From the Herald-Palladium
NEW BUFFALO – Most people dividing their time between Illinois and Southwest Michigan have their primary residence over there and a more modest second place over here.
Guy Ballard does it the other way around. And the new Amtrak service from downtown Chicago to New Buffalo helps make it possible.
“It’s so much easier for me now with the new service,” he said.
And there’s circumstantial evidence suggesting he’s not alone.
July ridership figures show a more than 300 percent rise in activity between 2009 and 2010 in New Buffalo.
The key difference is Amtrak moved its station last October from the Pere Marquette route on the city’s south side to the Wolverine and Blue Water routes, which travel over tracks downtown.
The Blue Water and Wolverine trains account for three stops daily from Chicago to New Buffalo. The Pere Marquette makes one stop from Chicago.
Ryan Fellows, assistant to the city manager, said until rider surveys are taken it can’t known for sure how many riders are Chicago commuters.
But when the number of people getting on or off in New Buffalo goes from 715 to 2,584 in a year, one can make a strong hypothesis.
“It’s a very easy leap of faith to make,” he said.
Leaders in Southwest Michigan communities served by Amtrak, from St. Joseph to Dowagiac, have stated hopes that their cities could become bedroom communities for the Chicago area.
New Buffalo leaders predicted the station shift would make New Buffalo more attractive to people like Ballard.
Ballard, the chief technology officer for the Niles Township High School District in Skokie, Ill., for the last 12 years, said he “fell in love” with the New Buffalo area about 10 years ago and ended up buying a nice house in the Timberlane section of New Buffalo.
The only downside is it’s about 85 miles from his office.
Daily commuting was out of the question, so he bought a small condo just north of downtown Chicago that he uses during the work week, returning to Michigan every weekend. For three years he’s been making the trip by rail instead of auto.
“I drive to work (from Chicago to Skokie) Monday through Thursday,” the educator said, “but on Fridays I take the ‘El’ (Chicago’s elevated train).”
That allows him to catch a Metra Rail commuter train that stops in nearby Morton Grove, Ill., for the 12-mile trip to downtown Chicago at the end of his work day.
The Metra line takes him directly to Union Station, on the west side of Chicago’s Loop, where he can transfer onto Amtrak’s 6 p.m. train to New Buffalo.
“I leave (work) at 4:45 (p.m. Central Standard Time), and I’ll be in New Buffalo by 8:30 (p.m. Eastern Standard Time),” Ballard said.
Amtrak’s schedule says 8:16, and Ballard concurs that the train is usually on time.
“The only choice I had (out of Chicago) was a 4 o’clock train (then the Pere Marquette), which required leaving work early to catch it,” Ballard said.
As for the commute itself, Ballard said he very much appreciates not having to drive back and forth between Illinois and Michigan, especially on summer weekends, when the highways are packed with motorists.
“The drive can be four hours of aggravation” he said. “On the train, I have an iPod if I want to listen to music and an iPad if I want to get some work done.”
That’s not to say that the train doesn’t get packed as well.
On a recent Sunday trip back to Illinois, Ballard said, the train was so full of what he presumed were day-trippers fro Chicago that some passengers had to sit in the cafe car for the 70-minute journey.
Even so, the educator remains sold on Amtrak: There’s no chance of getting stuck in traffic, and somebody else is doing the driving.
Ballard has a second vehicle in New Buffalo to get around.
Amtrak is adding trains for the Labor Day weekend between Southwest Michigan and Chicago, the rail passenger service announced.
From Thursday through Monday, there will be five trains running daily from Chicago to Kalamazoo rather than the normal three. Four will stop in New Buffalo, three will stop in Dowagiac and five will stop in Niles, according to the schedule Amtrak posted with its news release.
From Friday through Tuesday, five trains will run from Kalamazoo to Chicago. Four will stop in Niles and New Buffalo and three will stop in Dowagiac.
The news release and schedule can be found on New Buffalo’s website, www.cityofnewbuffalo.org/railroad.asp.