Should there be a Depot Town stop on the Amtrak line to Chicago?

    In a new article on AnnArbor.com intrepid curly-haired reporter Tom Perkins looks into the possibility that Ypsilanti may once again have a stop on the Amtrak line to Chicago. Here’s a clip:

    The question was posed by an audience member at the Michigan By Rail’s forum Dec. 9 at Washtenaw Community College: Why doesn’t the Amtrak train stop in Ypsilanti?

    After the meeting, Derrick James, Amtrak’s senior director of government affairs for the Midwest, approached Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber and told him the first step was for the city simply to ask.

    And so on Tuesday, the Ypsilanti City Council will consider a resolution asking Amtrak to explore adding a stop in Ypsilanti. The effort is separate from the planned Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail, which was originally scheduled to start running in October, but was delayed because of logistical and funding issues.

    The council’s resolution to approach Amtrak Midwest’s government affairs office would start the process to get an Ypsilanti stop, said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation would have to seek approval from Norfolk-Southern Railroad, the freight train company that owns the rail lines, and make sure the new stop wouldn’t interfere with freight traffic.

    Amtrak also would conduct an economic analysis to determine whether an Ypsilanti stop would be beneficial to its service. One of the concerns Magliari noted is the proximity of train stops in Ann Arbor and Dearborn.

    Depot Town “is very attractive, but you are also very close to other stations,” he said.

    Depot Town currently doesn’t have a place where a train can stop. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and MDOT are funding a 300-foot platform with a kiosk on the west side of the tracks, and the Ypsilanti Freighthouse is inching closer to opening at least part of its historic structure, which includes a bathroom and a cafe…

    As Tom noted, this has nothing to do with the Ann Arbor – Detroit commuter line, which, as I understand it, is still in the works. Speaking of which, if you haven’t yet, please call your elected officials and urge them to support the newly reintroduced rail bonding bill in the Michigan Senate. (We discussed it in depth at the end of the last legislative session here.) The bill, introduced by Rep. Wayne Schmidt, is now HB 4035, and, if passed, would allow us to match the $161 million in federal high speed rail funds that were awarded in late 2010. If we don’t come up with this match, we will lose the federal funds, which will be reassigned to other, more forward looking, states. I’d encourage you to write to everyone from our new Governor, Rick Snyder, and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation Mike Finney, who has, among other things, been charged with overseeing state-wide transportation initiatives, to your State Senator. This is particularly true if your State Senator is Republican Randy Richardville of Monroe, who represents the Pittsfield/Saline area. As the new Michigan Senate Majority Leader, it’s doubtful that this can happen without his support. (Ypsi’s new State Senator is Democrat Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor.)

    As for whether or not Ypsi should have a stop on the existing Chicago line, I’m not sure. Given how close the Ann Arbor station is, I don’t know that it makes sense. Yes, it would be cool if we could grab the train to Chicago from Depot Town, but I’m not sure it makes sense to have two stops so close to one another in this instance. (The Ann Arbor – Detroit commuter line we’ve been talking about, however, is a completely different animal, and it’s imperative that we get a stop on that one.) But, I’m glad to hear that there’s a movement afoot to have Amtrak look into the feasibility of it… Who knows, maybe they’ll suggest shutting down the Ann Arbor stop and moving it to Ypsi, which, in my opinion, would be cool. There are, however, those who don’t want a Depot Town stop, as it will, in their opinion, make it more difficult for the customers of existing businesses to find parking. If you’re interested, you can read an earlier discussion we’ve had on that issue here.

    If you’ve got the time, I’d suggest reading Tom’s article (linked to above) and the comments which follow it. They’re pretty entertaining. Here’s one of my favorites. It comes from my friend Murph, who, I think, did a damned fine job debunking some of the assertions made by the anti-rail contingent.

    MDOT has Michigan Amtrak ridership statistics online dating back to 1994 – Fiscal Year 2010 saw the highest Michigan Amtrak ridership in that period (even including the Toronto service in the numbers for the ’90s).

