If you’ve taken an Amtrak train out of Chicago and into Michigan, you may know about some changes that took place the last few years. There are more changes coming. I met with Marc Maglieri, PR Manager for Amtrak (thanks, Skype!) Marc is based out of Chicago’s Union Station and gave me Amtrak’s perspective on the upcoming train study that is seeking municipal backing up and down the West Michigan Coast.
The study isn't something that Marc is leading, however, he had some key information about train travel, Michigan, routes and more. I also met with Ron DeCook, the Rail Passenger Consultant who is part of the crew leading the study request.
Here is a rundown of our chats, along with information about important meetings happening on April 15 in New Buffalo.
Who runs the train system?
Amtrak is CONTRACTED by states to run the system. If, in this case, MDOT and the state want more lines to run in any region, Amtrak can facilitate, run, etc. But it’s a contract with the state. Amtrak can’t just go out and start running trains or adding trains in a silo. This should clear the questions I hear of ‘Amtrak should run more trains.’ This is all based off of the state and the state transit groups. Now that we sorted that out...
Some background about New Buffalo and train stops
A few years ago, a new train station was built in New Buffalo. The creation of this train stop meant that the old bus shelter / ‘train stop’ on the other side of New Buffalo was closed. The old stop accommodated the Pere Marquette train line, which connected New Buffalo to Grand Rapids and Holland. New Buffalo received a new train line, great, but the connection to our northern neighbors stopped - which also means that visiting businesses and jobs in Grand Rapids and Holland also stopped.
Which means that today…..
If you go from Chicago to Grand Rapids and Holland, you are also going on a slower train ride through Michigan (60-70 mph). The elimination of the Pere Marquette going THROUGH New Buffalo means that the current train ride from Grand Rapids to Chicago is slower...the train is on a track on the outskirts of town versus using the higher speed tracks (110 mph).
If New Buffalo was more of a transit hub, the Pere Marquette station can be rebuilt, reconnected and provide MORE options for people to go from Chicago / New Buffalo / St. Joseph-Benton Harbor / Grand Rapids / Holland.
Which means that Michiganders would have more options to go east west and north.
And people coming from Chicago would be able to get to more places better/sooner.
Speeds, trains and slowdowns
You may think that adding MORE trains in general is the option for the region. Not so fast. If you’ve been on Amtrak or South Shore, you know what going through Porter, Indiana is like. The tracks are owned by Norfolk Southern, which gives preference to the freight trains.
Amtrak owns the tracks between Porter and New Buffalo and into Kalamazoo. The state of Michigan owns the tracks from Kalamazoo to about Detroit/Dearborn. Norfolk Southern has gotten a rating of an ‘F’ as it relates to giving Amtrak clearance to go thru their lines. On the contrary, Amtrak’s played nicer with Norfolk Southern as it relates to giving them access on their lines. Interesting, isn’t it?
Illinois, Michigan and Indiana are working on various ideas to see what can be done in Porter to help everyone out. More trains would mean more bottlenecks and that won’t help anyone.
The background of the study
In order for MDOT/The State of Michigan to approve and approve the funds for a study of West Michigan, bringing the Pere Marquette back, etc. an advocate group is visiting towns in West Michigan to share the plan, but also has for a nominal financial pledge, by municipality. Essentially, if MDOT/Michigan see skin in the game from those towns who would benefit from more transit, the higher the chance of the study taking place and getting funding.
So what can you do…
If you live in the region on Lake Michigan’s Southeast Shore, come to one of these two meetings:
New Buffalo City Council , 630 pm
New Buffalo Township, 7 pm
Both meetings are on April 15. At both meetings, Derrick James from Amtrak and Ron DeCook, the Rail Passenger Consultant, will share plans for the study and the financial commitment. They will be seeking a $10,000 pledge from BOTH the City and the Township. This means that when the team submits the the application for the grant, and if the grant is approved, the individual towns who pledged will be asked to provide their funds into the mix.
The rest of the funds will be provided by the grant.
Ron and his committee are visiting various areas in West Michigan, but given everything essentially starts in New Buffalo, it's crucial that if you or someone you know believes in this project, to show up, speak and urge the City Council and Township to approve the resolution.