Amtrak (Inter-City Rail Service)

Amtrak provides a single daily route with terminius of Grand Rapids and Chicago Union Station; the marketing name for the route is the "Pere Marquette". Intermediary stops are the cities of Holland, Bangor, and St. Josepth. Southbound departure time is 06:00AM arriving the Chicago's Union Station at 09:11AM. The train number of the southbound train is 371, the number of the returning northbound train is 370. Northbound [return] departure time is 06:30PM arriving in Grand Rapids at 11:39PM.

The train provides a limited cafe, WIFI, and and is handicap accessible.

The Pere Marquette is funded primarily through ridership revenue and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Station

The station is immediately to the south of RAPID Central Station. RAPID Central Station provides connectivity with The RAPID's fixed-route and BRT lines, Greyhound, and Amtrak.

Station Building (with waiting room)
440 Century Avenue SW
Vernon J. Ehlers Station 
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Ridership

Fiscal Year 2014

City Boardings + Alightings
Grand Rapids 47,874
Holland 38,650
Bangor 4,112
St. Jospeh 12,426

Monthly Ridership

Month 2013 d 2014 d 2015 d 2016 d 2017 d
January - - 6,814 - 7,089 +275 6,118 -971 6285 +167
February - - 6,479 - 6,554 +75 5,911 -643 5590 -321
March - - 7,861 - 7,308 -553 6,995 -313 7054 +59
April - - - - 8,251 - 6,943 -1,308 7680 +737
May - - - - 6,788 - 7,169 +381 7576 +407
June - - - - 7,680 - 8,148 +468 8,531 +383
July - - - - 9,729 - 10,208 +479 - -
August - - - - 9,704 - 9,308 -396 - -
September 6,778 - 6,989 +211 6,042 -947 6,842 +800 - -
October 7,047 - 7,100 +53 6,260 -840 6,609 +349 - -
November 7,643 - 8,850 +1,207 7,453 -1,397 7,533 +80 - -
December 10,307 - 10,712 +405 8,153 -2,559 9,138 +985 - -
91,011 90,922

d is the difference between the ridership of a month and the same month of the previous year; this is a standard way to breakdown transit ridership over time . . . primarily because it is easy to do. The variability of months over numerous years reveals it has limited predictive function as a metric.

FAQ

Increased Frequency?

Yes, the current schedule is terrible. I have never met anyone who felt otherwise. _A new schedule is in effect as of 2015-05-04 which is much more amenable to business travels and those planning a single-day trip.

Update 2014-10: "Right now all those poor people in Chicago can’t get up to Grand Rapids first thing in the morning to do their business or to eat in our restaurants or drink some of our fine microbrews,” Mayor Heartwell said. “They have to wait until night to come to Grand Rapids, so two round-trips a day would be very, very helpful to our economy.”" - Mayor George Heartwell

But at least it is an idea worthy of a mention. In the end this is up to Amtrak, MDOT (this is a regional state-funded route) and CSX (the primary host railroad). Sigh... so we wait.

Update 2016-01: Due to accounting rules changes included in the federal Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015, also known as PRRIA, increases in frequency are unlikely. Changes in this act, particularly related to section 209, increase the costs associated with state sponsored routes.

What About Service To Detroit?

Obvious, right? Linking Michigan's largest and second largest cities, and the capitol along the way? Over a million people on each end. No, there is not such service.

Trivia: The "Pere Marquette", although it services Grand Rapids and Chicago, is named after the CSX passenger train that served Grand Rapids and Detroit from August 10th, 1946 until 1971. The Detroit route was terminated with the creation of Amtrak. To be fair concerning the name C&O began referring to the Chicago route as the "Pere Marquette" in 1965; Amtrak simply picked the name back up on August 5, 1984 when the current daily Chicago route was established. Prior to Amtrak there were two trains a day between Grand Rapids and Detroit, a daily to Chicago, and a connecting train to Holland and Muskegon.

