I got to take the train from Ypsi to Detroit a few days ago, and, if we play our cards right, we might all be able to do it someday soon

Last Friday, at about 1:30 PM, a train on Amtrak’s Wolverine line stopped on its way from Chicago to Detroit to pick up passengers in Ypsilanti. While it’s true that, back in late May of 2010, the President of Amtrak disembarked from a train in Depot Town and met with elected officials to discuss the future of regional rail, this, as I understand it, was the first time since 1984, when Ypsi lost its Amtrak stop, that a passenger train has actually stopped and picked up local folks in Depot Town… and, as I just happened to be one of the lucky ones who got to take the ride, I thought that I’d tell you about it.

Before we get into what it was like to ride from Ypsi to Detroit and back on the train, though, I think it would probably be good for me to preface this conversation by saying, “Don’t get your hopes up.” As longtime readers of this site know, we’ve been down this road before… Here, to give you some sense of what I’m talking about, is an excerpt from something I posted almost eight years ago, in January of 2010. The post was titled Update on the Ann Arbor – Detroit rail line.

…Remember the East – West commuter rail line that’s supposed to connect Ann Arbor and Detroit, with stops in Ypsi and Dearborn? Remember how the Governor said that it will happen before October 25, 2010, when her term comes to an end? Well, acording to a report issued today by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), they’re on schedule to see it happen…

Well, guess what? It didn’t happen by the end of Granholm’s tenure as governor. Efforts, however, did continue. And, in May of 2010, I posted here that we might see our first stop by 2012, which, as you know, also didn’t happen. Here’s a clip.

…(I)t looks as though even the scaled-back Ann Arbor-Detroit line isn’t likely to start rolling until 2012, at the earliest. Or, at least that’s Councilman Murdock’s assessment. And I know that I’ve said it before, but we really need to establish a grass roots lobbying effort to keep the pressure on our elected officials. There are tens of thousands of people that would benefit from a rail line connecting Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dearborn, and Detroit, and we should start organizing. This is too good of an idea to let die…

And, to our credit, the idea didn’t just die. In spite of opposition at the state level, where elected Republicans did what they could to kill anything related to mass transit, especially if it had anything to do with the Obama administration, local folks kept pushing. And, slowly, over time, things got done, albeit not fast enough as some of us would have liked. Amtrak was able to buy back the tracks from the freight companies that owned them, opening the door to increased passenger rail options. Federal funding helped improve both tracks and crossings. And Dearborn, after having built a new station, got their stop. And, here at home, volunteers worked to get our Freighthouse reopened, as discussions began about where we’d build our platform… For those of you who would like to dive deeper into the history, here are links to just a few of the many conversation we had bak in 2010 and 2011, when talk of the possibility of a local train stop first started to heat up.

High-speed bus system to link Ann Arbor and Detroit, as precursor to passenger rail

One step closer to the Ann Arbor – Detroit rail line

Ann Arbor – Detroit passenger rail… Can Dingell deliver?

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

And these conversations have continued over the past half dozen years… Not too long ago, on episode 46 of the Saturday Six Pack, for instance, we discussed the release of the regional transit master plan authored by the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), which, among other things, called for a Detroit-Ann Arbor rail line with a stop in Ypsilanti, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) between Ann Arbor and Ypsi.

This has, in short, been a long time coming. And we’ve still got quite a ways to go. According to the most optimistic projection I’ve heard, Ypsilanti, assuming we don’t hit any delays, won’t have an operational platform in Depot Town for about two years, as we still need to conduct an assessment of the platform site, finalize plans for construction, raise the necessary funds, and build the damn thing. The good news is, though, once the platform is built, the train will stop. At least that’s what Derrick James, Amtrak’s senior manager for government affairs, told me on the train, as we made our way toward Detroit. And that, I think, demonstrates that we’ve at least made some progress from the early 200s, when no one at Amtrak was talking about an Ypsi stop.

