The spotlight in Marquette will soon be focused on trains.
The Michigan Rail Conference is happening at Northern Michigan University August 17 and 18, which gives us a chance to check up on how things are faring for passenger and freight trains in Michigan.
Pasi Lautala directs the Rail Transportation Program at Michigan Tech University. Lautala joined us to talk about rail transit in Michigan, how passenger and freight rail systems in America compare to those in Europe, and the opportunities and challenges rail faces in bolstering our economy.
Twenty-three passenger railcars have been sitting unused since MDOT got them in 2010, raising question of whether they are a waste of Michigan money, or a good investment that could help Michigan in the future.
The state hopes to use them for the proposed commuter rails between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and between Ann Arbor and Howell.
The busiest travel days are the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday after the holiday. Other than Thanksgiving Day, morning trains typically have more available seats than those in the afternoon and evening.
The steam engine that inspired the children's book The Polar Express and provided sounds for the movie version is back in service after a four-year refurbishment project.
The Pere Marquette 1225 rolled out of the garage Wednesday in Owosso, ringing its bell and spewing steam for train enthusiasts and volunteers gathered to watch the engine take its maiden voyage following the overhaul.
“Let’s take the train.” It seems more and more of us are saying those words these days.
A record 793,000 passengers hopped aboard Amtrak’s three Michigan routes last year and revenue grew to $27.8 million. And there are some changes coming down the track that should make the traveling faster and better for train passengers in Michigan.
Tim Hoeffner, rail director at the Michigan Department of Transportation, joined us today.
The Request for Proposals (RFP) to manufacture approximately 35 new diesel-electric locomotives in America comes from a groundbreaking multi-state effort to jointly purchase standardized rail equipment to be used on state corridor routes in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Iowa in the Midwest and Washington, California, and Oregon on the West Coast.
The FRA has set aside $808 million for the purchase of the locomotives and for 130 new bi-level train cars.
State could be forced to pay new Detroit officials' salaries
Under the consent agreement with the state, the city of Detroit will have to appoint new officials to lead the city out of its financial crisis. Who will pay the salaries for these new officials is a new bone of contention according to Jonathan Oosting at MLive:
The [consent] agreement... requires the formation of a nine-member Financial Advisory Board to oversee city budgets and hiring of a Program Management Director to oversee implementation of key initiatives.
The deal calls for the city and state to split the salaries of advisory board members, who each will make $25,000 a year, while the city is required to cover the full salary of the PMD, expected to earn triple figures.
Some council members feel the Headlee Act prevents the state from mandating new services without compensating the city for those services.
Oosting reports Detroit City Council is expected to meet in a closed door session with the city's law department this afternoon.
U.S. Attorney General says violence in Detroit is "unacceptable"
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told thousands of people gathered at an NAACP fundraising dinner that violence in Detroit is "unacceptable."
He told the crowd last night in Detroit that his administration is directing "unprecedented" resources nationally in order to reduce young people's exposure to crime.
Holder said an average of two young black men get killed each week in Detroit. He called the statistic "shocking."
Higher train speeds between Detroit and Chicago
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says Michigan, Illinois and Indiana are each contributing $200,000 for a study looking into the creation of a high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and Detroit.
LaHood says the study will seek ways to cut Amtrak passenger train times between the cities and to more efficiently move goods.
The Department of Transportation says the study will build on the progress that Michigan has made in achieving 110 mile per hour service between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.
Update 3:15 p.m. - Workers hope to reopen rail line tomorrow
10 people were injured today when an Amtrak train collided with a semi-truck between Ann Arbor and Jackson. None of the injuries were life-threatening.
The accident derailed the train’s engine and two passenger cars. The collision also heavily damaged the tracks and the crossing.
But a company spokesman says they hope to reopen the line by tomorrow morning.
David Pidgeon is a spokesman for Norfolk-Southern, which owns and operates the railroad that runs across southern Michigan.
“Six passenger trains a day use that particular line…and another four to five trains of freight (a day) also use that line," says Pidgeon, "So we need to get that line open…as safely and efficiently as possible.”
While the section of track is being repaired, passengers are making part of their trip by bus.
2:17 p.m. - 10 injured
MLive.com reports that "a total of 10 people were injured" in this morning's Amtrak derailment in Leoni Township.
