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To Cut Just 30 Minutes Off 5.5 Hour Det-Chicago Train Trip, Michigan To Spend $336.5M Dollars

by P.D. Lesko

Turning down federal money for rail projects has been a point of honor for Republican governors. New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie did it. Scott Walker, who is soon to face a recall vote, did it in Wisconsin. John Kasich turned down money for Ohio. According to a December 2010 piece in the Wall Street Journal, “U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rescinded nearly $1.2 billion that had been allocated to Wisconsin and Ohio for new train lines. Wisconsin, which received $810 million for a passenger train between Madison and Milwaukee, will have to forfeit the entire amount. Ohio must give up $385 million of the $400 million allocated for a train connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.” Florida’s Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling, rejected $2.4 billion in federal money to fund a connection between Tampa and Orlando.

The logic behind the governors’ refusals is simple. Once built, their states wouldn’t have money to operate the train systems. It’s kinda like someone offers to buy you a mega-yacht, then wants you to operate the yacht on your $70,000 per salary. The fact that it can cost upwards of $750,000 per year to fuel a yacht becomes your problem.

A study conducted by MDOT officials concluded that it would cost upwards of $70,000 per rider to operate a commuter line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. In case you’re wondering, that’s a yacht-sized cost per rider that resulted in MDOT putting the brakes on funding commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Alas, MDOT’s research has not stopped Ann Arbor’s feckless mayor and City Council from throwing away millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money away on water and sewer and road improvements to support what they’re calling a multi-modal facility on Fuller Road that, in their Tokyo-sized fantasies, will be a train station for Amtrak and bring tens of thousands of people flocking to a small Midwestern town.

The president has allocated nearly $11 billion on high-speed rail expansion since taking office, including $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package. The White House proposed spending $53 billion over the next six years. The idea is that the feds built it and the states fund it. So far, the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida aren’t down with that program.

In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration quickly applied for the sloppy seconds in train funding turned down by his fellow Republicans, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded $196.5 million to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) for track and signal improvements between Detroit and Kalamazoo. The improvements would allow for speeds up to 110 mph on 77 percent of Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water service between Detroit and Chicago.

The result will be a 30 minute travel time reduction between those destinations.Yeah, you read that right: 30 minutes.

Anyone who has ridden the Detroit to Chicago Wolverine or Blue Water trains knows that the trip can take much longer than scheduled. There have been horror stories galore. In 2008, it took 15 hours for an Amtrak train to travel 170 miles between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Granted, in October MDOT spent $140 million dollars to purchase a 135 mile segment of track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. The government buzz is that the purchase of the tracks will result in improved passenger service, ensure capacity for freight operations through double tracking on the busiest freight segment and deliver long-term economic benefits to Michigan.

That brings the total up to $336.5 million dollars to shave 30 minutes off of a 5.5 hour trip between Detroit and Chicago. That means state and federal officials have decided to blow $11.2 million dollars for every one of the 30 minutes of travel that, they hope, will be shaved off the trip between Detroit and Chicago. Yeah, you read that right, too. Politicos are blowing $336.5 million dollars to shave 30 minutes off of a 5.5 hour train trip between Detroit and Chicago. Seriously?

Maybe because the Detroit to Chicago high speed rail project is a $336.5 million dollar boondoggle, the political hype is hot and heavy.

Secretary LaHood, who recently announced he was not planning to serve another term, told reporters, “This is an important investment that will reduce travel time, improve reliability and on-time performance, and attract more passengers. We are creating jobs in Michigan, building our rails with American-made materials and growing the regional economy.”

Governor Snyder described the impact the $196.5 million dollars in federal money will have in typical grandiose Snyderspin, “Investing in rail service will spark economic development in communities along a corridor linking Detroit and Chicago, two vital Midwest cities. A faster, reliable passenger rail system is a priority for younger generations and vital to Michigan’s ability to compete globally as businesses look to locate or expand. The rail improvements will also hasten the transport of freight, a priority for Ford Motor Company and other Michigan businesses along the route.”

