Government seeking feedback on high-speed rail plan

From the Dearborn Press & Guide:

Construction started recently on the intermodal station on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, which will replace the current Amtrak station and accommodate several other types of transportation. It is scheduled to open late next year. Press & Guide photo by Joe Slezak

The Federal Railroad Administration and Michigan, Indiana and Illinois departments of transportation are looking at ways to improve Amtrak service between Pontiac and Chicago.

To that end, the four held two Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac Passenger Rail Corridor Program public meetings Wednesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels Detroit-Dearborn, had two more meetings scheduled for Thursday in Kalamazoo and previously held meetings in Michigan City, Ind., and Chicago to get initial public feedback.
Whatever improvements are coming, it’s good news for Dearborn, which has an Amtrak station and is in the process of building a replacement intermodal station on Michigan Avenue, west of Evergreen Road.

Barry Murray, the city’s economic and community development director, attended the first meeting Wednesday and is excited about what the future could hold.
The Michigan Department of Transportation is in the process of spending more than $500 million to purchase the tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo from Norfolk Southern and improve them, according to officials at the meeting.

That is an important first step, Murray said.

“We’re pretty enthusiastic about the line and that it’s going into the public ownership,” he said.

He said that while freight trains are very important to the city’s economy, improving the tracks for passenger traffic will make service more reliable and timely, and it could allow for commuter trains between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

And, if Amtrak trains can travel up to 110 mph on longer stretches — they can go that fast now between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind. — the trip between Detroit and Chicago can be cut to four hours, Murray said, adding that Amtrak would see “dramatically increased ridership.”

The improvements also could have a direct impact on Dearborn, where construction on the intermodal station began recently. It is scheduled to open late next year, Murray said. In addition to Amtrak, the station could accommodate intercity buses, corporate and college/university shuttles, limousines and taxis, and it’ll have dual ramps — including one for The Henry Ford, which has 1.7 million visitors a year and could see 2 million a year after the new station opens, Murray said.

It also could turn the flow of Detroit-to-Chicago tourism around, he said.

“This hopefully will give us potential to attract Chicago residents here for the weekend,” Murray said.

The city’s current Amtrak station is behind the Police Department/19th District Court building and isn’t designed for intermodal use.

The study covers the 304-mile “Wolverine” route between Pontiac and Chicago, which has 16 stations and served more than 500,000 riders in Amtrak’s 2011 fiscal year. The study costs $4 million, with a federal grant covering $3.2 million and the three states paying the remaining $800,000.

The groups have contracted with HNTB Corp., an infrastructure company, to evaluate a potential route and service alternatives; create a Tier I environmental impact statement; and a service development plan. That work is projected to be done by fall 2013, and more specific plans can be created after that during Tier II. Officials pledged to seek more public comment at that point.
The goal, according to literature at the meetings, is to improve passenger rail service to provide a competitive alternative to automobile, bus and air service; reduce travel times; and improve the quality, reliability and frequency of service.

Once the improvements are made, riders will better be able to access other routes that originate at Chicago’s Union Station, a major Amtrak hub.
Matt Webb of HNTB, the deputy project manager, said that most of the “Wolverine” route has a maximum speed of 79 mph, with the 97 miles between Porter and Kalamazoo allowing for 110 mph. He said that a goal is to hit that standard for the rest of the corridor.

The biggest challenge, he said, is considering route alternatives between Buffington Harbor, Ind., and Porter, known as “South of the Lake,” because more than 100 trains use that stretch every day, including 87 freight trains. Two other passenger systems also use that stretch. Webb called it one of the most congested stretches in the country.

About $70 million has been invested in researching ways to relieve congestion there, and about $140 million has been invested in separating passenger and Norfolk Southern freight lines in the Chicago area. The train bridge project is known as the “Englewood Flyover.”

Several questions were asked and feedback given from roughly 50 people attending Wednesday’s first meeting, and officials will use it as part of the feedback they’re compiling.

One person asked if trains could eventually reach 200 mph. Project manager Mohammed Alghurabi of the Michigan Department of Transportation said 110 mph is a more realistic expectation.
Another asked about electrifying the corridor, which would eliminate the need for diesel engines. Webb said equipment is an element of the study.

Questions arose about limiting the number of stops for some trains and bypassing a congested stretch near Albion; Webb said that express service will be considered.

A man asked if the study would include considering a Detroit-to-Windsor train, which would allow passengers to more easily ride to Toronto; Webb said it wasn’t part of the study, though connecting Michigan and Ontario is a priority for Gov. Rick Snyder, which would make it easier to connect the state with the East Coast.

Questions also were asked about connecting the “Wolverine” route to those further north into Michigan, and possibly connecting it to Toledo, which increases access to many more Amtrak routes. Those routes are not part of the study either, but the feedback will be considered.

Christine Linfield — Chelsea’s planning, engineering, zoning and community development director — asked about safety, namely how fast trains will be traveling through small towns like hers. There is a grade crossing in Chelsea at M-52, the major north-south route in western Washtenaw County.

“We strive for safety, and safety is our No. 1 priority,” Alghurabi said. “You will see us again and again.”

Comments on Tier I will be accepted through Oct. 15 at, where there’s a copy of the slide presentation shown at the meetings; 1-877-351-0853; or by mail to Bob Parsons, Public Involvement & Hearings Officer, Michigan Department of Transportation, Van Wagoner Building, P.O. Box 30050, Lansing, MI 48909.