According to a report by Simon A. Thalmann with the Kalamazoo Gazette, a freight train derailed this morning in Kalamazoo when it encountered a damaged section of track, but Grand Elk Railroad officials say all rail cars remained upright and nothing was spilled as a result of the accident.
"It gets cold and the rail gets brittle," a Grand Elk official said of the section of rail that broke. "The circumstances were right."
A section of rail about 60 feet long broke, with one rail protruding upward and the other snapped and lying in snow.
The train was carrying liquid clay to Graphic Packaging when it derailed at around 10 a.m., according to railroad officials.
Photos of the derailment by the Gazette's Fritz Klug can be found here.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in Michigan for high speed higher speed rail.
For that, we'll get trains that can travel 110 m.p.h. for much of the Detroit to Chicago trip.
A modest boost in speed is about as much as we can ask for given the state of our infrastructure (over the summer, some passenger trains in Michigan were ordered to travel at 25 m.p.h. because of the sorry state of the tracks).
One drawback to train travel is the number of stops along the way. Detroit to Chicago has stops in Dowagiac, Niles, and New Buffalo, Michigan.
What if the train could just slow down around those stops?
Behold the "Moving Platforms" concept from Paul Priestman of the English design group Priestmangoode (bob head while watching):
O.k. - this pie-in-the-sky idea has been around for awhile. New Scientist magazine writes that they first featured an article about a similar idea in 1969.
Priestman told CNN that its valuable to throw off the chains and think big:
While Priestman admits that it will be some time before his vision could be implemented, he says the time has come to rethink how we travel.
"This idea is a far-future thought but wouldn't it be brilliant to just re-evaluate and just re-think the whole process?" he says.
The state is very close to finalizing a deal to buy almost 140 miles of railway that would complete a high-speed connection for passengers traveling between Detroit and Chicago.
The state could announce a bargain with the Norfolk Southern Railroad as soon as this week.
The cost will be about one million dollars per mile of rail. Most of the money will come from the federal government.
Hugh McDiarmid is with the Michigan Environmental Council, one of the groups supporting the project. He said the rail line could be the first leg of an eventual statewide rapid transit network.
"Right now, someone from Traverse City would have to drive down to Kalamazoo or Detroit or something to hop a train to Chicago and that’s not very convenient," said McDiarmid. "But this is moving us a little bit closer to the day when hopefully we’ll connecting Traverse City to Detroit; we’ll be connecting Kalamazoo to Traverse City to Chicago."
Once the purchase is wrapped up, the state will go to work on upgrades that will allow trains to travel at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. The Kalmazoo-to-Chicago stretch is already upgraded.
There are three Amtrak routes with trains that travel to and from cities in Michigan to Chicago.
If you ride on any of them, chances are your train will be late.
The route with the best on-time rate in the last year were the trains traveling on the "Blue Water" route between Port Huron and Chicago. On average, you'll be on-time 50 percent of the time on these trains.
The "Pere Marquette" route with trains traveling between Grand Rapids and Chicago comes in second. On average, those trains run on-time 48 percent of the time.
The most popular route is the worst.
The "Wolverine" route, which has trains running between Pontiac/Detroit to Chicago, had an average on-time rate of just 14 percent.
Amtrak provides a detailed breakdown of each train's on-time performance along with reasons for delays on their website.
Here's a breakdown of the on-time percentages for Amtrak trains in Michigan from best-to-worst:
Blue Water #364 - 73.8% (Chicago to Port Huron)
Pere Marquette #370 - 54.2% (Chicago to Grand Rapids)
Pere Marquette #371 - 41.7% (Grand Rapids to Chicago)
Blue Water #365 - 25.5% (Port Huron to Chicago)
Wolverine #350 - 19.8% (Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac)
Wolverine #355 - 18.7% (Detroit/Pontiac to Chicago)
Wolverine #353 - 17.6% (Detroit to Chicago/Pontiac)
Wolverine #351 - 11.4% (Detroit/Pontiac to Chicago)
Wolverine #354 - 9.5% (Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac)
Wolverine #352 - 4.4% (Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac)
U.S. Representative John Dingell (D-Dearborn) made the announcement in a press release today:
This funding will allow the City of Dearborn to consolidate its two passenger rail stations into a intermodal station in the west section of downtown Dearborn... The intermodal facility will be designed for the planned Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail as well as future high-speed intercity passenger rail service. The station will accommodate city, regional and intercity bus systems; local and tourist shuttles; bicycle and greenway linkages; and, auto, taxi, and limousine connections to Detroit International Airport.