The Michigan Environmental Council is currently administering a study concerning ridership and feasibility between Grand Rapids and Detroit. This is the "Coast To Coast" project. The proposed route would primarily use the current CSX Plymouth subdivision, not lay new rails. It has been described as "in the same family as Amtrak service" and not a "commuter service". Everyone hopes that does not mean it is another just-a-daily train.

What about service to Kalamazoo?

There is a rail line - the Grand Elk - between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo has more frequent and faster rail service to not only Chicago but to Detroit and Port Huron as well. But there is no passenger rail service on the Grand Elk. Amtrak does offer connectivity between Kalamazoo Station and RAPID Central Station via Greyhound bus service. The Grand Elk is the operator of the rail line which is a Norfolk Southern property.

Trivia: The route through Kalamazoo up to Grand Rapids was originally the preferred route to restore service between Chicago and Grand Rapids - what is now the Pere Marquette. Such a route would have made Kalamazoo a convenient rail hub for the entire state. It was subsequently determined that this route would be too expensive; service on the CSX route would be more cost effective. The CSX route is mostly [all?] double track and has modern signaling. The Grank Elk is almost entirely single-track and was "dark rail" [little or no singaling]. At least at the time passenger service on the Grand Elk would have required significant upgrades.

There is not even rumors of their being a future service between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

Update 2015-03: Watco, which owns the Grand Elk, is facilitating the implementation of passenger rail in Oklahoma. And has stated they are not opposed to the idea of passenger rail between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. An MDOT employee has recently described the condition of the tracks between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo as in "excellent" condition. At least some portion of the tracks has been improved recently and the Grand Elk has an ongoing tie replacement program. A Grand Elk employee has stated that there will likely be the construction of an interchange between the current Amtrak/MDOT route and the Grand Elk [no such interchange currently exists]; this eliminates one of the impediments to supporting passenger service. That interchange is being constructed for purposes of moving freight between the two routes.

Update 2016-01: Mumblings continue of a someday possible reroute of the Pere Marquette via Kalamazoo, which would match the old state rail master plan. However, no actions related to such mumblings have taken place.

  • Rerouting trains through Kalamazoo could speed Amtrak travel to Chicago for GR riders, MiBIZ, 2016-05-01
    • Note that this "could speed" would involving upgrading the Grand Elk tracks from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo to a level which would permit passenger service, and likely and north-to-west interlocking with the MDOT/Amtrak tracks in Kalamazoo. Similar to the speed advantage which could be gained from creating an exchange track between the MDOT/Amtrak tracks at New Buffalo and the existing CSX route. No silver bullet here, all solutions involve building infrastructure.

Why Is The Pere Marquette So Slow?

There are a variety of problems

The Pere Marquette operates primarily on tracks owned by the tier 1 freight railroad CSX. CSX has little to no motivation to maintain or upgrades its tracks to support higher speeds; freight railroads can also impose speed limits on capable tracks in order to reduce wear. The maximum speed permitted on a length of track is determined by the class of the track and the type of signaling, whichever is lower. Most of the CSX track used by the Pere Marquette is Automatic Class 4 so top speed is 79MPH.

Class Freight Speed Limit Passenger Speed Limit
1 10MPH 15MPH
2 25MPH 30MPH
3 40MPH 60MPH
4 60MPH 80MPH
5 80MPH 90MPH
6 110MPH 110MPH
Signalling Freight Speed Limit Passenger Speed Limit
No Sginals 49MPH 59MPH
Block Signals / TCS 79MPH 79MPH
Automatic Train Stop 80+MPH 80+MPH

Trains through Kalamazoo, between Detroit and Chicago, travel faster - up to 110MPH - using tracks owned by MDOT which have been upgraded to class 6. These routes are also double tracked and have long sidings allowing trains to pass each other. The CSX tracks pass over the class 6 MDOT tracks used for the Kalamazoo routes at New Buffalo. It would be possible for the Pere Marquette to switch over to the MDOT/Amtrak tracks at that point but there is no interconnect between the two routes. There have been multiple attempts to win a TIGER grant to build the required interchange at New Buffalo but so far all have been declined. Such an interconnect would provide a hub for all existing Michigan routes, reduce costs [as Amtrak has to pay for use of the CSX tracks], and reduce trip time.

