The third annual Michigan Rail Conference was held in Grand Rapids, where transit agency officials gave a tour of the city's new $6.1 million Amtrak station.
Ten years ago, if you showed up at Michigan’s top transportation agency and asked for someone in the passenger rail department, you’d be greeted with a strange look, and probably hear something like, “We don’t do that here. Try Amtrak.”
But things have changed. These days, not only does the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) have staff working on passenger rail, they have a whole office dedicated to improving train service. In fact, freight and passenger trains are one of the state’s top priorities.
The state recently created a bold, 30-year strategy for modernizing the state’s rail system. M-1 Rail is building the state’s first modern streetcar line in Detroit. Ann Arbor is expected to have commuter lines within the next several years. Trains are already moving 110 mph between Chicago and Kalamazoo, and other upgrades will soon allow trains to travel that fast all the way to Detroit. Several other projects are exploring how to connect Michigan’s fast-growing regional centers like Metro Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City with modern, efficient passenger trains.
Last month I was in Grand Rapids speaking at the Michigan Rail Conference, an event organized by Michigan Tech’s Rail Transportation Program. Every year for the past three years, the event has highlighted Michigan rail projects, and offered discussions about the latest trends in rail technology.
Michigan Tech’s Rail Transportation Program, led by Pasi Lautala, is one of a handful of rail research programs in the entire country. It offers classes, research projects, and internships on track engineering and design, logistics, and public transit planning. And its goal is to “develop leaders and technologies for 21st century rail transportation” right here in the state of Michigan.
The conference Michigan Tech organizes in collaboration with MDOT and other organizations around the state demonstrates the commitment Michigan has to becoming the national rail leader.
I was asked to speak about our Ann Arbor to Traverse City rail project and the challenges and opportunities that face nonprofit advocacy groups pushing for continued investment in rail.
To be sure, advocates have many challenges. But one thing is clear: Long gone are the days when Michigan only considered roads as transportation. Rail is making a strong comeback and we have our top transportation agency and universities to thank!