Faster? The 30 minutes saved is a 9 percent decrease in the total time it takes to make the train trip, provided the trains leave and arrive on schedule. Will they? Snyder claims the improvements will result in a “reliable passenger system.” In fact, despite the fact that Amtrak ridership is up by 44 percent since 2000, and that 2010 was a banner year with 30,000,000 people taking the train, reliability is not Amtrak’s strong suit, and neither is customer service. Over the last 12 months, according to Amtrak data, the on time performance for the Michigan services between Detroit and Chicago has been only 25.8 percent. Again according to data from Amtrak, there is one train that runs the Detroit to Chicago route that has an abysmal 4 percent on time performance record.

The United States obviously needs to spend on infrastructure and transportation. However, if this Detroit to Chicago “high speed rail” initiative is indicative of the results we can expect in exchange for the $11 billion dollars being allocated by the federal government and spent by state officials, taxpayers should be absolutely outraged. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=10850

16 Comments for “To Cut Just 30 Minutes Off 5.5 Hour Det-Chicago Train Trip, Michigan To Spend $336.5M Dollars”

  1. @Patrick

    You make a lot of great points, including the fact that Albany and New Haven have frequent train service. I would love to see Amtrak run more frequently, and expand capacity. The company can do that without Ann Arbor taxpayers spending money for trains. That the feds continually starve Amtrak is purely political, don’t you think? To me, it seems more important to press federal officials to fund Amtrak rather than for states or cities to do it. That way Amtrak will decide where to expand service, build their stations, etc…I suppose what I’ve heard those much better versed in this debate than I say repeatedly is that we already HAVE train service between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It’s called Amtrak.

  2. @A2 Politico.

    I am somewhat confused by your reasoning behind Ann Arborites not using intercity rail on Amtrak. The cities that you compare us to with the exceptions of Albany and New Haven are all vastly larger than AA. What Albany and New Haven have that we don’t have is access to nuermous trains a day. Albany gets hourly train service, as does New Haven. Right now for AA and other cities along the Wolverine line is capacity — we only get three trains a day. Those trains are stuffed to capcity — Amtrak routinely runs five coach cars instead of the three it traditionally did. Running a few more trains a day (which the capacity improvements of this grant will allow Amtrak to do) with improved equipment (already funded by an FRA program) will allow greater level of service and reliability. I would expect the usage of the Wolverine line to drastically increase as similar service improvement on other midwestern lines (Chicago Milwaukee, Chicago St. Lousis) and other lines (The California Captial Corridor, the San Joaquin service in the the Central Valley and the Cascades Service between Eugene, Portland and Seattle have shown.)

  3. @A2 Politico

    You also suggested that this grant is an election-year bribe. I’m always skeptical of officials, but I think that this conclusion is too cynical. First, 2011 is really a major election year. Second, the funding for this project was awarded through a competitive grant applicaiton procedure. If the money came from an earmark, I would be considerably more suspicious. But it didn’t. The monies were provided for early on in both the Recovery Act funds and the Fiscal YEar 2010 budget. The State of Michigan applied for both grants through a regularized process vetted by experts and that took several months to complete. The potential for undue influence exists, but overall, the process seems pretty close to the competitive and highly regarded TIGER program and not the way that highway monies were traditionally handed out in the US.

  4. @ A2 Politico

    You suggest that paying $1 million per mile is too high and add that one could construct new high speed rail tracks for that amount of money. Where did you get that estimate from? I don’t have precise figures, but I’ve been reading that true high-speed rail construction (e.g. 150 mph plus) costs any where from $25 million to $50 million a mile. The true costs of high-speed rail come not so much from the tracks, but from electrification, installing positive train control, and eliminating ground-level crossings. For example, the Keystone line in Eastern Pennsylvania is undergoing investment to raise its speed from 110 mph to 125 mph. TO do so, they have to remove three at-grade crossings. One crossing will be eliminated and two will be turned into overpasses. The total project will cost about $25 million. On the Detorit-Chicago line, there are several hundred legacy crossings. Most will have to be upgraded with warning gates to get the speed limit to 110 as proposed, and the grant will pay for it. It will take considerably more money to remove them or grade-separate them to allow for higher sppeds. like 125 mph or higher. Finally, compare the cost of about $3 million a mile to purchase and upgraded the rail line with a comparable cost for constructing (or even rebuilding) a lane-mile on US 23 or I-94 I’m pretty sure this project will come out ahead.