There is also congestion; unless there are sufficient tracks or sidings for faster/slower trains to pass each other trains either have to wait or slow down in order to time their passing. Track networks need to be designed to handle frequent trains in order for trains to maintain a consistent higher speed. Especially as trains approach Chicago congestion becomes a very significant issue - Chicago is the rail hub of North America. In the operating year 2011 the Pere Marquette was delayed a total of 657 minutes due to congestion with freight trains [known as Freight Train Interference or FTI]. The last 23.5 miles of the route, between Porter and New Buffalo, accounted for 511 of those 657 minutes. Rail congestion for trains traversing the east side of Chicago is a universally recognized problem and is the focus of the "South Of The Lake Reroute" project which includes various railroads, the city of Chicago, and the DOTs of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

New Buffalo TIGER Grant Links

There appears to be no news concerning the grant in 2014 or later.

South Of The Lake Reroute

Rail congestion for trains traversing the east side of Chicago is a universally recognized problem impacting both freight and passenger rail. This issue is the focus of the "South Of The Lake Reroute" project which includes various railroads, the city of Chicago, and the DOTs of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

This project overlaps, especially for Michigan, with the continued development of the Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac Corridor. The C-D/P project provides a very nice self-guided presentation which provides and overview of the project (October, 2014).

Links

High Speed Rail In Michigan?

Does high-speed rail exist in Michigan? YES! Today, now. The 97-mile track segment from Porter, IN and Kalamazoo, MI is owned by Amtrak and maintained for 110MPH service. The Amtrak owned track segment ending in Kalamazoo joins directly to the track segment from Kalamazoo to Dearborn whose purchase by MDOT was completed on December 7th, 2012. The MDOT track from Kalamazoo to Dearborn is currently being upgraded to 110MPH service with expected completion in 2016. These upgrades will reduce travel time from Chicago to Detroit to under four hours.

Trivia: This track is the longest stretch of Amtrak owned track outside of the northeast corridor. This is also the fastest stretch of railroad track in the United States outside the northeast corridor. And it is here in Michigan, today.

The term "High Speed Rail" is a bit of an overloaded term. To many people this means "bullet trains", travelling at 220MPH or higher. Some people refer to that as true High Speed Rail, and 110MPH service as high-er speed rail. The primary issue with bullet trains is that they are very much unlike other trains. Bullet trains cannot share tracks with much heaver freight trains, to achieve the required acceleration bullet trains are always electrified, and bullet trains need an unbroken right-of-way with very wide sweeping curves. With speeds in excess of 110MPH rail must - by law - be completely "grade separated"; this means it cannot intersect with any roads or streets - it must go over or under. And in most cases +110MPH right-of-way must be fenced off. All these requirements mean retrofitting bullet train high speed rail into an existing developed landscape is incredibly expensive.
The good news is that we [Michigan] do not need bullet train high-speed rail. Bullet trains make sense when you need to provide a high frequency service between massive population centers that are ~200 - ~300 miles apart. With any of less distance, lower population, or lower frequency 110MPH conventional rail transportation is just as effective at a dramatically lower cost - and the infrastructure can be shared with freight transport to support industry. For the entirety of Michigan 110MPH rail delivers comfortable trip times and existing right of way can scale to hourly inter-city frequencies. When, or if, Michigan quadruples its population we may have to revisit this conclusion, but until then the high-speed rail technology we need is already here; lets focus on improving what we have.

News

Other Amtrak/Rail Michigan News