Category Archives: News

Rail advocates want double tracking between Detroit and Chicago

From the South Bend Tribune

What’s the best way to achieve faster, more frequent Amtrak train trips between Chicago and Detroit — including stops in Niles, Dowagiac, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor?

Leaders of two rail transportation advocacy groups say double-tracking the entire track along that approximately 300-mile route, called Wolverine Service, is the answer.

The groups, Midwest Association of Railroad Passengers and Midwest High Speed Rail Association, are seeking public support throughout Michigan for the proposal — starting with the groups’ community meeting held at the Niles Public Library on Wednesday.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, which did not have a representative at the meeting, is in the midst of a Passenger Rail Program to evaluate and identify areas of improvement for the Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac area.

At this point, MDOT is not looking at double-tracking all of the Wolverine route. Roughly 160 miles of track on this route would not be double-tracked, said Rick Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

The two rail associations are asking Michigan Department of Transportation to include double-tracking in its plans for upgrades aimed at reducing travel times, boosting reliability, and adding daily roundtrips to the schedule.

“We think the state should be planning for a lot of growth on the corridor,” Harnish told a group of about 20 people at the meeting. “That means you have to have two tracks, an east track and a west track, the whole way.”

In fiscal year 2014, 477,157 Amtrak riders traveled the Wolverine corridor compared to 465,627 in fiscal year 2015, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliara said in a separate interview. The fiscal year runs from October to September.

Niles resident Jan Personette agreed with Harnish and explained a key reason why faster and more frequent service along this route is important.

“You’ve got to think about how people are going to get to the large metropolises, like Ann Arbor and Chicago, for treatment of illnesses. As we age, more and more of us need this sort of transportation,” Personette said. “It’s got to happen.”

MDOT officials considered double-tracking all of the Wolverine route, but decided against it, according to Michael Frezell, an MDOT spokesperson.

“A capacity analysis concluded that double-tracking the entire corridor in Michigan was not necessary to accommodate full build-out service,” Frezell said in an interview prior to the community meeting.

Full build-out refers to the goal of having 10 daily roundtrips between Chicago and Detroit (of the 10, seven would go to Pontiac — a Detroit suburb), with trains traveling at an average speed of 58 miles per hour, and with travel time between Chicago and Pontiac at five hours and 16 minutes.

Currently, there are three daily roundtrips of trains traveling at an average speed of about 46 miles per hour, with travel time between Chicago and Pontiac at approximately six hours and 40 minutes.

Frezell said efficiencies in the use of in-locomotive train signaling, GPS, and other technological improvements can help coordinate trains, thereby reducing the need for continuous double track.

“MDOT is being fiscally responsible by not double-tracking the entire railroad now,” Frezell added. “If conditions change in the future there is always the opportunity to expand capacity in the existing right of way because the railroad was once double-tracked and the rail bed remains.”

Harnish said he thinks the analysis information models used by the consultants in developing the draft plan are conservative.


Mt. Pleasant could be a stop on railway to Traverse City, Ann Arbor

From the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun:

There are almost 300 miles between Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

With a potential railway reconnecting some of Michigan’s largest cities and regions, Mt. Pleasant could be stop on that journey.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a Traverse City based non-profit organization, presented the project at Monday’s city commission meeting to connect southeast Michigan via train to northern regions of the state.

Groundwork policy specialist Jim Bruckbauer said the project could revitalize parts of Michigan by connecting them to the rest of the state.

“This is an exciting time for trains in Michigan,” he said. “Right now, the state is looking at how to connect Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and other big cities in the state. Our job now is to connect Ann Arbor to Traverse City.”

Bruckbauer explained the project, which would use existing train tracks owned by the state, would create a connection between Michigan’s major cities to the south, and its more northern municipalities such as Traverse City and Mt. Pleasant.

He presented a map of potential towns to be included in the train routes

Along the way, the rail could connect with Alma, Cadillac and Owosso. Port Huron to the east, and as far west as Holland and Kalamazoo could be included as well.

While a “feasibility study” is planned for 2016, Groundwork also expects to conduct an engineering study through 2020, adding summer weekend service in 2021, with full passenger service expected in 2025.

Along with the feasibility study will come summer and fall “excursion” trains in following years. The rides are typically intended for specific events, but Bruckbauer said Groundwork intends to expand the excursion rides to allow for more information gathering, and engage the communities from the beginning.

“That’s so we can start building interest in the service,” he said. “Eventually, we want them to become full-blown passenger services.”

Citing a 2012 survey from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Bruckbauer said the “number one priority” for residents state-wide was a rail connection to Traverse City.

