Intercity Transit & 2017

As 2017 draws to a close it is time I confess that this is not the post I expected to be writing a year ago. Following the triumph of America's deep self-loathing, which was the defining moment of 2016, I anticipated a rapid collapse of our duct-tape-and-bailing-wire transportation systems. I was wrong. 2017 turned out to be a year of victories despite the strong political headwinds.

note: Amtrak's fiscal year is from September - September; any ridership numbers reflect the fiscal year.



  • I-75/US-127 through-way service established. The creation of this through-way service closes a major gap in Michigan's inter-city network. This service, provided by Indian Trails and integrated with the Amtrak ticketing system provides connectivity to nine communities - Alma, Mt. Pleasant, Clare, Houghton Lake, Greyling, Gayload, Petoskey, St. Ignace, and Sault Sainte Marie - with the Amtrak Wolverine 350 & 355. Northbound passengers will transfer from Amtrak to Indian Trails at Battle Creek while southbound passengers will transfer from Indian Trails to Amtrak in Kalamazoo. The Indian Trails route services both Central Michigan University and Alma College.

  • MDOT begins work on A2TC feasibility study The feasibility study for the restoration of passenger rail service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City is funded! MDOT will select a partner to perform the study which is expected to take ~9 months. Passenger rail service along the proposed A2TC route would connect eight communities: Petosky, Cadical, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Owosso, Durand, Howell, and Ann Arbor. There seems to be a general sense of optimism around this project as the route is principally state-owned and operated by a cooperative entity [Great Lakes Central railroad]. Both Durand and Ann Arbor also have existing in-service passenger rail stations.


  • Lake Express ferry service adds Wi-Fi and improved food service. The ferry service which connects two communities - Muskegon and Milwaukee - in 2.5 hours has improved its amenities and, most importantly, added Wi-Fi service. Previously network connectivity was a challenge for those who wished to conduct business while on the ferry.

aside: Utilizing the ferry via public transportation is a topic I've written about previously - Grand Rapids to Milwaukee By Transit

  • The Siemens SC-44 Charger locomotives arrive. For over two decades all Michigan passenger rails service has been powered by Amtrak's P42 locomotives which have presented increasing performance and reliability issues. In March of 2014 Michigan's DOT in conjunction with the DOTs of four other states [California, Illinois, Missouri, and Washington] placed an order for 32 Siemens SC-44 Charger locomotives; these locomotives, owned by the coalition of DOTs, will be leased by Amtrak to provide the passenger rail service in the corresponding states. The SC-44 Charger is the first locomotive in a very long time to operate in the United States which was designed from the ground up for passenger service; rather than being a locomotive design adapted from freight service. While the passenger will directly experience the benefits of quieter operation, improved acceleration, and the reliability of modern technology there are back-end benefits as well: a significant improvement in fuel efficiency, lower cost of operation, and a truly profound reduction in emissions.


aside: In November 2017 95.2% of Metra's 16,458 trains arrived on schedule.




  • Amtrak announced its partnership with Lyft. Riders can now request Lyft rides from within the Amtrak mobile application and new Lyft users using the promotional code "AMTRYLYFT" will received $5 off each of their first four rides. An interesting data point is that 25% of all Lyft rides within Chicago are to or from a transit station.


  • The first new Loop station in 20 years opened, replacing two aging elevated stations, connecting Millennium Park to the CTA's Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, and Purple lines. Yes, Independence Day was the top grossing movie and Celine Dion was topping the charts with "Because You Loved Me" the last time Chicago built or replaced a station on the elevated railway; The legacy stations are now closed and will be demolished. The new station provides riders with a covered 425 foot platform - the longest covered elevated platform in the entire CTA system. The platforms are at minimum 2ft 6in wider than either of the previous station platforms; wider platforms facility passenger flow at peak utilization and are a vitally important design aspect for users with mobility challenges.


  • The Detroit Connector began providing seven day a week service; as well as opening to the general public. The Detroit Connector is an inter-city bus service funded by the University Of Michigan and operated by Indian Trails. While the service has been in operation since 2014 it has previously not been available to the general public and only operated on a limited weekday schedule. This service connects three stops: the Central Campus Transit Center (CCTC) in Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Detroit Center, and University of Michigan-Dearborn. A schedule of service is available here.

  • Transit Windsor to allow bikes aboard tunnel bus. Slowly we are stitching the network of international inter-city transportation back together . . . very slowly. These connections were severely disrupted by provisions of the United States' 2001 Patriot Act. The border crossing buses of the Transit Windsor buses now sport bike racks which will carry passenger's bikes through the Windsor tunnel connecting Windsor and Detroit.


  • The first Siemens Charger locomotive (see April, above) enters Michigan Revenue service on 2017-11-10 pulling the Pere Marquette into Grand Rapids. Deployment of the remaining locomotives on other Michigan corridors is still a work-in-process.

