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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

Michigan DOT continues negotiations with NS, FRA to advance Chicago-Detroit corridor


High speed rail (HSR) in Michigan continues to sit in the station as funding and ownership arrangements for the 281-mile Chicago-Detroit corridor gradually take shape in negotiations between the state, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns a key segment of the route.

The unfolding events will test the potential of public control of infrastructure for resolving obstacles that passenger rail services on privately owned tracks have long faced. In October 2010, the FRA awarded the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) $150 million in FY2010 transportation appropriations funds to purchase and restore a 135-mile segment of track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn.

The grant will require a $37.5 million match by non-federal partners. MDOT initially had requested $308 million for the corridor, which, when combined with a $77 million non-federal match, would have enabled the state to complete a new “ownership arrangement” with NS and bring the track up to snuff to handle 110 mph service.

Now, MDOT officials are rethinking ways to advance the project with fewer funds.

“Just about anything’s on the table,” says Al Johnson, supervisor of MDOT's Office of High Speed Rail.

In the meantime, MDOT is examining an option to purchase the Kalamazoo-Dearborn line from NS. The Class I previously attempted to sell the segment to short-line operator Watco Cos. Inc. in 2007 and currently operates a low freight volume on the line. Because of the long slide in freight traffic, NS can cope with 25 mph operation, Johnson says.

“By moving it into state ownership, we have an opportunity to maintain it at 110 [mph],” he says. The ownership arrangement could consist of the lease or outright acquisition of the NS track. Tacked on to the 98 miles of Amtrak-owned track running west from Kalamazoo into Indiana, that could place more than 80% of the entire corridor under public ownership.

Among the ongoing issues: how NS freights will share the track with up to 18 daily passenger movements when NS cedes control of dispatching.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari expects that “freight traffic will be respected [but] the dispatching will be passenger-centric.”

In the words of NS spokesman Rudy Husband, his railroad is “having discussions with both the state of Michigan and Amtrak about various alternatives to maintain and actually improve the passenger services.”

Aside from the doors that public control might open, the Michigan initiative is also distinctive for its cost effectiveness. It will cost about $704 million, of $2.5 million a mile, to upgrade the corridor to handle 110 mph operations, based on figures provided by MDOT. Once corridor improvements are complete, trains are expected to travel at average speeds of more than 70 mph and make the trip between Chicago and Detroit in three hours and 46 minutes.

For roughly comparable benefits, the Chicago-Cleveland HSR corridor — which the feds have not funded — would cost $7.6 million a mile, according to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act application for that corridor.

But would the Chicago-Detroit service be able to compete with air and automobile travel? Amtrak's Boston-New York Acela service covers 231 miles of track in three-and-a-half hours, at an average speed of 69 mph. Since Acela debuted 10 years ago, Amtrak’s share of the air-rail market in the Northeast Corridor has zoomed to 53 percent, according to a recent Amtrak press release.

Like many other states, MDOT is waiting for a grant agreement from the FRA, which has yet to write checks for any of the $2 billion-plus in FY2010 transportation appropriation funds. “We're just beginning to go through all the documentation that FRA requires,” Johnson says.

MDOT spokeswoman Janet Foran says the state’s HSR office is “very positive about our ability to work out all the details and get the project started.”

Foran says it was too soon to speculate as to whether the state would seek a chunk of the $2.4 billion in HSR funding that Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently rejected. As of late February, the state of Washington, as well as congressional representatives from New York and other northeastern states, California, Illinois and Minnesota, had said they’d take a share of the windfall.

C.B. Hall

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 3/3/2011