“It would be another option for Michiganders to get across the state,” he said. “There’s a lot of connection between the southern and northern parts of the state.”

He said many of those needing transportation are young professionals, who he said the project could attract to stay in Michigan.

“It will make Michigan more attractive to young people and talent,” Bruckbauer said. “(The State) is seeing this project as a way for the next generation of workers to have the transportation they need without having to rely on non-public transportation.”

Along with riders, Bruckbauer said the train would bring significant economic growth to cities on the rail. Citing a 2009 study from Grand Valley State University, he said once-a-day train service could add $45 million per year to downtown economies.

Following his presentation, Bruckbauer fielded questions from a nearly-full commission chamber at city hall. Attendees were offered to sign a petition in support, and received informative materials about the project.

City Commissioner Matt Sous asked about funding, specifically how much the city of Mt. Pleasant would have to pay to be involved in the project.

“After the first study, what kind of commitment will you need?” Sous asked. “We don’t even have a train station in Mt. Pleasant.”

The feasibility study would cost about $100,000 to $120,000, Bruckbauer said, with a federal grant potentially paying for 80 percent of the study. Local communities will be asked to pay 20 percent of the initial study, but Bruckbauer said it was “too soon” to attach a dollar value to the full project.

The federal grant request is due in February. Bruckbauer said he is seeking letters of support to add to the application.

“The study is meant to figure out things like costs, volume,” he said. “Right now, it’s too early to tell.”

Many attendees asked if the project would create jobs for their city. Bruckbauer said several jobs will be generated locally for the project.

“I hesitate to estimate the actual amount of jobs, but it absolutely would create jobs,” he said. “Construction, whatever operating structure would add to what is already there, so it would be more jobs.”

In attendance, Alma Mayor Mel Nyman commended the project for including his city and its potential benefits for Alma’s college student population.

“I’m very pleased to be here to support his project,” Nyman said. “That track goes right through the campus of Alma College. We could pack students up and easily send them in any direction. It would be a lot easier than them having to drive.”

Local attorney Damian Fisher said he was concerned about connecting the transportation authorities of every region on the rail. He said creating those relationships between authorities should be the first priority of the project.

“At the end of the day, this service won’t work without integrating all of the communities,” Fisher said. “It’s going to go across jurisdictions. That needs to happen now.”

Fisher also mentioned multiple Native American tribes that live along the rail. He said Native American communities could create financial partnerships to help pay for the project.

“You have at least three tribes on this line,” Fisher said. “All those are conduits to federal dollars independent of any state or federal restrictions. They’re very good collaborators to be at the table.”


Amtrak adds 10 extra trains to handle Thanksgiving travel in Michigan

Amtrak will operate 10 extra trains in Michigan for the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday in addition to its regularly scheduled service.

On Nov. 25 and 29, an extra eastbound morning train will depart Chicago bound for Grand Rapids and an extra westbound evening train will depart Grand Rapids bound for Chicago.

On Nov. 25, 28 and 29, an extra eastbound morning train will depart Chicago bound for Ann Arbor and an extra westbound evening train will depart Ann Arbor for Chicago.

Click on the timetable below for more details.

Amtrak plans on utilizing every available piece of equipment to handle one of their busiest travel weeks of the year.

Amtrak recommends that passengers book their trip early in order to best match desired travel times and days.


Quirky Lansing railroad tower on the move

From The Lansing State Journal:

Michael Frezell, president of the Lansing Model Railroad Club, said his group will work to save the Michigan Avenue Tower, now located in Old Town by a city parking lot.(Photo: Judy Putnam/Lansing State Journal)
Michael Frezell, president of the Lansing Model Railroad Club, said his group will work to save the Michigan Avenue Tower, now located in Old Town by a city parking lot.(Photo: Judy Putnam/Lansing State Journal)

Model train lovers hope to preserve a piece of Lansing’s railroad history by relocating and restoring a narrow two-story tower that once stood next to the Lansing Union Station that is now Clara’s Restaurant.

I’ve craned my neck more than a few times as I wondered about the history of the quirky little building, which was relocated to Lansing’s Old Town nearly 30 years ago.

It looks like a house built by Dr. Seuss.

Michael Frezell, president of the 40-member Lansing Model Railroad Club, asked Lansing Parks and Recreation officials last year if the building, known as the Michigan Avenue Tower, could be donated to the 40-member club.

The city has given its approval.

In 1986, Conrail retired the tower. It was moved from the former train station on Michigan Avenue and plopped down next to a city parking lot on Grand River to be part of a now-defunct electric train museum.

Instead, it has sat empty and marooned, and Frezell worried that it would be demolished.