One more thing… When the train does finally stop in Ypsilanti, at least at first, it will just be the Wolverine line, meaning that it’ll be relatively useless for commuting into Detroit or Ann Arbor, going to see baseball games, etc. As of right now, according to a friend of mine who knows such things, the eastbound Wolverine line passes through Ypsilanti daily at approximately 1:15 PM, 6:30 PM, and 11:30 PM, on the way to Detroit. And, if you’re in Detroit, headed this way, trains depart at 6:30 AM, 11:20 AM, and 6:20 PM. [This past Friday, for instance, I caught the 1:15 train to Detroit, and got the 6:20 train back from Detroit.] So, you could go to Detroit for a while to check out a museum, have lunch, or maybe see an afternoon baseball game, but the schedule wouldn’t work for most jobs, and it wouldn’t allow for you to do anything in the evening, at least if you wanted to make it back to Ypsi afterward. That, however, is the ultimate goal… The ultimate goal is commuter rail, with multiple trains running back and forth over the course of each day, starting early in the morning, and running late into the night, connecting not only Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Ypsilanti and Detroit, but also Metro Airport, which would be incredibly cool.

Oh, and for commuter rail to work, not only would the trains have to run more often, but they’d also have to run on time, which, as of right now, isn’t always the case. For instance, the train taking us to Detroit this past Friday was about 20 minutes late, whereas the one bringing us back was about 30 minutes late. While this wasn’t a big deal for me, as I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be at a certain time, delays like this would doom a commuter service, or one that people were depending on to get them to the airport in time for a flight.

And, I should also add, in no scenarios that I’ve heard thus far would there be a “high-speed rail” stop in Ypsi, as we’re too close to the considerably larger stop in Ann Arbor. So you’re likely not going to be able to jump on a train in Depot Town and be in Chicago in two hours. You may, however, be able to get the commuter train to Ann Arbor at some point in the future, and then jump onto a high-speed train for Chicago.

So, now that I’ve tempered your optimism and enthusiasm a bit, let me tell you about last Friday’s trip to Detroit, which was absolutely incredible. Granted, the train was a bit late each way, as I mentioned above, but it was great to just sit and look out the window, not worrying at all about traffic, and then just stepping off the train on Woodward Avenue, in downtown Detroit. [I didn’t ride the QLINE, which runs up and down Woodward, but there’s a stop just across the street from the train station, on Baltimore Street.] While I didn’t time the trip out, my sense is that it was less than half an hour, from the time we walked on, to the time we got off, including the time we spent partied at the Dearborn station, as people got on and off. I did, however, time the trip back, and it took 37 minutes. [My sense, and I could be wrong, is that the train runs slower after dark due to visibility issues.] At any rate, it was faster than my car ride into Detroit the night before, and a lot less stressful. And, if we could make this a regular thing, I’d love it. I cannot express to you how right it felt to walk to Depot Town from my house, step onto a train, and be whisked downtown. It was really, truly incredible…

And, when we got back to Ypsi, and stepped off the train in front of Sidetrack – and I’m not exaggerating – there was electricity in the air. People were literally getting out of their cars, and coming out of restaurants, asking us what was going on. A young guy came up to me and asked me explain what was happening, and, after I told him, he said, “Who do I need to call to get this platform built?” People were seriously enthusiastic in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time.

Here, speaking of enthusiasm, is our State Rep Ronnie Peterson calling “all aboard” as the train rolled into Depot Town to pick us up.

If you can’t tell from the above video, almost everyone who took the trip was a politician. Joining State Rep Ronnie Peterson, were State Reps Yousef Rabhi, Adam Zemke, and Jewell Jones, who, I’m pretty sure, is the only one of the four to have been written up Teen Vogue. In addition to State Reps, we also had the Mayor of Dearborn, and a bunch of elected officials from the surrounding Townships, like Brenda Stumbo. And Ypsilanti was also well represented by City Council members Lois Richardson and Beth Bashert, Economic Development Director Beth Ernat, and Washtenaw County Commissioner Ricky Jefferson. [County Commissioner Andy LaBarre and Ypsi City Councilperson Pete Murdock were at the reception, before the train rolled into town, but weren’t able to take the trip with us.] And, in addition to all of the political folks, there were also local commuter rail advocates like my friends Bill Kinley and Linda French, as well as representatives from Eastern Michigan University, the AAATA, and Washtenaw Community College, and several business owners from the the Ypsi-Arbor Visitor and Convention Bureau board.