    Even above that record ridership, for 1st quarter FY 2011 (Oct-Dec 2010), Michigan Amtrak ridership was up 23% on the Detroit Chicago line; Port Huron-East Lansing-Chicago was up 30%, and Grand Rapids-Chicago up 8%. Revenue increases were even higher than ridership on all three routes.

    Michigan residents (like Americans across the country) are more and more looking to rail as effective and efficient transit.

    Meanwhile, the myth that fuel taxes pay for roads is an attractive one, but just that – a myth. As of 2009, non-”user fee” revenues were providing a nearly 50% subsidy of road construction and maintenance, up to $70B a year. This subsidy will only increase, as driving miles are dropping annually, and fuel taxes even faster.

    Transportation – both road and rail – are critical to our economy and quality of life: the subsidy of either is not per se a problem. Rather than obsessing over its existence, we need to make sure we’re looking at what we’re getting for it – and the statistics show that even a minimal and chronically underfunded rail system can attract riders away from driving. With gas prices headed up, added rail service deserves a serious look.

    update: Murph apparently can’t stop talking once he gets started on this subject. He just left the following comment here, on this site. I thought that I’d move it up here so that everyone else could see it.

    It’s important to avoid seeing this as an all-or-nothing deal – as you mention, there are a few different things in the works, including the A2-Detroit commuter line and the Midwest high-speed rail initiative, which primarily focuses on upgrading speed, frequency, and reliability on existing Amtrak routes.

    I can tell you with some certainty that a service that qualifies as “high-speed rail” won’t stop in Ypsi (or Dexter, Chelsea, Grass Lake) – as some commenters on AA.com note, a big piece of speedy service is a limited number of stops. If you have to slow down, stop, unload, load, start up again every ten miles, you’d never make good time, so providing good service means being selective about stops.

    The solution is having the right hierarchy of service – ultimately, in this case, you might get on the commuter in Ypsi and switch over to the Chicago line in Ann Arbor. A commuter would have lower top speeds, but more stops and more frequent service, good for shorter distance travel, while the high-speed line would have more limited stops and schedules, but cover distance more quickly. (Much like you use the freeway for some types of driving, surface streets for others, or in combination.)

    From the Michigan By Rail forum mentioned, I recall there being discussion that, depending on environmental clearances, SEMCOG may be able to build platforms at the Ypsi and Wayne/Westland (airport transfer) stops this spring/summer, even if the commuter service per se doesn’t begin yet – so could Amtrak just start offering a stop, once they’ve got a platform that meets Federal requirements? I’d think of this as an interim arrangement until the commuter service was able to serve Ypsi, and the service hierarchy above is able to take place.

    It seems a pretty reasonable arrangement, though, assuming Amtrak & MDOT were able to get sign-off from the freight companies (Amtrak has particular time windows it has to hit in the track schedules, especially once it gets into the congestion around the southern end of Lake Michigan). Not only could it provide an additional, incremental service option, but might also help start producing numbers for the commuter line. We can’t expect an Wolverine-schedule stop in Ypsi to bring anything close to the ridership that a commuter-schedule stop would, but it would give us more data to shove into the models.

    As far as the financial myths around transit, I strongly recommend Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transit, by Paul Weyrich and William Lind. The book includes ten papers written by these two conservative think-tankers, presenting the conservative case in support of transit, especially rail. (For a gentle introduction, check out The American Conservative magazine’s Center for Public Transportation.)

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      7 Comments

      1. Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        I don’t think that it is unreasonable to have a stop in both Ypsi and AA. When I lived in Buffalo, there were two stops in that one city, & in about the same distance from each other, simply because the suburbanites were freakish about the supposed crime (read: “people of other races”) in the downtown area. Not every train would stop at both locales, but most would.

        The difference between having a stop in Ypsi and not having one is the difference between my _never_ using the train and my using it quite often to get to Chicago.

      2. Sara
        Posted January 30, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        If not an Amtrak stop in Ypsi, how about a convenient AATA bus connection? Last I checked, it was difficult to take the bus from Ypsi and connect to the Ann Arbor station to catch the morning train to Chicago. And impossible on the weekend.