“There isn’t a lot of them around. This is the only one in the Lansing area that’s surviving,” he said.

Likely built in the 1800s, it’s weathered and rotting in places. People apparently seeking shelter took refuge in the downstairs before the city boarded up the door. Old blankets are on the floor. One of its nine windows is broken. A staircase is missing.

Frezell, whose day job is as a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the tower was once used by railroad workers to control the junction between the Michigan Central and Pere Marquette railroads and to operate the Michigan Avenue crossing gates to stop traffic, prior to automation.

Plans are to move the 234-square-foot building in the spring eight miles to the club’s property in Delta Township near Woldumar Nature Center. The club has a large model railroad layout located inside the old Millett Depot that was relocated there in the 1960s.

Appropriately, the tower will be used as “a living history artifact” for a dispatcher to control the model trains, the club said in a release. That job is now being done on the second floor of the depot.

First, though, the club has to raise an estimated $35,000 to transport the tower, clean up the old site, replace the missing stairway to the second story, and to repair and restore the little building. A GoFundMe site has been established.

Plans are for most of the work to be done by volunteers but a professional mover will have to be hired to lift the tower from its concrete pad and haul the 19-foot-high tower, possibly with it lying on its side.

Frezell said the group is up for the challenge of saving the tower. He has been a member of the model train club for 20 years.

“I think my parents gave me a train set when I was 5,” he said. “I’m 44. I never got over it.”


High-speed rail not the right solution for Canada: Via CEO

From the Financial Post:

Head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service Yves Desjardins-Siciliano says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.
Head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service Yves Desjardins-Siciliano says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.

That the push for new high-speed train systems in Ontario and Alberta is gaining momentum just as the federal Liberals prepare to take office with plans to double infrastructure spending is surely more than a coincidence.

But the head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service, Via Rail Canada, says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.

“Back in 2012, there was a report published that pegged the cost of high-speed rail between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal at $10 billion, and for $10 billion it would get you 10-million customers,” said Via CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. Simply providing dedicated passenger lines at conventional speed, he said, “will cost $3 billion for seven million (passengers), so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit.”

If Via had a dedicated track to use in the busy corridor between Toronto and Montreal, Desjardins-Siciliano estimates the railway could increase its annual passenger load on the route from 2.1 million currently to 6.8 million within 15 years of construction using what he calls “high-frequency rail.”

Just last week, Ontario appointed a former federal cabinet minister, David Collenette, as a special adviser for high-speed rail, which the provincial Liberal government envisions running between Windsor, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. The same week, Alberta’s NDP government said it was in the early stages of studying a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton, something previous governments have mused about but never bought into.

Advocates of high-speed rail point out that the largest untapped market in the world is North America, where, for a variety of reasons, people have not embraced the concept in the same way their European and Asian counterparts have.

This means there is tremendous potential to develop ultra-fast railways here, a major infrastructure conference in Toronto heard Tuesday. But the first challenge is winning over travellers who are used to driving or flying to their destinations, said Tim Keith, CEO of Texas Central Partners, a private company that’s developing North America’s first-ever high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.

“It’s not easy to create a high-speed-rail system in an economy that doesn’t accept high-speed rail as a mode of transport,” Keith told the conference, put on by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

“The biggest challenge I have is introducing a product to market that isn’t used to the product.”

Desjardins-Siciliano has been drumming up interest among Canada’s major pension funds in building a new dedicated track between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal that would allow the Crown corporation to improve its deteriorating on-time performance.

Currently, 90 per cent of the track that Via uses is owned by Canadian National Railway Co., and is susceptible to regular bottlenecks as freight trains and passenger trains vie for the same space. In the second quarter, Via’s trains were on time 70 per cent of the time, down from 79 per cent a year earlier.

“Freight trains today are longer and heavier and therefore slower than ever,” Desjardins-Siciliano said in a recent interview. “That’s why growing (our service) requires an alternative track that would be dedicated to passenger rail.”

He noted that regular-speed rail also has the benefit of being able to stop at points in between the major cities, which meets Via’s objective of replacing travel by car, not travel by air.

And Sebastien Sherman, senior managing director for the Americas at Borealis Infrastructure, pointed out on Tuesday’s panel that high-speed rail plans “need a degree of population density,” more common in Asia and Europe than in a more sparsely populated country such as Canada. Borealis is an arm of the OMERS pension fund that owns 50 per cent of HS1 Ltd., the U.K.’s high-speed line that runs through the Chunnel. He noted that any high-speed project comes with its construction risks, demand risks, regulatory risks and political risks.

“The last thing we’d want to do is spend many years trying to advance a project if it doesn’t have community support,” he said.