Progress made on high-speed railPublished 8:01pm Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Norfolk Southern Railway Co. (NS) this month signed a sale agreement transferring ownership of 135 miles of NS railroad to MDOT for $140 million.
The line is part of Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water passenger rail services between Kalamazoo and Dearborn.
After ownership transfer to MDOT, the line also will continue to provide freight rail services to major Michigan companies.
Although it will have no immediate effect on traveling passengers, transfer of title is one step of many that will pave the way for track improvements designed to accommodate passenger train speeds up to 110 mph.
This will knock about 30 minutes off the travel time between Detroit and Chicago, reducing the overall trip time between the two cities to about five hours.
“There are hopeful signs the federal government, freight rail, Amtrak and Lansing are serious about improving passenger service to the Blue Water and Wolverine lines,” according to Rosemary Horvath, a former Cass County journalist who chairs the East/Central committee of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP).
Her priority area is East Lansing to Port Huron, but she calls the sale a “monumental step (for) rail service for Niles and Dowagiac.”
Once transition to MDOT ownership is final, which is expected to occur by spring 2013, Amtrak will handle upcoming track and crossing upgrades that must be in place before accelerated passenger service can go into effect.
Expected to take two to four years to complete, upgrades will include new, continuously welded rail and ties, improvements to highway-rail grade crossings, fiber-optic lines for train and signal control systems and gates and flashers at highway-rail grade crossings.
NS will retain an exclusive freight easement to preserve and grow its freight business.
The $140 million used to purchase the line included FRA High-speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program grant funds, plus a state match of $37.5 million.
FRA also awarded $196.5 million to MDOT for the major track and signal improvements on this corridor.
in Niles April 20
John D. Langdon of Holland is volunteer governmental/public affairs coordinator of MARP, established in 1973 as a consumer advocacy group to improve intercity rail and bus passenger service, improve local transit service and encourage preservation of historic railroad stations.
Langdon said besides higher speeds for shorter travel times, dispatching by Amtrak will help alleviate freight traffic congestion from Porter, Ind., into Chicago.
Langdon, 70, retired from soft drink marketing. He traces his interest to vacationing by train when his dad working for Railway Express Agency (REA), a national monopoly the U.S. government established in 1917 to keep goods moving during World War I.
REA, which transported parcels using railroad infrastructure similar to UPS using the road system, ceased operations in 1975.
Langdon said MARP’s spring meeting will take place at the Niles Amtrak station.
Amtrak added additional Wolverine Service trains between Michigan and Chicago to provide expanded December weekend travel options, including additional westbound Dec. 28, 29 and 30. Ordinarily, Amtrak provides three daily round-trips through Ann Arbor, with continuing service to and from Detroit-area stations.
Langdon said Amtrak has outgrown Union Station, so the additional frequency helps relieve passenger congestion.
The regular Wolverines (trains 350-355) and the extra Wolverines (trains 356 and 359) operate at top speeds of 110 mph through parts of Indiana and western Michigan.
During Thanksgiving, a record-setting 737,535 passengers chose trains in the 46 states Amtrak serves, up 1.9 percent over the previous year and the prior record set in 2011.
Thanksgiving ridership on Amtrak Wolverines was 15,361, up almost 17 percent from the year before in large part due to extra holiday trains operated between Kalamazoo/Ann Arbor and Chicago.
Extra trains were added with the encouragement of MDOT and permission of Norfolk Southern and CN railroads.