MDOT Investing ‘Millions’ in Amtrak Service

A Detroit-bound Wolverine Service train pauses at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

A Detroit-bound Wolverine Service train pauses at Ann Arbor on May 19, 2012.

Ridership of Amtrak’s 10 trains serving Michigan has been on the rise of late, but the state and Amtrak want more.

The Michigan Department of Transportation and Amtrak are planning to invest millions of dollars into improving rail passenger service in the state.

To do that, MDOT officials say that traveling to Chicago by train needs to be as convenient – if not more so – than driving.

Much of the investment being made by MDOT involves paying Amtrak more money to operate the existing service.

That move, though, was not by MDOT’s choice. A 2008 federal law required Amtrak and the states hosting routes of less than 700 miles to reach funding agreements whereby the states chipped in a larger share of the operating costs.

Much of that new funding will go toward paying the expenses of the Wolverine Service, which operates three times a day in each direction between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich. (Detroit).

Michigan has long helped fund the Blue Water Chicago-Port Huron) and the Pere Marquette (Chicago-Grand Rapids).

But federal law now required Michigan to share in the cost of the Wolverine.

The new tab for the state is $25 million, which is more than triple the $8 million MDOT has paid over the past few years to fund the Blue Water and Pere Marquette.

Amtrak carries about 800,000 riders on its Michigan trains and the service is popular.

“If we don’t pay for any Amtrak service . . .  we have no Amtrak service,” said Tim Hoeffner, the state’s rail director.

In cooperation with Amtrak, MDOT has taken a number of steps to enhance Michigan services in the hopes of building ridership and revenue, which could lessen the amount of funding that Michigan must provide.

Passengers can, for a $10 fee, stow their bicycles on board some trains.

MDOT is spending $10 million to bring free WiFi service aboard all Michigan trains, starting in January 2014. MDOT and Amtrak believe this investment will be recouped after the first year because more people will choose the train.

But the most high profile and expensive step that is being taken involves rehabilitating the tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn to allow for higher train speeds and shorter trip times.

Michigan purchased the Kalamazoo-Dearborn segment of the ex-Michigan Central route last December from Norfolk Southern for $140 million.

MDOT received about $350 million in federal funds to buy and improve those track and is kicking in $37.5 million in state funds.

The track work includes rebuilding the rails and signal system in order to allow speeds of up to 110 mph.

On the Amtrak-owned 100 miles of track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind.,  trains already can travel at higher speeds.

The Wolverine route illustrates the challenge that Amtrak has competing with automobile between Chicago and Detroit.

The Wolverine takes 6.5 hours to go the distance whereas driving typically is about two hours shorter, depending on traffic conditions.

Driving trip from East Lansing to Chicago takes about four hours whereas the Blue Water is scheduled to cover the distance in exactly four hours.

Not helping the cause has been tardy trains. Amtrak’s Michigan trains were on schedule just 38 percent of the time in the past year, with most of the delays the result of interference from other trains.

Since the 1990s, MDOT’s payments to Amtrak have steadily grown, but so has patronage. Ridership reached was 793,000 in 2012, the same year that MDOT funding to Amtrak topped $8 million.

In 1994, by comparison, Amtrak carried 589,000 passengers and MDOT paid $965,000 — $1.5 million when adjusted for inflation.

MDOT’s current subsidy amounts to about half of Amtrak’s total revenue for its Michigan service, Hoeffner said.

Michigan has supported the Blue Water since its 1974 inauguration and the Pere Marquette since it began in 1984.

For a while in the 1990s, the Blue Water operated as the Chicago-Toronoto International.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the Lansing State Journal that passenger rail service is an economic boost for communities.

Government funding of Amtrak is no different than funding of roads, he said, adding that road maintenance relies partly on gasoline taxes that are insufficient to pay for the total operation.

“The fact is, without an operating agreement and the cost, and the contract to pay for the cost, there won’t be service,” Magliari said. “The more people that are on the train paying a higher price, the more passengers are paying the fixed costs of operating the trains.”

Amtrak Michigan map

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