Investments in rail infrastructure eventually will expedite the time it takes for Amtrak passengers to commute from Kalamazoo to Chicago, potentially cutting travel times by a half hour.
Investments from Amtrak, the Michigan Department of Transportation and similar stakeholders in Indiana and Illinois to upgrade the track from Detroit to Chicago will allow trains to travel at up to 110 mph along the route and trim an hour off the commute between the two metros. For passengers in Kalamazoo, they could take Amtrak’s Wolverine line to Chicago in less than two hours once all the upgrades are complete.
Now stakeholders in Grand Rapids would like to explore options to connect Amtrak service to Kalamazoo to reduce travel time for riders compared to the current Pere Marquette line that goes through Holland and down the lakeshore.
According to MDOT Communications Manager Michael Frezell, local partners have discussed the idea of rerouting some of the Chicago-bound trains through Kalamazoo, but not in any sort of definitive way, saying “it isn’t a priority.”
Meanwhile, leaders in Kalamazoo have embraced the promise of increased passenger rail traffic to Chicago and Detroit, noting that it helps solve key congestion bottlenecks and more efficiently moves people throughout the region.
“As Chicago gets more expensive to park and more congested to get into, (rail service) provides a great option,” said Jill Bland, executive vice president with Southwest Michigan First, a Kalamazoo-based regional economic development firm. “And with wi-fi and cars being upgraded, it’s definitely something we use in our toolbox when talking with companies.”
As economic developers increasingly consider mobility strategies as a key catalyst for regional growth, they say Kalamazoo benefits from its location along the busy I-94 corridor, as well as from its more frequent passenger rail service compared to the larger city of Grand Rapids to the north.
Case in point: Amtrak offers just one train each way between Grand Rapids and Chicago, but runs four trains daily between Kalamazoo and Chicago’s Union Station.
Still, economic developers believe the track upgrades from Detroit to Chicago will spur opportunities for greater mobility in the Grand Rapids area, particularly if some trains bound for Chicago were to get rerouted through Kalamazoo.
MDOT's Frezell cited the need for Southwest Michigan communities like Bangor, St. Joseph and Holland — all stops on the current Grand Rapids-to-Chicago Pere Marquette route — to maintain service as a reason the talks haven’t progressed to bypass the lakeshore and go through Kalamazoo.
However, getting better and speedier service from Grand Rapids to Chicago needs to become a priority, according to Rick Chapla, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based regional economic development firm.
“Anything we can do to enhance connectivity between West Michigan, Chicago and the east side of the state is a positive,” Chapla said. “(A route from) Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo allows us the mobility to go east and west. It’s a critical link.”
Indeed, stakeholders in February outlined preliminary plans for a cross-state passenger rail system from Holland to Detroit that could serve up to 1.71 million riders annually, but they have yet to determine any final routes.
Economic developers and other sources contacted for this report conceded that the cross-state system is too far in the future to discuss in any specific detail at this time.
While rail plays a critical role in the region’s mobility strategy, Chapla said all forms of transportation need to be considered. He pointed to the decision by Southwest Airlines to fly planes from the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids to Chicago’s Midway International Airport — the low-cost airline’s largest hub — as another positive for the region in terms of greater mobility.
INVESTING IN TIMES OF STRUGGLE
While Amtrak continues to invest in higher-speed tracks and works to relieve congestion around the major train hub in Chicago, the passenger rail provider has no immediate plan to add frequencies out of Kalamazoo until the necessary infrastructure is in place, said Media Relations Manager Marc Magliari.
The investments also come at a difficult time for Amtrak, both financially and operationally.
For years, just a handful of profitable routes nationally have supported the numerous other unprofitable routes in the passenger rail system.
Also, according to Amtrak’s own data, ridership is declining. From fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2015, ridership on the Pere Marquette line and the Wolverine line dropped 5.1 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively.
Amtrak’s Magliari credits falling gas prices for the decline. However, he also contends that cheap oil doesn’t factor in rising tolls and parking costs in and around Chicago.
“Driving is our main competition in these markets even though the real costs aren’t reflected,” Magliari said.
One chronic challenge Amtrak faces is the lack of a long-term strategy on the state and federal level to invest in — or even maintain — the nation’s rail infrastructure.
“The problem that you have — and you’ve had it since 1976 and even before — is that there’s never been an investment program that would bring the infrastructure up where it belongs on existing capacity,” Amtrak’s President and CEO Joseph Boardman said in a 2014 interview with City Lab. “There isn’t even an understanding about the need to increase capacity in order to continue to increase the GDP in this nation.”
FORGING A BOND
While there’s no clear solution to the infrastructure problems that plague the U.S. passenger rail industry, economic developers remain confident that the service and a heightened emphasis on mobility will act as a catalyst for continued growth in the region.
Southwest Michigan First’s Bland told MiBiz that the organization hears more frequently that the region serves as an exurb for Chicago. More people these days work in Chicago and live in areas to the west of Kalamazoo, such as in Niles or Benton Harbor, she said. Many of them use rail service from Amtrak or Northwest Indiana Transportation District to commute to work on a daily basis.
Enhancing the rail service will only help solidify Southwest Michigan’s connection to Chicago, she said.
“As the northern Indiana passage becomes more reliable and the Chicago project gets completed, it’s fair to say we can market that we are a suburb of Chicago,” Bland said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story contained an instance of Michael Frezell being incorrectly referred to as an Amtrak employee. Frezell works for the Michigan Department of Transportation. The story has been updated to reflect that.