  5. @A2 Politico:

    There are a few issues raised here in your replies. I’ll address them in bite-sized comments to keep things clear. First, you are certainly correct that current reliability on the Wolverine line between Detroit and Chicago is somewhere between disgraceful and abysmal. I should also calirfy my comment about the improvements between Kalamazoo and Porter. My argument isn’t that those improvements fix all the delays, but rather that the source of delays aren’t caused on the section of the line. Most delays arise from 1. slow orders between Dearborn and Kalamazoo caused by the bad condition of the tracks that Nolfolk-Southern maintained poorly, 2 time spent waiting on sidings for freight and other passenger trains to pass.The purchase of the 135 miles between Dearborn and money spent to improve the condition of the tracks will fix all of problem #1. The federal and state money will also construct additional sidings and double track between Ypsi and Dearborn to help alleviate problem 2 on the 135 miles between Dearborn and Kalamazoo. Finally other projects ongoing will eliminate problem #2 in the most congested areas of the track in West Dretoir, t Englewood Illinois, and Porter Indiana. Combined these improvements will drastically improve ontime performance. The point is that if only 97 miles of a 300 mile route are well maintained, the route as a whole will fail to perform reliably. This grant money vastly improves that other 200 miles of the route and will make it run more like the 97 miles between Porter and Kalamazoo.

  6. @Brandon, to achieve true high speeds those tracks will not need to be “improved,” they will need to be replaced. I’m not of the opinion that spending money on improvements for one kind of service and calling it another kind of service is what taxpayers deserve. It’s a way to get people to buy into the use of the money for trains, when they might otherwise question the expenditure in light of other infrastructure needs of the city, state and nation.

  7. I should note in my last comment that the service between St. Louis and Chicago will top out at 110 mph, similar to plans for the Wolverine line. Also, many of the improvements for this section of the line between Dearborn and Ann Arbor have been implemented between Kalamazoo and and Porter Indiana, resulting in 95 mph top speeds (about to go to 110 mph), smoother ride, better safety much more reliable performance and an increase in the volume at the K-zoo station from about 80,000 to 110,00 riders.
    Finally, the Michigan improvements are also concurrent with investments in the line in Indiana and Illinois designed to raise speeds and (more importantly) drastically reduce delays caused by conflicts with Chicago commuter rail and freight trains by building a flyover a Englewood Illinois and improving signalling and constructing more track near the Porter junction in Indiana.. The three state transportation departments have been working together closely on these plans for years now. This isn’t scatter-shot investment, there’s a comprehensive plan here.

    • @Patrick, the on time records kept for the trains that run from Detroit to Chicago range from 4 percent to 60 percent, but the average for the entire route is abysmal. So that leaves me wondering what, exactly, the improvements you refer to accomplished in practice, as opposed to in theory. The performance is not more reliable. The trains rarely leave and arrive on time, which is how “reliability” in the train biz is defined. That the tracks were ever ripped up (four tracks used to run through Ann Arbor) was a travesty. The purchase of the 135 miles of track at a cost of about $1 million per mile is close to the price necessary to lay NEW high-speed track.

      We need a reliable, efficient, high-speed passenger rail system. We don’t disagree about that. However, I am concerned that throwing 1/3 of a billion dollars around to shave off 30 minutes (maybe), is not an investment. It’s an election year bribe.

  8. Brandon is on target with his commentary; though I can add a few things to the discussion in support of his statements. First, this “sleepy little Midwestern town” as Ms. Lesko refers to in her article has the busiest train station in the state of Michigan with about 145,000 passengers boarding or disembarking from trains every year. By raising the speed and reliaiblity of service, these numbers could easily double. Illinois invested in increasing the frequncies on its Amtrak Line between St. Louis and Chicago and saw ridership double from 275,000 a year in 2004 to about 500,000 this year. Similar investments on that line (track and singnaling improvements) have been built on time and come in under budget, and the most of the line will be ready for high-speed service by 2013, from which planners predict the ridership will double again. Finally, similar levels of investment in the Keystone corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia tripled ridership from 400,000 in 1996 to more than 1.3 million today. And these improvements significantly cut the subsidy per passenger mile. This is a good investment.

