Getting from western Michigan to the suburbs of Chicago just got a bit quicker [PDF] thanks to the inauguration of an Amtrak line covering the 97 miles from Kalamazoo to Porter, Indiana. This stretch is the longest segment of track owned by Amtrak outside of the Northeast Corridor. The Amtrak Wolverine Service — with three daily round-trips between Pontiac and Chicago via Detroit and Ann Arbor — and the Amtrak Blue Water — daily between Port Huron and Chicago via East Lansing — both use this corridor, the main rail connection to Chicago from Detroit. The Detroit–Chicago corridor has been designated by the Federal Railroad Administration as a high-speed rail corridor.
With the opening of this service, trains will now be able to hit speeds of 110 mph on this segment. Amtrak began raising speeds on this corridor from 79 mph in 2001 to 90 mph in 2002 and to 95 mph in 2005. Sustained operations at 110 mph will shave 10 minutes from the 95 mph schedules and about 20 minutes from the 2001 schedules. Amtrak shares rail lines with freight carriers east of Chicago. This can lead to significant delays near Gary, Indiana as Amtrak trains wait for the tracks to clear. None of the high-speed rail proposals put forward to date address this specific issue.
So far, it appears that increasing speed leads to increasing ridership. During fiscal year 2011, the Wolverine carried 503,290 passengers, a 4.9% increase from FY 2010’s total of 479,782 passengers, the highest ridership totals ever on Amtrak services in Michigan. The service had a total revenue of $18.8 million in FY 2011, a 11% increase from FY 2010’s $16.9 million total revenue.
The new, higher-speed corridor was funded $150 million from the federal government and utilizes an Incremental Train Control System installed developed by General Electric Transportation. The system, installed in the engine of the line’s trains, continually monitors the condition of signals, switches and crossings ensuring safe, high-speed travel.
But some are asking if 110 miles per hour is fast enough and why is high-speed faster in the Northeast than it is in the Midwest? The U.S. Department of Transportation defines high-speed rail as “reasonably expected to reach sustained speeds of more than 125 mph” although the Federal Railroad Administration uses a definition of above 110 mph. Currently Amtrak trains in the Northeast can travel at speeds of up to 150 mph and Amtrak is studying the feasibility of raising the top speed to twice the speed of the new Michigan line — 220 mph.
For the majority of national high-speed railways (Japan, China, Taiwan, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, UK) maximum commercial speed is about 186 mph. Maglev trains, which use magnetic levitation to suspend, guide and propel vehicles from magnets rather than using mechanical methods, have significantly higher speeds and average about 250 mph on national lines.