      3. Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        It’s important to avoid seeing this as an all-or-nothing deal – as you mention, there are a few different things in the works, including the A2-Detroit commuter line and the Midwest high-speed rail initiative, which primarily focuses on upgrading speed, frequency, and reliability on existing Amtrak routes.

        I can tell you with some certainty that a service that qualifies as “high-speed rail” won’t stop in Ypsi (or Dexter, Chelsea, Grass Lake) – as some commenters on AA.com note, a big piece of speedy service is a limited number of stops. If you have to slow down, stop, unload, load, start up again every ten miles, you’d never make good time, so providing good service means being selective about stops.

        The solution is having the right hierarchy of service – ultimately, in this case, you might get on the commuter in Ypsi and switch over to the Chicago line in Ann Arbor. A commuter would have lower top speeds, but more stops and more frequent service, good for shorter distance travel, while the high-speed line would have more limited stops and schedules, but cover distance more quickly. (Much like you use the freeway for some types of driving, surface streets for others, or in combination.)

        From the Michigan By Rail forum mentioned, I recall there being discussion that, depending on environmental clearances, SEMCOG may be able to build platforms at the Ypsi and Wayne/Westland (airport transfer) stops this spring/summer, even if the commuter service per se doesn’t begin yet – so could Amtrak just start offering a stop, once they’ve got a platform that meets Federal requirements? I’d think of this as an interim arrangement until the commuter service was able to serve Ypsi, and the service hierarchy above is able to take place.

        It seems a pretty reasonable arrangement, though, assuming Amtrak & MDOT were able to get sign-off from the freight companies (Amtrak has particular time windows it has to hit in the track schedules, especially once it gets into the congestion around the southern end of Lake Michigan). Not only could it provide an additional, incremental service option, but might also help start producing numbers for the commuter line. We can’t expect an Wolverine-schedule stop in Ypsi to bring anything close to the ridership that a commuter-schedule stop would, but it would give us more data to shove into the models.

        As far as the financial myths around transit, I strongly recommend Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transit, by Paul Weyrich and William Lind. The book includes ten papers written by these two conservative think-tankers, presenting the conservative case in support of transit, especially rail. (For a gentle introduction, check out The American Conservative magazine’s Center for Public Transportation.)

      4. Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        There’s a legitimate argument to be made against a long-distance rail stop in Ypsi, so close to the one in Ann Arbor. Having long-distance trains stop in every town creates significant inefficiencies, both in the travel time and the fuel required.

        That said, WE should not be the ones making that argument. Ypsilanti should ask Amtrak to consider this stop. If the proximity to Ann Arbor is too much of a problem, Amtrak can and will reject the request.

      5. Robert
        Posted January 30, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Yes! I think it makes sense to have a stop in every town with a large university. Besides Ann Arbor and possibly Kalamazoo, there probably isn’t another stop which makes more sense to have than Ypsi. My guess is that college students are the demographic most likely to use rail transportation with any regularity. And with the new station planned for the U of M medical Center area in Ann Arbor, the next most demand might come from employees there who commute in from around Depot Town.

      6. Posted January 30, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        As far as connections from Ypsi to Ann Arbor, whether bus, rail, or otherwise, I encourage everyone to attend a meeting of the Countywide transit master plan process over the next month: http://movingyouforward.org/. There was a series of meetings in the fall around the “needs”, and the process is now into evaluating future “scenarios”.

        At this series of public meetings, including a few at SPARK East and a few on campus, the scenarios will be presented for discussion and feedback, which will go into generating the actual recommendations for the final plan. Want AATA to be able to get you into A2 to connect to a 7:30 train, or have better transit commuting options? This is the chance to say so.

      7. pj
        Posted February 1, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        An ypsi stop would be awesome! I used to take the train to chicago from time to time but that required taking the 40-45 minute bus trip to downtown a2, then walk to the train station or take the amtrak route transfer. Easily another hour involved.

        Of course we can’t make the train stop at every little spot but a depot town stop makes sense given all the students, and how many people live nearby.

        I don’t live in ypsi anymore but im looking forward to either this or the commuter rail so i can hang out at the cb and take the train back to detroit!

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