I don’t know who exactly was involved in putting the whole thing together, but my sense is that, in large part, we had Ronnie Peterson, Mary Kerr, the President of the Visitor and Convention Bureau, and Sean Duval, the President of Golden Limousine, to thank. [Kerr, among other things, organized a quick tour of Detroit for us, for which Duval provided the busses.] Peterson, however, was clearly the one running the show, publicly acknowledging everyone who had gathered for the event, and playfully reminding each one in turn that, when the time comes, they’d better be ready to invest in the Ypsilanti stop.

So, now what? Now that all of these elected officials and community leaders have spent an afternoon with representatives from Amtrak, traveling to Detroit and back, what’s the next step? How do we keep the momentum up, and ensure that we not only get a stop, but that we eventually get commuter rail in Ypsilanti? As much as I wanted this to happen before, I’m even more excited by the prospect now that I’ve experienced what it would be like firsthand. And I’m ready to fight to make it happen.

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33 Comments

  1. Ruth Ann Jamnick
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the article. I was going to enjoy the train trip to Detroit and back, but, as sometimes it happens, I wasn’t able enjoy the trip. I agree with many who want train service available in our Ypsilanti area … and a special THANK YOU to Mary Kerry and Sean Duval!

  2. Eel
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    When this was being debated a decade ago I remember some locals spoke out against the idea as it would it bring Detroiters here to sell drugs to our kids and rob our houses. Is that argument dead now?

  3. murph
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    > what’s the next step?

    I expect you nailed it above: finalize construction plans, fund, and build. …About the same as the next steps have been for a year and half.

    In July 2016, the city’s engineering consultants offered several platform options, which range from $2.1m – $4.4m, plus costs of nearby parking improvements and so forth. The city and Depot Town DDA have to decide how much of that they’re interested in covering, and where the rest is coming from. (I’d be more enthused about last week’s event if Rep. Peterson had come with some commitment of that funding in hand.)

  4. M
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    As for next steps relative to funding maybe we should start with a list of possible funding sources. I know some of the following organizations don’t have much in the way of available budget, but I thought that I’d get the ball rolling by throwing out a few ideas.

    Eastern Michigan University
    St. Joseph Mercy Hospital
    The American Center for Mobility
    Washtenaw Community College
    University of Michigan
    Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners
    Easter Leaders Group
    Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce
    Ann Arbor Area Visitor and Convention Bureau
    Depot Town merchants
    Ypsilanti City
    Ypsilanti Township
    Pittsfield Township
    Ann Arbor (as it would decrease the burden on their station)
    SEMCOG
    RTA
    AAATA
    State Government
    Federal grants
    Bonds
    Millage

  5. Lynne
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I will cry with joy if we even get an Amtrak stop. I might explode if real commuter rail were implemented.

    I am all for this. I just hope the DAY people don’t figure out how a commuter rail stop with real potential for carless commuting will affect rents. hehehe. Maybe we can tell them that the train will bring people from Detroit to sell drugs and lower our property values?

  6. Kim
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    At a City Council meeting before the International Village deal fell apart Beth Ernat said that the Water Street development could underwrite the platform.

  7. Iron Lung
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Right wingers heads explode. God forbid that people wouldn’t have to drive to Detroit.

  8. Kevin
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately everyone seems to think we really need driverless cars.

    (omg, I got the math capcha wrong.)

  9. Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    “When this was being debated a decade ago I remember some locals spoke out against the idea as it would it bring Detroiters here to sell drugs to our kids and rob our houses. Is that argument dead now?”

    Seriously??? This is the only thing you could ask about? With or without the rail system, that is already happening whether you like it or not! Get out once in a while, you will see…

    Also, to start throwing left or right affiliations into the argument is pointless. Grow up.
    What remains to be figured out is funding (as stated above), a solid plan built upon data gathered from studies, improved infrastructure (the rail line currently is old, needs improvements and would have to be widened to handle traffic to and fro…and will this actually be a good investment for all?). If you only have 20 to 30 people utilizing the service daily, it is pointless. History shows people claim they will utilize a service, but eventually the appeal wears off and people go back to doing what they used to do…In other words, there has not been enough of a REASON to invest millions into a project doomed to it’s own short comings…

    To expect AmTrak and the local govts, along with State and Federal govts, to get together on a plan…keep waiting. If you want this to get done, show that there is a need, get VC money, look into a company doing it without having the govt run it and be prepared to discuss how something like this would benefit all of the communities around Southeast MI. Otherwise, it is a dream that is fun to dream about…

  10. Iron Lung
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I remember when people were concerned about black people from Detroit coming to Ann Arbor/Ypsi to sell drugs.

