Amtrak's new 110-mph Midwest running is just the beginning

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CHICAGO — “Today is a great day in Michigan history,” said Kirk Steudle as he watched the world flash by at 110 mph from aboard an Amtrak train. Steudle, the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, had anticipated this day for years, as had many aboard the special six-car train Amtrak ran today between Chicago and Kalamazoo, Mich., for officials, politicians, advocates, and the technicians who helped make it possible.
Beginning Feb. 7, Amtrak’s three daily Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac, Mich., Wolverine Service trains and the daily Blue Water between Chicago and Port Huron, Mich., began running at 110 mph between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind. It’s the first route outside the Northeast where American passenger trains can run that fast.
Amtrak owns this part of the Michigan Corridor — 97 miles in all, representing about a third of the total 304-mile Chicago-Pontiac route. Trains can run at 110 mph across four segments totaling 80 miles of the 97-mile Amtrak-owned trackage. By 2015, the state expects to have another 135 miles of the route running at 110 mph, between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, Mich. Combined with other improvements to the line planned for Illinois and Indiana, travel times between Chicago and Detroit will ultimately drop from today’s 5 hours, 30 minutes to 3 hours, 45 minutes.
The current boost to 110 mph shaves just 10 minutes in running time. However, the importance of the 110-mph speed, right now, is that a tangible future for faster U.S. passenger service has finally arrived. The trains operate under a positive train control system built by GE Transportation, and the project’s completion was made possible with funding from President Obama’s high speed rail grant money.
“This is just the beginning,” said Joseph Szabo, the Federal Railroad Adminitrator. Szabo said work is under way to boost speeds on the Chicago-St. Louis line to 110 mph as well, using federal high speed rail grant money. “This is the first step in a buildout of a great system in the Midwest,” he said. “In the next three years you’ll see 80 percent of the Chicago-Detroit line and 80 percent of Chicago-St. Louis at speeds of 110 mph.”
After five years of testing the positive train control system, Amtrak began running trains at 90 mph in revenue service on about 45 miles of its Michigan corridor in 2002, then ramped up to 95 mph in September 2005, and expanded the fast segment to 65 miles. The railroad spent $25 million in 2010 to add GE’s Incremental Train Control System collision-avoidance technology across the entire 97-mile Amtrak-owned portion, paving the way for sustained 110-mph operation.
Michigan’s Steudle said this incremental approach was the right way to go. “Economic development is huge along this corridor. A 200-mph bullet train would have meant you’re going to bypass all of these communities and there’s no way they could benefit. This makes more sense for us.” The state expects to complete its purchase of the Kalamazoo-Dearborn, Mich., portion of the corridor from Norfolk Southern by the middle of this year, which will pave the way for track and signal upgrades east of Kalamazoo.
“The story here today is about so much more than these 97 miles,” Szabo said.
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