The Michigan Department of Transportation is looking into the prospect of routing Amtrak’s Pere Marquette via Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Chicago-Grand Rapids, Michigan, train, currently operates via Holland along the shore of Lake Michigan.
The study is being made at the request of Grand Rapids leaders who hope that going via Kalamazoo might reduce the travel time to Chicago.
MDOT and Amtrak are working to rebuild the track between Chicago and Detroit to allow speeds of up to 110 mph.
The track being upgraded is owned by Amtrak between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana, and by MDOT between Kalamazoo and Detroit.
MDOT Communications Manager Michael Frezell said his agency has discussed the idea of rerouting the Pere Marequette via Kalamazoo, but not in any sort of definitive way because “it isn’t a priority.”
The route via Kalamazoo is used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit (Pontiac) Wolverines and the Chicago-Port Huron Blue Water. Those trains, along with the Pere Marquette are funded by MDOT.
The Pere Marquette joins the Chicago-Detroit route at Porter with all of the Michigan trains using Norfolk Southern tracks between Porter and Chicago.
The current track work in Michigan is seeking to cut an hour off the travel time between Chicago and Detroit and to reduce the travel time between Chicago and Kalamazoo to less than two hours.
“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.”
Grand Rapids interests believe that connecting their city with the Chicago-Detroit corridor at Kalamazoo could stimulate greater greater mobility in the Grand Rapids area
However, MDOT’s Frezell said residents of such Southwest Michigan cities as Bangor, St. Joseph and Holland — all of which are served by the Pere Marquette — need rail service, too, and that is why the discussion about rerouting the Pere Marquette via Kalamazoo has not gone very far.
Rick Chapla, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place Inc., a Grand Rapids-based regional economic development firm, said that cutting the travel time and increasing service by rail between Grand Rapids and Chicago needs to be made a priority.
“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.”
That increased mobility also includes rail service linking Grand Rapids and Detroit.
This past February, a study of a cross-state rail passenger route estimated that it could serve 1.71 million travelers annually.
Although the upgrading of the Chicago-Detroit corridor has been linked with increased train frequencies, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger carrier has no plans to consider that until after the track rebuilding project is finished and work to alleviate rail congestion in Chicago is completed.
Increased rail service is also necessary because Southwestern Michigan has become an exurb for Chicago.
Bland of Southwest Michigan First said her organization has been hearing that an increasing number of people working in Chicago are living in areas such as Niles and Benton Harbor and ride Amtrak or the South Shore Line to and from work.
She said that enhancing rail passenger service will help solidify Southwest Michigan’s connection to Chicago.
“As the northern Indiana [rail] 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.