train station photo

Rail Is on the Rise in State and Nation

December 15, 2023 |

Photo: We can dream ... passenger rail in many nations is fast, smooth and affordable. Italian train station pictured. (Legendary Orient Express train at right.)

The year 1888: the Washington Monument opens to the public, the National Geographic Society is founded, the adding machine is patented … and the railroad bridge over the Manistee River near Manton, Michigan, is built. Like the other icons listed above, the steel bridge still functions today, but the bridge’s days are numbered because the Federal Railroad Administration (at $20.4 million) and Michigan (at $13 million) combined funds to replace the steel structure.

Even more exciting, rail expansions, upgrades, and replacing way-too-old rail infrastructure is happening all over Michigan and the United States. When Michigan’s north-south passenger rail comes on line, it will be plugging into a national rail network that’s taking important steps to become worthy of 21st century travel.

Near term, the new Manistee River bridge will help northern Michigan companies by expanding rail freight efficiencies and possibilities because the modern bridge will be able to carry significantly more weight—286,000-pound-capacity railcars—than its 135-year-old predecessor. Longer term, the new bridge will help passenger rail too, because passenger trains will run on the same tracks as freight, and every improvement to the rails today makes for faster, smoother rides for passengers when that day arrives.

Not far from Manton, new tracks have been laid in Traverse City and near Cadillac, to serve freight today and passengers in the future.

Elsewhere in Michigan, freight track improvements around Ann Arbor will also eventually provide smoother, faster passenger rail. In 2022 Michigan announced $21 million in federal funds for track improvements that are part of the line that could eventually carry the north-south passenger rail. That project includes installing 40 miles of new rail and replacing or repairing 11 bridges and culverts between Ann Arbor and Owosso.

The federal grant came when state lawmakers, led by Traverse City’s former senator Wayne Schmidt, had been setting aside state rail funds to invest in track upgrades in the Traverse City area to improve the speeds and efficiencies of freight and passenger trains.

Amtrak’s line that runs from Detroit to Chicago is already being upgraded to 110 mph.

Meanwhile Amtrak’s line that runs from Detroit to Chicago is already being upgraded to 110 mph, and conversations are underway with Canada to connect via tunnel to the Canadian rail that connects to Toronto, which would potentially use the Michigan Central Station as a train station once again.

Rail projects tend to get announced piecemeal, and it’s easy to lose sight of their collective impact over time. But in recent years, we’ve seen the feds and the state invest 10s of millions of dollars in strategic improvements in Michigan’s rail network. "Since 2018, the State of Michigan has won seven federal grants, totaling over $85 million to support its railways, six [of the grants] will support intercity passenger rail,” reported Zach Kolodin, Chief Infrastructure Officer for the State of Michigan Infrastructure Office.

And federal and state funds will be paying for the next study required by regulatory agencies for the north-south passenger rail. The study begins in coming months, so stay tuned for updates and public meetings where you can share input.

Looking nationally, for the East Coast, President Biden announced $16 billion in rail investment for the northeast corridor. “Under President Biden, we are finally delivering the generational investments in passenger rail that Americans have wanted for years, including modernizing the busiest rail corridor in the country,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

On the West Coast, the nation’s first 220-mph train system is already under construction. Running from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with stops it will make the 400-mile trip in three hours. Further north, plans are in place for high-speed rail to connect Vancouver, British Columbia, with Portland, Oregon. In early December 2023, federal agencies announced $3 billion for a Las Vegas to Los Angeles rail line and another $3 billion for the Los Angeles to San Francisco line.

In the nation’s middle, rail advocates are pushing to build out Chicago’s rail network, both within the city and regionally, to maintain Chicago’s role as a major national rail hub. As part of that, the Chicago Transit Authority recently received $2 billion to extend its iconic Red Line, and plans are underway to refurbish the massive Union Station, for an estimated $418 million.

And we haven’t even mentioned the September 6, 2023, opening of Florida’s Brightline rail extension from North Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport. Brightline is the first privately funded intercity passenger rail service built in America in more than 100 years.

So, yes, passenger rail excitement and investment are bubbling up all around the nation. And when Michigan’s north-south passenger rail gets up and running, it will be plugging into a network that offers faster, smoother, and more comfortable trains than Americans have ever had the chance to experience, unless they’ve traveled to another continent. Groundwork logo for story end

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is Groundwork Communications Director.

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