    • @Patrick, 145,000 passengers is the busiest train station on the Detriot-Chicago line. Yes. However, 145,000 passengers is a drop in the bucket of Amtrak’s ridership as compared to ridership produced by other similarly sized towns where population DENSITY is higher. We have highways. What Michigan does not have is population density. Ann Arbor is not in Amtrak’s list of top 25 stations in terms of boardings. It’s not in the top 50, or even the top 100. The 145,000 number of riders is high for this route, but not in general, not even close. Here are the top 20 busiest stations. People don’t commute between Detroit and Chicago. They don’t commute between Ann Arbor and Kalamzoo. Where there is density and high ridership, there are commuters. Spending this money will not create train commuters, will it?

      New York, NY 4,264,625
      Washington, DC 1,880,852
      Philadelphia, PA 1,868,800
      Chicago, IL 1,226,962
      Los Angeles, CA 690,068
      Boston, MA 476,614
      Sacramento, CA 472,450
      Baltimore, MD 485,279
      San Diego, CA 432,248
      Albany-Rensselaer, NY 13 366,946
      Wilmington, DE 387,328
      New Haven, CT 327,178
      Newark, NJ 605,527
      Seattle, WA 307,290
      Irvine, CA 281,576
      Baltimore-Washington Intl. Airport, MD 17 291,606
      Providence, RI 242,088
      Portland, OR 240,918
      Milwaukee, WI 238,850
      Emeryville, CA 254,039

  9. And I should add, just to be clear, the items being purchased or constructed in this capital outlay support travel at higher speeds than 110 mph. But to go faster, many other additional things, which require more money, have to be done, such as the elimination of some grade crossings, and perhaps electrification.

  10. @A2politico,

    That’s why I said it’ll be a step towards high speed rail. This will not be high speed rail as it is commonly understood. But taking ownership of the tracks is a big step. Installing new control systems and eliminating bottlenecks with freight movements is a big step. The difference between 110 mph and 135 mph is not large.

    If you want true high speed travel, you’ll have to pay much more for it. There is no free lunch. This country has not invested in rail. Much of the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor, the busiest and fastest part of the national system, dates from the PRR years — in other words, 100 years ago! Some of the catenary infrastructure is that old!

    You ask if we are getting the best value? Compared to what? This is still rail on the cheap. If you believe that having multiple viable transportation systems is a social benefit, if you believe making a stronger transportation link between two of the midwest’s largest cities, if you believe that rail travel is superior in its emission of greenhouse gases per VMT, then yes.

  11. @Brandon, explain to me how this is a step toward high speed rail. The maximum speed of 110 will be achieved on 75 percent of the track. Maybe. HSR is defined in the US as 125 mph or more. In Europe HSR is 150-200 mph. Second of all, I agree with you that we need various modes of alternative transportation. So, I suppose my issue is that for what amounts to a boatload of money, the RESULTS are not what the public should expect. Yes, it’s great to reduce travel time. Yes, on the Detroit-Chicago line Norfolk-Southern owning the tracks was a disaster. However, I wrote this to ask the question of whether a 30 minute improvement was worth 1/3 of a BILLION dollars. Are we getting the best value for our dollar, as Rick Snyder might say?

  12. I agree with Brandon. Owning a car is very expensive and
    it’s clear people are using the train more and more.
    Having a good line is important, there can be
    be many more runs of trains scheduled in the future
    and that could be very costs saving.
    A mile of highway road is extremely expensive also.
    I like the push for a good rail system.

  13. I don’t agree with you. Getting a 9 percent reduction in travel time on the Detroit/Chicago Amtrak line is significant. And the improvements on the line will reduce delays due to freight movements. Just reducing the likelihood of delays is very, very significant.

    Despite lackluster service, this line is busy. Imagine what it’d be like as a faster, more reliable line.

    We can’t rely only on two modes of transit – autos and airplanes. Both are heavily subsidized by the federal government. The highways receive federal funding beyond the amount captured in gas taxes. And the airports and air traffic control system was heavily built and subsidized with taxpayer money.

    This won’t be true high speed rail. But it’s certainly a step to it.

  14. The service problems are not the fault of Amtrak, but the rail
    lines they lease from the railroad. Look at Charlotte, NC,
    where commuter rail has been a boon for the community.

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