Legislative opposition to Michigan’s purchase of two sets of Talgo trains has been smoothed over and the state is now expected to proceed with the acquisition.
That acquisition was the subject of a summer-long probe in the Michigan Senate after some lawmakers raised concerned about a one-bid contract.
But the senators who expressed concern about that are now are willing to let the deal proceed, said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Pappageorge.
“It was appropriate to look into it because that didn’t look right,” Pappageorge said. “Digging into it, we came to the conclusion that Talgo was the right answer — not a perfect one but adequate.”
The Talgo trains that the Michigan Department of Transportation wants to buy were built in and for Amtrak service in Wisconsin.
But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker canceled the deal not long after he refused to accept federal runs to be used to develop service between Milwaukee and Madison. The Talgos have sat idle in Indiana while the Spanish company that built the Talgos and Wisconsin battle in court over money that the company claims Wisconsin still owes it.
Although some Talgo equipment built in Milwaukee later entered service in Oregon, the Talgos built for Wisconsin have yet to enter revenue service.
The Wisconsin Talgo trains have since been moved to Amtrak’s shops in Beech Grove, just outside of Indianapolis.
Pappageorge said Michigan needed to act quickly to acquire the Talgos because federal funds were available.
The $58 million for Michigan’s two train sets is to come from $200 million in federal funds for Amtrak improvements in Michigan and other states, mostly in the Midwest.
Michigan plans to assign the Talgo equipment to the Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) route where it will replace the current Amtrak rolling stock being used.
The Talgos are capable of top speeds of 110 miles an hour and, in a few years once the tracks used by Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains are rebuilt passengers will be able to travel up to two hours faster between Chicago and Detroit.
State officials also hope to improve Amtrak’s on-time service performance for the Wolverine Service, which ranged from 6.5 percent to 52.3 percent in July. Amtrak’s website reports on-time rates for Wolverine Service have ranged from 21.5 percent to 39 percent in the past 12 months.
Patronage of the Wolverine Service route has steadily has been building back toward a 20-year peak of nearly 504,000 passengers in 2010.
The Talgo equipment is expected to serve during a transition period. Eventually, Michigan Amtrak routes will be assigned “next-generation” passenger car and engine sets that are about to be built.
Michigan Department of Transportation railroad chief Tim Hoeffner said the state will own the cars.
Hoeffner said the Talgo purchase is pending an evaluation of the equipment’s suitability for Michigan’s needs. That inspection combined with the Senate investigation has meant that the Talgo equipment won’t be in service by October as originally proposed, he said.
The Talgo equipment will replace 30- to 40-year-old Amtrak cars on two of the three daily Chicago-Detroit roundtrips.
“The difference between them is like the difference between the car I learned to drive in the 1970s and the cars my kids learn to drive now,” Hoeffner said. The Talgos are similar to sleek, modern trains that run in Europe and Asia.
The Horizon coaches now used lack modern amenities and are deteriorating because Amtrak has no budget to overhaul them, according to MDOT. They have institutional decor, lack carpeting, contain harsh lighting and lack hot water in restrooms, the department says.
The Michigan Senate investigation also was triggered by a challenge from Chicago-based Corridor Capital, which claimed the process seemed to favor Talgo. The state’s bid specifications were so narrow only one company could meet them, Corridor Capital said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek, a train buff and volunteer adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on rail issues also raised questions about whether Talgo’s equipment can meet Michigan’s needs — a criticism Corridor Capital continues to press.
“They didn’t meet the minimum requirements,” said Lansing public relations specialist John Truscott, who represents Corridor Capital. “If they did qualify, this would have been an easy decision. We (still) feel it would be just as easy for MDOT to do the right thing and open this back up (for rebidding).”
But Pappageorge said members of the Senate’s Transportation and Appropriations committees found the bid process was handled properly. They also concluded Talgo’s equipment is adequate, based on hours of testimony about train car specifications, he said.
Corridor Capital didn’t help its case when its equipment wasn’t ready to enter service. Hoeffner said Corridor Capital sought a state contract under which it would take over the entire state rail service, not just supply rail cars. It has reached a similar deal with Indiana to operate the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State.
Michigan transportation analysts believe an “incremental approach” is more prudent. Hoeffner said the goal is to continue building ridership on the Chicago-Detroit route, the busiest of Michigan’s three intercity rail passenger corridors, through faster service and nicer cars.
The state also funds Amtrak’s Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water and the Chicago-Grand Rapids Pere Marquette.
“All customers want to know is: When do I leave, when do I arrive and is it convenient?” Hoeffner said.
The trip now takes about 6.5 hours, but Hoeffner said that MDOT’s goal is to cut the travel time to four hours, which is about the same amount of time needed to drive the route between the two cities.
The state has purchased the tracks used for much of the Wolverine Service route within Michigan and has launched a track rebuilding program that should be completed in late 2017 or early 2018.