    I remember that, too.

  11. Jcp2
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    The concern was probably related to “black” rather than “drugs” as you can get them around here fairly easily from non-black people. Heck, I don’t think Hash Bash is a super diverse event.

  12. Iron lung
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m that there are people out there who are genuinely concerned about whether train or bus service is fiscally viable or not, but it is hard to disregard the idea that many oppose public transportation because they percieve that black people overwhelmingly use it.

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted December 8, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    White people use illegal drugs at a much greater rate per capita than people of color. Drugs are the excuse not the reason. The reality is that Ann Arbor does have need migrants coming from Detroit and environs to receive social services. This is as it should be. I wish we had more to offer them in this county.

  14. JM
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It has to be on time, which Amtrak never is.

    It has to be affordable compared to alternative modes of transportation, which Amtrak is not and I doubt a separate commuter rail would be (without huge subsidies/losses).

    I’d love for it to be a reality. I lived in Chicago and I’ve taken the Metra out to the burbs and back. I just don’t see that sort of model getting any sort of support here locally.

  15. Jean Henry
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I think a few degrees further rise in temp and increasingly dense cities and increasingly expensive parking might take care of that…

  16. Jean Henry
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    As for timeliness, at a certain point the trains become more reliable than navigating traffic congestion. And again, that’s just a matter of time… and improved tracks.
    As for government subsidy, I found this comparison of roads v. Amtrak interesting. It’s limited, but I’m guessing some economist out there has teased out these numbers a little more: https://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2011/11/road-v-rail

  17. Iron Lung
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    “Oh, I think a few degrees further rise in temp and increasingly dense cities and increasingly expensive parking might take care of that…”

    Michigan’s level of sprawl is absurd. People complaining about “high rises” in Ann Arbor are doing it wrong. Ann Arbor could use more of them.

    It could also stand to raze some of the outlying McMansion neighborhoods. Why would anyone live there?

  18. EOS
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    If there were sufficient demand to have alternative forms of transportation between Ypsi and Detroit for commuting purposes, then it would be profitable for someone to initiate a bus service. As the demand grows, more buses could be added. When the demand for transportation exceeds the capacity of the busses, and the roads are no longer able to support the traffic, then train service might become a consideration. However, the idea of starting commuter train service in order to generate a demand for service is completely backwards. The cost of building new tracks to accommodate more trains is exorbitant. High speed commuter trains can’t stop in Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Westland, Dearborn, then Detroit and maintain high speeds at all. The existing tracks are insufficient to handle commuter service that would be practical, One can get a train in Dearborn and potentially work in Ann Arbor, but the schedule does not allow commuter traffic in the opposite direction. Freight trains interrupt the meager number of trains that do try to run. It is not economically feasible in low density populated areas. It will cost the taxpayers billions of dollars to build the tracks, buy the trains, build the stations and subsidize the operations to have a dozen or more people commute each day. The cost of a train ticket would be so high it would be accessible only to those with high incomes but even then it wouldn’t begin to pay the true cost of the service. And it doesn’t matter how logical the economic argument against trains is, someone will post a claim that it’s not the billions of dollars in cost that makes me opposed to commuter trains to Detroit, but that I’m a racist who hates persons of color. And in the Progressive mindset, accusing someone as being racist will silence any further rational discussion. Why can’t we let the free market dictate what is needed and feasible and leave a little income for the workers to choose how they prefer to spend their hard earned dollars?

  19. Jean Henry
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    The comments re concern about people from Detroit etc etc came from self-proclaimed liberals EOS. Racism exists. It’s systemic. Mentioning it is not a means of silencing. It never seemed to stop you. We have expanded bus service. There is demand for expanded transit options. Any movement forward of such an expansion would face many obstacles. You can be sure that a Market study would be part of Planning. What taxpayers are willing to contribute is always an issue, but no body, government or otherwise, invests millions of dollars without due diligence. Your objection absent any information is a function of your political perspective, as is my openness to the idea.

    ironlung— you hit upon the liveliest issue in A2 politics right now. Many agree with you. Many on city council as well as the mayor. The most vocal (and under-occupied it seems, among the citizenry however resist the needed change. They are joined by Ypsi’s DAY activists, which is nothing but comical. The greedy developer narrative is the way conservative anti-growth factions rebrand their stance as progressive. Just so long as there’s someone else to blame for the housing shortage…

  20. EOS
    Posted December 9, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Jean,
    Since you haven’t read SEMCOGs studies then you don’t realize that it is already a done deal. You would be wise to educate yourself on regional government plans. They will build it, whatever the cost, even though they admit they have no idea where the operating costs will come from. There is no current demand except from the bureaucrats and urban planners who are hell bent on forcing people to live in high density. You can do your part in eliminating racism by stopping your continual categorization of individuals into pigeon-holed stereotypes.

