Amtrak’s Detroit-Chicago trip to get faster, plusher with upgrades

From The Detroit News:

Passengers at the Royal Oak station board an Amtrak train bound for Chicago Friday afternoon. Michigan transportation officials hope faster service and on-time scheduling build ridership. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Passengers at the Royal Oak station board an Amtrak train bound for Chicago Friday afternoon. Michigan transportation officials hope faster service and on-time scheduling build ridership. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

The tracks have been cleared for the state to develop faster, cushier Amtrak service between Detroit and Chicago now that the Michigan Senate has ended its probe of a state passenger rail car purchase.

State transportation officials want to buy two sets of cars and engines, built in the United States by an affiliate of Spanish train maker Talgo Inc., as part of an Amtrak upgrade. The updates would allow trains to reach 110 miles an hour and, in a few years, get passengers from one city to another two hours faster than they can today.

Officials also hope to improve Amtrak’s on-time service, which ranged from as low as 6.5 percent to as high as 52.3 percent among the Detroit-Chicago trains in July. Amtrak’s website reports on-time rates on the route have ranged from 21.5 percent to 39 percent in the last 12 months.

Lawmakers who questioned a one-bid contract awarded to a Spanish firm for “next-generation” passenger cars now are willing to let the deal proceed, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Pappageorge, R-Troy.

The investigation, and a longer than anticipated evaluation process, delayed purchase of the passenger cars with modern amenities.

The $58 million for Michigan’s two train sets is to come from $200 million in federal funds for Amtrak improvements in Michigan and other states, mostly in the Midwest. The move to the faster trains is expected to give a boost to the Detroit-Chicago route, where ridership steadily has been building back toward a 20-year peak of nearly 504,000 passengers in 2010.

Down the road, the state will use additional federal money for more “next-generation” passenger car and engine sets, said Michigan Department of Transportation railroad chief Tim Hoeffner. The state will own the cars and the Michigan rails on the Detroit-Chicago route for now.

Hoeffner said the Talgo car purchase isn’t finalized. An evaluation of the equipment’s suitability for Michigan’s needs is taking longer than expected, so the cars won’t be in service next month as originally proposed, he said.

Bid controversy

The two Talgo sets will replace 30- to 40-year-old Amtrak cars on two of the three daily Detroit-Chicago runs on the route Amtrak calls The Wolverine. Older cars will continue on the other run until the state buys newer equipment in a couple of years.

“The difference between them is like the difference between the car I learned to drive in the 1970s and the cars my kids learn to drive now,” Hoeffner said. Michigan’s passenger trains, he said, gradually will become more like the sleek, modern trains that run in Europe and Asia.

Current aluminum coaches on the route lack modern amenities and are deteriorating because Amtrak has no budget to overhaul them, according to MDOT. They have institutional decor, lack carpeting, contain harsh lighting and lack hot water in restrooms, the department says.

Pappageorge said what “raised red signals” was that Talgo was the sole bidder to supply the cars. The company happened to have newly built train sets sitting at an Amtrak facility in Beech Grove, Indiana, and Michigan needed to act quickly because federal funds were available.

“It was appropriate to look into it because that didn’t look right,” Pappageorge said. “Digging into it, we came to the conclusion that Talgo was the right answer — not a perfect one but adequate.”

In a statement on behalf of her company, U.S. public affairs vice president Nora Friend said Talgo officials “are very pleased that the Senate committee is being respectful of the (bid) process and is allowing the deal to go forward.”

The train sets were built for Wisconsin’s Amtrak routes, before Gov. Scott Walker canceled the deal. They are sitting idle in Indiana while the company and that state battle in court over money Talgo claims Wisconsin still owes it.

The Senate’s inquiry, which lasted through the summer, resulted from a challenge by a competing firm, Chicago-based Corridor Capital, which didn’t bid but claimed the process seemed to favor Talgo. The state’s bid specifications were so narrow only one company could meet them, Corridor Capital said.

The criticism, aired at Senate committee hearings, also came from former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, a train buff and volunteer adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder on rail issues. He questioned whether Talgo’s equipment can meet Michigan’s needs — a criticism Corridor Capital continues to press.

“They didn’t meet the minimum requirements,” charged Lansing public relations specialist John Truscott, who represents Corridor Capital. “If they did qualify, this would have been an easy decision. We (still) feel it would be just as easy for MDOT to do the right thing and open this back up (for rebidding).”

‘Incremental’ improvements

But Pappageorge said members of the Senate’s Transportation and Appropriations committees found the bid process was handled properly. They also concluded Talgo’s equipment is adequate, based on hours of testimony about train car specifications, he said.

A problem for Corridor Capital was that the company didn’t have train sets ready to go, Hoeffner said. The firm sought a state contract under which it would take over the entire state rail service, not just supply rail cars. It is working on a similar deal with Indiana.

State transportation department analysts believe an “incremental approach” is more prudent for Michigan right now, Hoeffner said. The goal is to continue building ridership on the Detroit-Chicago route, the busiest of its three passenger corridors, through faster service and nicer cars.

“All customers want to know is: When do I leave, when do I arrive and is it convenient?” Hoeffner said.

The trip now takes about 6½ hours most days, but Hoeffner said MDOT’s goal is to reduce the time to 4 hours — about the same amount of time needed to drive the route in a car. The state has purchased the in-state portion of the route and is in the midst of upgrades that should be completed in late 2017 or in 2018.