Kalamazoo train Amtrak station

Rail Momentum in the Mitten

June 26, 2023 |

As the Groundwork team continues to work toward the next planning phase for the Northern Michigan passenger rail project, the broader momentum around rail in Michigan is looking bright.

We find optimism in the $100 million for passenger rail in the state Senate’s proposed budget, additional freight rail grants, and groups like the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) making the case for more trains between Kalamazoo and Pontiac on the Chicago to Detroit line.

Update on the Northern Michigan Passenger Rail Project
Over the past few months, we and our partners at WexExpress have continued with getting the necessary pieces in place to kick off the next rail planning process, which is funded through a major U.S. Department of Transportation grant. The study will lay out the business plan for the proposed service and evaluate where track and safety upgrades are needed.

Groundwork and the Village of Kalkaska also recently asked the Federal Railroad Administration to include the northern Michigan passenger line in its new Corridor Identification (Corridor ID) program, which was created to help prioritize and guide new passenger rail ideas. All areas that want passenger rail should be in included in Corridor ID, so we’re excited to apply and we should hear back from the feds in September.

Elsewhere in Michigan
A northern Michigan line is not the only project we’re excited about. We are also excited to see improvements continue for the trains in southern Michigan and strong advocacy to expand services beyond Detroit, Chicago, and Grand Rapids.

As reported in a recent Bridge Michigan article, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has been looking for money to improve the service of trains and has “eight active federal grants open along the state’s three passenger rail routes, including projects to replace railroad ties and bridges, prevent trespassing on train tracks, even out curves to allow trains to run up to 110 mph in more places, and fix Detroit’s New Center station.”

In addition to those grants, Governor Whitmer’s administration announced on June 9th that $19 million will go toward the first round of recipients for the new 2023 Michigan Rail Enhancement Grant Program. Twelve freight rail projects were competitively selected and the funds will create strategic investments to improve rail safety, operational efficiency, accessibility, capacity, and rail condition. “Freight rail keeps our diverse economy rolling finished products across North America,” Governor Whitmer was quoted as saying. “From farmers depending on rail to haul their crops to market to auto manufacturers shipping, rail creates jobs and serves communities across our state.” Investment in freight can benefit passenger rail service, since some trains run on tracks owned and maintained by freight companies.

To keep the momentum strong, more advocacy is needed. We’re fortunate to have national and regional organizations like the High Speed Rail Alliance, Rail Passengers Association, and the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission regularly working with state and federal leaders to highlight the importance of quality train traveling options. At the state level, the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) is working to improve rail for Michigan residents and visitors.

Steve Vagnozzi is the government affairs coordinator for MARP and has been speaking with lawmakers in Lansing about what improvements are needed to make passenger experiences better and how to add new riders. MARP has recently been advocating for two additional daily trains between Kalamazoo and Detroit along Amtrak’s Wolverine line. Currently the route’s schedule caters to spending time in Chicago but adding the two additional boarding times opens up more possibilities for people to spend time in Detroit and creates a service that functions more like short distance commuter rail.

In the same Bridge article, Vagnozzi was quoted saying that “this is probably the most passenger rail friendly legislature we’ve had, as long as I remember.” That rail-friendly nature showed itself when the Michigan Senate’s budget proposal included $100 million to advance passenger rail development. While the proposed amount is exciting, we will find out soon how much ends up in the state’s final budget, which is expected to be voted on sometime this month. 

Why options matter
It’s great news anytime we see efforts to improve public transportation in Michigan.  States and regions that make it easy to choose a travel option other than cars are better at attracting people and businesses. Adding trains to existing lines, improving on-time performance, and expanding on-board services are ways to improve a person’s experience and freedom of mobility.

We continue to be overjoyed by the positive feedback we receive from Michiganders wanting to see a passenger train serving mid- and Northern Michigan, and we share their desire for better service in Michigan overall. We regularly hear from people asking how they can help advocate for better service. One easy way is to send a quick email to your elected officials letting them know that you want more trains and better train service. After all, your legislators are elected to represent you and to speak for the communities they serve.

Find your rep and send them a note!

Carolyn Ulstad

Carolyn Ulstad, Transportation Program Manager