Improvements to Wolverine Line Travel Times

Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) are gearing up for track improvements along the former Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) route used by Amtrak Wolverine Service and Blue Water trains from Kalamazoo to Central and Eastern Michigan. Amtrak has responsibility for this infrastructure, effective Feb. 16.

As announced in December 2012, MDOT used a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to purchase of 135 miles of NS railroad for $140 million. The line is directly connected to the Amtrak-owned Michigan District, which runs 97 miles from Kalamazoo to Porter, Ind. The result is nearly 80 percent of the route between Detroit and Chicago is publically owned and will be maintained for passenger trains at higher speeds.

The goal is to expand the 110 mph top speeds for Amtrak trains from the current 80 miles, starting eastward with the 22-mile segment between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. Travel times will be reduced as more improvements are made. Last year, Amtrak shaved about 20 minutes from the 2001 schedules on the Amtrak-owned segment of the corridor and the plan is to further reduce the travel time between Detroit and Chicago to about five hours.

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. The FRA also awarded $196.5 million to MDOT for major track and signal improvements on this corridor, to be performed by Amtrak. NS will also transfer rail traffic control (train dispatching) to Amtrak in phases during the next three years.

“Amtrak looks forward to working with the FRA, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to improve this corridor and better connect these vital cities in the Midwest with travel times far better than driving, more comfortable and productive than flying and with a smaller carbon footprint than either of those modes,” said Joe Boardman, Amtrak President and CEO.

Passengers riding Amtrak trains in the higher-speed segment in Michigan and Indiana were treated to complimentary cake and beverages on Feb. 15 to celebrate the first anniversary of 110 mph (177 kph) service.

“Rail is an important component of Michigan's economic comeback,” said State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. “Investments in intercity passenger rail will reduce travel times, improve service and set the stage for increases in capacity along the Wolverine Service. The first anniversary of 110 mph train travel in Michigan is the perfect time to give a shout-out of appreciation to passengers who are riding Amtrak trains in record numbers.”

Last month, MDOT announced nearly 800,000 passengers traveled on Amtrak trains in Michigan in 2012, setting a highest-ever ridership record for the state's three routes, including the three-times-a-day Wolverine Service (Pontiac/Detroit-Chicago), once daily Blue Water(Port Huron-East Lansing-Chicago), and once daily Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids-Chicago).

The line also will continue to provide freight rail services to major Michigan companies, with NS paying the state to access the track and being asked to participate in freight-related improvements in the years to come.

“The improvements being made to the line will be performed in a way that protects the freight rail potential throughout Michigan,” said Tim Hoeffner, MDOT’s rail chief. “MDOT will continue to work with NS and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to grow the freight business along with intercity passenger rail travel.”