Amtrak, MDOT officials say they are confident trains traveling 110 mph are safe

From the Kalamazoo Gazette:

A day after the announcement that Amtrak trains will increase speeds to 110 mphbetween Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind., transportation officials said they are comfortable that the rail line can safely handle the higher speeds.

The Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday that the control system installed in Michigan does not include vehicle-detection technology to alert train crews about a vehicle stopped on the tracks at a crossing or four-quadrant gates to prevent vehicles from snaking around lowered crossing gates that will be installed on the Illinois high-speed corridor.

The crossings in Michigan have gates and flashing lights and meet Federal Railroad Administration regulations. The 80-mile section approved for high-speed trains had an Incremental Train Control System installed. It is up to each state to decide what safety mechanisms to install at intersections.

Tim Hoeffner, director of the Office of Rail at the Michigan Department of Transportation, said advances in technology and years of careful, coordinated planning by MDOT, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration have resulted in Michigan having the safest high-speed railways in the U.S. outside of the Northeast corridor.

“Looking at these crossings over the years, we feel pretty comfortable with where we’re at today,” he said Wednesday. “Safety is the most important thing to all of us. It isn’t just what you put at the crossing.”

The announcement that Amtrak trains will be able to run 15 mph faster than they do now from Kalamazoo west to Indiana came just one week after a train collided with a tractor semi-trailer in Jackson and raised concerns about how safe the faster trains will be.

Hoeffner said a “minor speed increase” from 95 mph to 110 mph won’t require a major adjustment by motorists at intersections and that people in Southwest Michigan have already been well educated about how Amtrak trains work through community outreach programs.

“The culture of the drivers out there understand that when the gate goes down, the train gets to the crossing quick and passes the crossing quick,” he said. “It’s not one of those things where people see the gates and lights come down and wonder if a train is going to come through or if that train is going to be a mile long.”

Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak, said the state has also put up additional signs at intersections to warn motorists and pedestrians about the high-speed trains.

“The crossings actually exceed state and federal regulations because we weren’t required to put those signs up,” he said.

The Amtrak Wolverine Service, with three daily round-trips between Pontiac and Chicago via Detroit and Ann Arbor, and the Amtrak Blue Water, with a daily trip between Port Huron and Chicago via East Lansing, use the corridor.

Magliari said the increased speed won’t necessarily result in an increased number of riders since a lot of the trains on weekends are usually full already. Once MDOT completes its purchase of a track segment between Kalamazoo and Dearborn and increases the frequency of trips, the number of riders is expected go up, he said.