  • After a long drama only the most ardent transit nerd could follow the procurement of new passenger cars has been finalized. The financing for new passenger cars is linked to the same source as the new locomotives (see April, above) but the acquisition has been hampered by "Buy American" requirements and America's obsolete safety specifications. As of November all stakeholders have agreed to have the contract fulfilled by Siemens with single-level cars; the original specification called for bi-level cars. Siemens has both an existing, tested, design that satisfies America's obsolete standards and an American production facility. The first of the 88 new passenger cars should begin arriving in 2020.


  • Twice daily inter-city bus service connecting the Port Huron Amtrak Station and Detriot. The new "Hoosier Ride" is integrated with the Amtrak ticketing system as a though-way service connecting with Amtrak trains #355 and #350. The service connects six communities: Detroit, Roseville, Mt. Clemens, New Baltimore, Marysville, and Port Huron. This service is a two year "demonstration" contract between MDOT and Miller Transportation; service funding to fill this important transportation gap is being provided by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and a matching by Miller Transportation.

  • In another small step in restoring international inter-city service Canadian lawmakers have ratified procedures for customs preclearance of international travelers. These procedures will benefit both air, and potential rail, passengers. Both nations - the United States and Canada - now have a legal framework for preclearance.

Chicago Land

  • Metra service operated a 2017 capital improvement budget of $216M. Improvements included all the usual suspects of stations (29 of Metra's 241 states saw renovations), track work, and the on-going installation of PTC. Most notable for riders are the Metra's several major bridge projects - including the replacement of a single-track bridge over the Fox river on the Milwaukee West Line with a double-track bridge; the additional track will alleviate delays related to train congestion.

  • The CTA began its Red & Purple line modernization project. This ambitious project will attack both the backlog of maintenance issues besetting the two lines - which are at the end of their useful lifes - and implement some dramatic improvements including an EL-over-EL flyover of the two lines. To help fund this work Chicago has passed a tax on parasitic ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft; this is a tax every city in America should implement immediately.


After years of delays and suspensions of service due to necessary track work and other infrastructure upgrades Michigan's passenger rail network is back to punching at its full weight: carrying 738,837 passengers, which is an 8% increase over the previous year. Amtrak also closed out the year with 6 of the 10 routes having on-time performance of 90% or greater, and 2 of the remaining 4 in the 80-90% range. Over the course of the year some of the routes had months which reached 100% on-time.

While not included in the 2017 fiscal year Amtrak has reported that November 2017 was an all-time record breaking month for ridership network wide.


In April U.S Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) announced we was endorsing the BRACE Act (Building Rail Access for Customers and the Economy Act). This legislation would make permanent a tax credit for track maintenance by regional and short-line railroads. Michigan is home to 21 short line railroads which operate 79.9% of the 3,582 miles of track in the state. These railroads are critical to local industry, especially in rural regions of the state. Support of these railroads also facilities right-of-way preservation for future inter-city service. Unfortunately the BRACE Act has failed to move forward, leaving the tax credit in an expired status [it expired in December, 2016].

Maybe next year.

Looking forward to 2018

The upcoming 2018 should be a great year for passengers. Numerous rail projects are wrapping up, finally ready to deliver on their promises, and the momentum for improved inter-city bus service feels significant.

  • SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) will begin a limited stop bus service connecting downtown Detroit to the the Detroit Metro airport in January. The new limited stop service replaces the previously "ReFleX" branded service with additional frequency and routes. There are a three new limited stop routes:

    • Along Gratiot Avenue the "FAST Gratiot" service links inter-city Amtrak Service, the People Mover, the Q-Line, on a 19 stop service extending out to Chesterfield.
    • Stops on the "FAST Michigan" route tie together both Metro Detroit Airport terminals [North & MacNamara], Amtrak inter-city rail at both the Dearborn Transit Center and New Center (Detroit), the Q-Line streetcar, the People Mover, and the Rosa Parks Transit Center. Seven of the seventeen stops on the new "FAST Michigan" service feature bike-share stations.
    • "FAST Woodward" similarly links the transportation assets of downtown Detroit with the State Fair Transit Center [aka "the fairgrounds"], the Troy Civic Center and the Pontiac Pheonix Center.
  • Chicago-St. Louis high-speed rail project nears completion. The seven year project to upgrade the inter-city rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis will conclude in 2018. Speed increases will be phased in with 90mp/h service in 2018 and 110mp/h service in 2019. At its conclusion the project should reduce the 284 mile route from 5.5 hours to 4.5 hours. This corridor connects eight communities: Chicago, Dwight, Pontiac, Carlinville, Alton, and St. Louis with five daily departures in each direction.

  • The Amtrak Wolverine east of Kalamazoo to Dearborn will see schedule improvements. Years of track work are concluded, dispatch control has been transferred to Amtrak [from Norfolk Southern], and PTC is installed. Much of the track is now ready for 110mp/h service; completing the higher-speed corridor from Porter, IN to Dearborn, MI. The superior performance of the Siemens Charger locomotives will be like the gravy on top of all this work.

All of the above optimism is, of course, caged by the knowledge that our dumpster fire of a federal government could destroy everything that has been accomplished, and make decades of investment worthless, with the stroke of a pen. Unless advocates continue to fight that fight every year, over and over again, it is likely that they will do just that.

Farewell, 2017.