants that might be available.

That's a big obstacle.

Just look at what happened in November.

Voters in four metro Detroit counties rejected a tax for a new transportation authority - and one of its projects was to be a new commuter train between Ann Arbor and Detroit.