Environment Picture

Stimulus plan boosts prospects of high speed rail service in Michigan

Detroit/Pontiac is eastern end of proposed Chicago-centered system
City-to-city passenger railroad service in Michigan may become the bright spot in the state’s transportation system.

That is not because Gov. Granholm is committed to passenger rail; in fact, she has proposed to cut Amtrak funding by more than 23%. Instead, investment from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus package) is the reason for newfound interest.

The stimulus allocated about $50 billion for transportation projects across the nation. Some $8 billion was dedicated for high speed rail (HSR) projects within 11 high speed rail corridors. Chicago is the center of the Chicago corridor, with Detroit/Pontiac as its eastern endpoint.

President Obama also proposed to capitalize a new HSR grant program with $1 billion per year for five years in his 2010 budget (by contrast, Michigan spends about $2.5 billion per year on roads alone).

Regional rail would run between 110 mph and 150 mph for distances of up to 200 miles. It has more stops than express rail, but is still faster than air travel with the benefit of city center to city center service.

Express rail is 150 mph service between points of about 400 miles apart. This service has very few stops. Express rail could replace regional air travel; it is cheaper, faster and considerably more fuel efficient.

To her credit, Gov. Granholm recently signed on to a letter—written by the governors of the seven other states which would be served by the Chicago Hub Network—making the case that a portion ($3.4 billion) of the $8 billion should be spent on improvements in this corridor. Of particular concern to existing Michigan passenger rail service is the rail congestion south of Lake Michigan.

Upgrade needed to 150-year-old system
Much of the existing rail system in this area is 150 years old; it was built to ship raw goods from the west to points east, and still does. The build-out of the interstate highway system, the subsequent shift from rail transport to road transport, and the classification of rails as subject to property tax led the railroad companies to pull up underutilized rails in the Chicago-Detroit corridor.

Freight and passenger trains share the same tracks. A freight train traveling from Wyoming to Michigan with hundreds of coal cars must pass through Chicago. An Amtrak train with three passenger cars must typically wait until a freight train passes. This delays passenger trains and makes Amtrak an inconsistent and sometimes frustrating way to travel. Gov. Granholm did the right thing in requesting that the administration spend some of the HSR funds to uncork this bottleneck.

Hopefully, some of the HSR funding will flow to projects that would allow Michigan rail travelers to be able to rely on consistent 90 mph to 110 mph intercity passenger rail service on our three routes by 2014. This will bring Michigan passenger trains back to the speeds their steam locomotive ancestors traveled in 1905.

To learn more about intercity passenger rail travel, visit www.marp.org.
-John D. Langdon, Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers
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