Columnist: Fast trains from Detroit to Chicago coming in 3-4 years

From the Detroit Free Press:

Is that a light at the end of the tunnel? Not yet.

Though Michigan was awarded $403.2 million in federal dollars this year for improvements to its heavily traveled Wolverine line between Pontiac and Chicago, it could be a while before travelers get speedy, reliable Amtrak service.

Construction and ongoing delays are likely to start in May or June and continue for three or four years — with most major work done on the 135-mile section of track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo.

“There won’t be construction everywhere all at one time. It will be broken into manageable pieces,” said Timothy Hoeffner, administrator of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s office of rail. Still, the project to fix the tracks, cross ties, grades and crossings will cause more disruption on a line already known for its slowness.

By 2015-16, Amtrak expects to have new locomotives, new cars, smoother tracks, better signaling and — state officials hope — on-time service on the Wolverine. That’s great news for the roughly half-million people who ride it each year.

“Like any construction project, there will be some inconveniences,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “We will work to make it worth it in the end.”

Slow, rickety trains are relics of yesterday

ABOARD AMTRAK, west of Ann Arbor — The train is so jerky, I have to hold onto the wall on the way to the cafĂ© car. It’s a miracle the attendant can pour coffee without it splashing across the room. I look out the window and see that on a road parallel to the rails, a silver Honda Civic is driving faster than the train is moving.

Compared with trains in Europe, Amtrak service on the Wolverine route between Pontiac and Chicago is a relic.

That is both good and bad.

The trains themselves are big, clunky and old. The ride is slow and full of mystery stops. On the other hand, impersonal, fast trains in Europe do not have kindly conductors helping you down the stairs with their yellow stools or stopping by to remind you, “Now, the next stop is yours; don’t forget.”

But there is a limit to the appeal of old-fashioned train travel. No Wi-Fi. Run-down cars. Unreliable toilets. And woefully slow service.

This year, Michigan landed $403.2 million in federal funds to finally buy, repair and upgrade sections of the system and build several new stations with the hopes of faster, on-time service.

Upgrades come just in time. Ridership keeps rising on the Wolverine Line. In all, 503,290 passengers rode in the 2011 fiscal year that ended in September — a 4.9% rise over last year. And during the five-day Thanksgiving weekend, ridership on Michigan’s three train lines (Wolverine, Blue Water and Pere Marquette) hit 16,767 riders.

Where to now?

Although the aim is to have trains that can go 110 m.p.h., the realistic near-term goal on the Wolverine Line is to eliminate mystery stops because of traffic from freight trains and poor track conditions.

“It’s not how fast you go, it’s how little you go slow,” said Timothy Hoeffner, administrator of the Michigan Department of Transportation office of rail. “We need to take the mystery out of the trip. You need to know when you are going to leave and more importantly, you need to know when you are going to arrive.”

That would please current Amtrak customers, who’ve become used to arbitrary timetables.

“I would definitely take the train if it were faster, but it’s not a must, as I do plan to take the train into Chicago again even if the service doesn’t get any faster,” said Valerie Wilson of Battle Creek, 53, who often takes Amtrak to Chicago for business. “Getting on the train is much simpler than getting on a plane.”

Lauren Lawler 18, of Troy just started at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. So far, she has taken the train home twice. The prospect of even a slight improvement in Amtrak travel times appeals to her.

“That would be sweet,” she said. “But I love taking the train. It’s my favorite. Even if I could drive, I would choose the train.”

Patience, please

Before things get better, they may get worse. For three or four years, disruptions will occur on the line, especially on the 135-mile section of track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. Michigan is buying the track from freight company Norfolk-Southern for $140 million. The purchase should close in April. After that, work begins.

“In some cases, the quickest way to get some of the work done is let the construction crews take over the railroad for days at a time,” said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman. “I’m not sure if that is going to happen in Michigan. We’ll certainly ask for passenger patience.”

Even now, patience is a quality Amtrak passengers know well.

The day I ride west from Detroit on Amtrak 351, we arrive just 12 minutes late into Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo has one of the loveliest train stations in Michigan, with rich oak walls and a spacious waiting room. That is lucky, because I have to wait around.

The Amtrak 350 eastbound train headed back to Detroit does not pull in until 11:35 a.m., 35 minutes late coming from Chicago. At noon, it mysteriously stops for seven minutes near Battle Creek. Near Albion, it slows for no apparent reason to barely moving, crawling past fallow fields.

At 1:05 p.m., there’s a different type of delay. A westbound Amtrak train has arrived in the Jackson station, so we have to sit on the track and wait 20 minutes before we can pull in from the other direction. After that, the train chugs slowly east.

Finally at 2:57 p.m., it reaches Detroit, 55 minutes late.

And that’s without construction. What happens next year?

“We will work closely with Amtrak to minimize the disruption. With that said, you can’t always do the work outside the window when the trains are running. There could be a chance that schedules could be adjusted, or we may have to use alternative transportation,” Hoeffner said. “Some of the work is rebuilding the grade crossings, replacing some rails, replacing wooden cross ties, some of which are 20 years old. We will add stone ballast and smooth out the alignment.”

Reason to be happy

It really is a happy problem, this requirement to spend $403.2 million of federal money on rail in our state. It breaks down to $150 million allocated for the Dearborn-Kalamazoo track, $196.5 million to prepare the route for 110-m.p.h. service, $3.2 million for a corridor environmental study, $9.4 million for a west Detroit track project and $44.1 million for new stations.

Alone among all grant recipients, the City of Troy may refuse the money for a new station; its new mayor and some on City Council oppose the long-awaited project. In addition to the federal money, state and local governments have appropriated $47.9 million more to complete all the projects. Improvements to rails, ties, fiber-optic lines for train-control systems and the reconstruction of 180 highway-grade crossings, should help to cut 30 minutes of travel time off the route.

The goal is to cut the Detroit-Chicago travel time to four hours within a few years.

So patience. Patience. Just a little more patience.

“The end result will be more and better travel choices for people in Michigan,” Magliari said. “It is inherently a much more civilized mode of transportation.”

Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press Travel Writer