Train conductors standing at the train station in Battle Creek, Michiigan. Image via Getty
Train conductors standing at the train station in Battle Creek, Michiigan.

A little extra traffic on Michigan’s lonely passenger rail lines could be the start of a revolution in fixing old lines and laying new tracks.

LAPEER, Mich.—At around 7 in the morning the Amtrak 365 line, called the Blue Water, rolls through Lapeer every day. It’s been traveling by rail from Port Huron for about an hour and still has a long ride ahead of it to get to Chicago around mid-day. 

Traveling this first hour has taken Blue Water and her passengers through Michigan countryside. Farmlands, shores of forgotten lakes, and the occasional small town have flown past the windows. So far, the ride has been quiet. Few passengers board where the train sets out, but there are reminders that the train will be at capacity soon, as the next stop will be Flint. 

Blue Water runs exactly one round trip a day. Leaving Port Huron at the crack of dawn to return around midnight. And there’s no convenient path from Lapeer to Pontiac. A trip that takes 45 minutes by car has no same-day option by passenger rail. It would require spending a day in Battle Creek, Kalamazoo or Chicago.

From Flint to Durand, from Lansing to Battle Creek, the Blue Water rolls through Michigan’s forests, over her rivers, and through some of its cities. When it reaches Battle Creek, it joins the track of Michigan’s other primary train line, the Wolverine. The sister to Blue Water heads back east, through Jackson, Detroit, and finally Pontiac. Westward, Michigan’s trains pass Kalamazoo and Niles on their way to Chicago.

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Aside from those sisters, the only other line in Michigan runs along the west coast to Grand Rapids.

There is a romance to rail. There are views of Michigan few people see, from the splendor of nature to pieces of Michigan’s past like abandoned train stations or decommissioned factories. And for towns along the path of Blue Water, the Amtrak is seen twice a day, that’s all. 

Anywhere north of Lansing or Grand Rapids is unlikely to see one ever. 

That could be changing. 

Laying Tracks for Michigan’s Future

The scenario the Blue Water plays out every day, passing through Lapeer each morning and evening, is a scenario President “Amtrak Joe” Biden is deeply familiar with. Amtrak was his preferred form of travel as a Senator. He knows both the highs and lows of riding the rails. As President, it isn’t surprising that Biden seeks to bolster passenger rail.

As part of Biden’s push to get Americans back to work by restoring our decaying infrastructure, Biden has earmarked $80 billion to passenger rail. Amtrak says with that funding it could open as many as 30 new rail lines, and some of those lines could be big deals in Michigan. There were already rumblings about a possible Ann Arbor to Traverse City passenger line in 2020.

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One idea that’s getting attention wouldn’t lay much line in Michigan at all, but would radically change passenger rail in Michigan. That’s a line into Canada that would connect Detroit with Toledo and Toronto. This comes from an “aspirational” map published by Amtrak showing where it would like to be with major lines by 2035. 

“Imagine, if you will, going more than one direction from Detroit,” Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari told NPR. “Down to Toledo and off to Buffalo and New York state.”

That made Kimball resident Lee Rushton hopeful that one day the Blue Water could carry on to Toronto as well.

Rather than being the end of the line bound only for Chicago, Michigan could become a crossroads of its own. People traveling from Chicago to Toronto or even New York would pass through Michigan. And more travel means more investments in the lines. 

Fix the Damn (Rail) Roads

A seed of investment can create a tree with time and nurturing. At least, that’s the hope of some Michiganders like Thomas Nimmo, who was raised in Michigan’s Thumb. He’s since moved to Germany, where intercity and international passenger rail are invested in heavily by governments. 

“Investment in intercity rail is long overdue,” Nimmo said. “Will connect the region better and provide alternative means of getting around.”

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And that’s needed. There is a stretch of rail Blue Water passes near Kalamazoo where it has to drop speed substantially due to the age of the track. And that’s not an unusual problem in terms of Michigan’s passenger rail. A more traveled route, one that’s taking people from Chicago to Toronto, would prompt deferred maintenance of the rails so speed and reliability could be maintained. 

And it could get even better than that, hopes Nimmo.

“With electrification of the route, Port Huron to Chicago could be reached in around 3 hours,” he estimated.