  21. wobblie
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    We’ll get a commuter rail line to Detroit when they stop making cars in Michigan.

  22. Jean Henry
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    SEMCOG studies are the necessary pre-work. It’s not a done deal, EOS. Not by a long shot. We would need to vote as a region on any substantial public funds used (and as in the last millage, one county voting down can throw the whole thing out…) Stop being hyperbolic. There are very good reasons to plan for urban density– namely because that is where most young people are CHOOSING to live now. No one is forcing anyone to do anything. I know you prefer to believe that most people think and would want to live like you do, but they don’t. You religious right manage to politicize everything. (heh)

  23. Iron Lung
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I suppose I’m just not convinced that even if there were an air tight financial plan that would allow rail service from Ypsi to Detroit with no fiscal impact on anyone at all, there are people who would oppose it, simply because of the associations with Detroit, and, of course, the associations with African Americans.

    We should definitely do studies to assess the feasibility of any public (or private) project. There is no argument there. But politics in the US has reached such a point where it doesn’t matter anymore.

  24. Jean Henry
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    for EOS: https://internationalnewstrends.blogspot.com/2017/12/theology-professor-writes-book-claiming_2.html

  25. Iron Lung
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Christians rarely have much perspective on the historically destructive aspects of that religion.

  26. Posted December 10, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I work a lot in Detroit and Dearborn and would take the train for sure! And if the commuter line existed I’d look into starting a free shuttle from the station to Karmanos for cancer patients. We drive there weekly for chemo and have to pay for parking, and with 75S closed coming home takes forEVer, no matter what way you go and even knowing all the back routes.

  27. EOS
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    @ Jean,

    “Saying Jesus is the savior of all people is discriminatory to those who do not share the Christian faith.”

    Except everyone is invited. All peoples, nations, tribes, and tongues.

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    1 Timothy 2:5 — For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

    John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    Because you have free will, you are able to reject the truth. But you cannot alter the truth.

    Joshua 24:15. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

  28. Iron Lung
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    “Except everyone is invited. All peoples, nations, tribes, and tongues.”

    Yes, this has been historically true, but “invited” is a euphemism for “enforced through violence as a means of social control.”

    In most parts of the world, people really didn’t have a choice but to accept the “invitation.”

    Certainly, African slaves didn’t have much of a choice.

  29. Iron Lung
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    It is impossible to ignore that history.

  30. EOS
    Posted December 10, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    The history being that Christians stopped the slave trade in the U.S.

  31. Sad
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Atheists rarely have much perspective on the historically constructive aspects of religion.

  32. Jean Henry
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Sad— Please note that the author cited in my post and referred to by others is a theologian and a Christian. Having grown up in a very service-oriented Bible Belt community, I understand the benefits of organized religion but I also can not ignore the historic and current use of religious ideology to oppress. Nor should anyone.

    EOS— what the Bible says and how it is interpreted and practiced by organized religion (especially fundamentalists, ironically) are two very different things. Demanding conversion, and so compliance with Christian doctrine, is not acceptance. It’s the opposite. Jesus seemed like a decent fellow; many of his followers are another matter entirely. And the historic record backs me up on that. You are nothing if not predjudicial in your cherry picking of facts. I don’t know how one can engage seriously in any organization or community without acknowledging both the positive and negative aspects of its function in society. moral certainty is a demon and belief is a trickster. And there are many religious texts that would back me up on that.

  33. EOS
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Moral certainty is God’s prerogative. Sure, some people willfully misinterpret and misapply the Bible, such as this woman you cite. But the Bible is clear on what caused the downfall of each culture, “… and they did what they thought was right in their own minds…” There’s only one religious text I am concerned with.

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