In the release, Dingell said "modernizing rail travel will help attract small business development, increase job growth, and enhance the livelihood of communities and business, by helping to expedite the time and efficiency of people and goods getting from point A to point B."
The Dearborn Press & Guide reports the announcement puts an end to questions about whether the money would come or not:
[The money] was awarded more than two years ago as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Although the money was awarded, until this week it still had not been obligated and Congressional Republicans are proposing to rescind all non-obligated ARRA funds as part of the upcoming federal budget process.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly was quoted as saying he was relieved by the news, "I was panicked that our shovel-ready project would never come to fruition. This really is key for Dearborn, as we'll now be central to any future transportation planning for the region."
On the heels of the federal government's announcement that it plans to increase the speed of Amtrak trains traveling between Detroit and Chicago, comes a slow-down order from the freight company that owns much of the track.
Norfolk Southern railroad says Amtrak trains will have to travel at speeds of 25 m.p.h. on some parts of the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo.
The decision means that travelers on Amtrak's Wolverine line may experience 90-minute delays on the trip from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, Amtrak said. Passengers need to check with Amtrak before heading to the station for their trips.
A 90-minute delay is a big deal for trains working to improve their on-time performance, which has been notoriously bad in Michigan.
Amtrak Train number 351, for instance, travels between Chicago and Grand Rapids/Port Huron/Detroit - Pontiac. In the last twelve months, it's been on-time only 17.1% of the time.
Last month, officials from the federal government announced plans to invest $196.5 million to improve the 135 miles of rail line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. The improvement, officials from the government say, will allow trains to reach speeds of 110 m.p.h., cutting 30 minutes off the time it will take to travel between Detroit and Chicago.
The freight company who owns the line, says they won't be responsible for maintenance on the improved track. Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, was quoted in Annarbor.com:
"If they want to make the Michigan line a passenger route with higher speeds than what freight trains run, then someone other than Norfolk Southern is going to have to pay for the increased maintenance costs," Husband said. "We have been trying to work out a solution to this for a very long time now. But in the meantime we're doing what needs to be done to be responsible to our customers and our shareholders."
So before the trains speed up, they'll have to slow down.
The future of passenger rail service in Michigan may take a big leap forward today. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation will be in Detroit this afternoon for an announcement concerning “high speed rail."
Michigan’s been down this track before. State transportation officials had high hopes last year when the Obama administration planned to invest billions of dollars in developing high speed rail projects across the country.
State officials lobbied hard for the federal government to upgrade the rail link between Detroit and Chicago, so trains could travel between the two cities at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. But, while the administration designated billions of dollars for projects in Illinois, California and Florida. Michigan only received a small amount of money to upgrade some Amtrak stations.
But, Florida’s new governor decided his state didn’t want the two billion dollars the Obama administration was offering. It appears Michigan and New York may end up splitting the money. We’ll find out specifics later today.
Florida’s not the first state to say “no” to federal high speed rail money. Wisconsin and Ohio also declined.
Amtrak reported last month that ridership is rising on all three passenger rail lines it operates in Michigan.
Last month, Michigan applied for more than $560 million in funding - including joining three other states as part of a joint request. Michigan officials expect the state will receive funding for some grants sought.
The state sought track improvements in Detroit and a new transit terminal in Ann Arbor, and new trains are part of Michigan's pitch for more federal money for high-speed rail after Florida said it didn't want $2.4 billlion.
LaHood is expected to be joined by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and other elected leaders at Detroit's Amtrak station Monday afternoon. LaHood is to make an appearance earlier in the day at New York's Penn Station. Bing's office declined to comment ahead of the announcement.
In the Midwest, there are several sections of rail being improved that will allow trains to travel faster. New money could further develop this system.
It's known as the "Chicago Hub Network" and includes improvements to the rail connections to St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Columbus. From the DOT's website:
A public forum on the future of trains in Michigan will be held tonight in Monroe.
John Langdon with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers says college students and senior citizens like trains. He says he hopes everybody else will see that increasing rail service is good for the economy, the environment and their own pocketbook.