From the South Bend Tribune
What’s the best way to achieve faster, more frequent Amtrak train trips between Chicago and Detroit — including stops in Niles, Dowagiac, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor?
Leaders of two rail transportation advocacy groups say double-tracking the entire track along that approximately 300-mile route, called Wolverine Service, is the answer.
The groups, Midwest Association of Railroad Passengers and Midwest High Speed Rail Association, are seeking public support throughout Michigan for the proposal — starting with the groups’ community meeting held at the Niles Public Library on Wednesday.
The Michigan Department of Transportation, which did not have a representative at the meeting, is in the midst of a Passenger Rail Program to evaluate and identify areas of improvement for the Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac area.
At this point, MDOT is not looking at double-tracking all of the Wolverine route. Roughly 160 miles of track on this route would not be double-tracked, said Rick Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
The two rail associations are asking Michigan Department of Transportation to include double-tracking in its plans for upgrades aimed at reducing travel times, boosting reliability, and adding daily roundtrips to the schedule.
“We think the state should be planning for a lot of growth on the corridor,” Harnish told a group of about 20 people at the meeting. “That means you have to have two tracks, an east track and a west track, the whole way.”
In fiscal year 2014, 477,157 Amtrak riders traveled the Wolverine corridor compared to 465,627 in fiscal year 2015, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliara said in a separate interview. The fiscal year runs from October to September.
Niles resident Jan Personette agreed with Harnish and explained a key reason why faster and more frequent service along this route is important.
“You’ve got to think about how people are going to get to the large metropolises, like Ann Arbor and Chicago, for treatment of illnesses. As we age, more and more of us need this sort of transportation,” Personette said. “It’s got to happen.”
MDOT officials considered double-tracking all of the Wolverine route, but decided against it, according to Michael Frezell, an MDOT spokesperson.
“A capacity analysis concluded that double-tracking the entire corridor in Michigan was not necessary to accommodate full build-out service,” Frezell said in an interview prior to the community meeting.
Full build-out refers to the goal of having 10 daily roundtrips between Chicago and Detroit (of the 10, seven would go to Pontiac — a Detroit suburb), with trains traveling at an average speed of 58 miles per hour, and with travel time between Chicago and Pontiac at five hours and 16 minutes.
Currently, there are three daily roundtrips of trains traveling at an average speed of about 46 miles per hour, with travel time between Chicago and Pontiac at approximately six hours and 40 minutes.
Frezell said efficiencies in the use of in-locomotive train signaling, GPS, and other technological improvements can help coordinate trains, thereby reducing the need for continuous double track.
“MDOT is being fiscally responsible by not double-tracking the entire railroad now,” Frezell added. “If conditions change in the future there is always the opportunity to expand capacity in the existing right of way because the railroad was once double-tracked and the rail bed remains.”
Harnish said he thinks the analysis information models used by the consultants in developing the draft plan are conservative.