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Published: Thursday, 7/21/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Michigan to buy rail line for high-speed Amtrak

U.S. to pay for upgrade on 135-mile segment

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Amtrak's route between Detroit and Chicago is among those the Obama Administration has chosen for high-speed rail development, but right now, 135 miles of the line east of Kalamazoo, Mich., is anything but fast.

The tracks' owner, Norfolk Southern, has determined that freight traffic along the line no longer justifies maintaining it for the ordinary top speed on many Amtrak routes, 79 mph. Beginning last year, after a maintenance agreement with Amtrak expired, the freight railroad has on several occasions reduced the line's speed limits to the point where most of the track is restricted to 60 mph or slower, with some stretches 25 mph.

The slowdown has caused Amtrak's three daily Wolverine Service round trips between Pontiac, Mich., and Chicago, via Detroit and Ann Arbor, to run about 90 minutes late since June 1, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The tedious track between Kalamzoo and Dearborn, Mich., is a sharp contrast with the railroad for about 100 miles west of Kalamazoo, which Amtrak has owned for decades and which has received state and federally funded improvements that have allowed train speed to increase to 95 mph, with 110 set for later this year.

Last year, the Michigan Department of Transportation was chosen for $150 million in federal funds to buy the track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo from Norfolk Southern.

In May, the state was allocated $196 million more for track improvements after Florida Gov. Rick Scott turned down high-speed rail funds.

But state, Amtrak, and railroad officials said this week that terms of MDOT's track purchase remain to be worked out. In the meantime, track conditions continue to decay.

Most Amtrak routes operating on tracks owned by freight railroads have a top speed of 79 mph, a limit set by federal regulations that require enhanced signal systems for 80 mph or faster.

But many routes also are main lines for their owners, so the cost to maintain the track for 79-mph passenger trains is not a huge increase over 50 or 60 mph that freight trains run.

Conrail and then Norfolk Southern have reduced freight operations on the line through Ann Arbor to the bare minimum needed to serve local customers. Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said that customer base has shrunk dramatically over time.

"Over the past several years, there has been a very steep decline in the amount of freight customers, primarily because of the auto industry," Mr. Husband said. "We've all been working to come up with some kind of a solution to meet everyone's needs. But further investment is not justified from a freight standpoint."

Amtrak's Mr. Magliari and Janet Foran, an MDOT spokesman, said Norfolk Southern surprised no one with its decision to reduce maintenance on the Dearborn-Kalamazoo track. MDOT's application for the $196 million in track-improvement money noted that NS saw no need to run its trains faster than 25 mph.

"We knew this was an issue," Mr. Magliari said. "NS was clear that this was a possibility. The timing of the federal grant has been overtaken by the temporary speed restrictions. This wasn't a sudden thing."

"We're making good progress, but the negotiations are complex," Ms. Foran said. "We have a verbal commitment [on interim repairs] but no formal contract."

Amtrak's draft interim timetable reflects the slower speeds, but Mr. Magliari said the new schedules can't be posted until Norfolk Southern and Canadian National Rail, which owns a short section of the route in Battle Creek, approve them.

The Ann Arbor station is an alternative for Toledo-area travelers to board Chicago-bound trains at times of day not available on the two daily Amtrak round-trips that stop in Toledo.

While not as fast as driving or flying -- the Detroit-Chicago schedules take between 5 1/2 and six hours to complete when running on time -- the Wolverine Service has had a reasonable on-time record, except during severe winter weather.

Train ridership in Michigan has been up during the current state fiscal year, which began in October.

Through June, total ridership on the three train routes in the state was up 13.8 percent, to 589,084 passengers, including a 40,648-passenger increase on the Detroit line.

"Absent an agreement [among Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, and MDOT], it's quite conceivable that there will be additional speed restrictions," Mr. Husband said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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