Study: 110 mph Detroit-to-Holland rail would make money

Leonard N. Fleming, and Jonathan Oosting
Passenger rail service between Detroit and Holland would cost up to $540 million to establish a 110 mile per hour route but spur $14 million annually in profit, according to a new study.

A 110-mph passenger rail route between Detroit and Holland would cost up to $540 million but spur $14 million annually in profit, according to a new study.

The Coast-to-Coast Passenger Rail Study, funded by communities along the proposed line and managed by the Michigan Environmental Council, analyzed three prospective routes from Detroit through Lansing to Holland but decided that only two are viable for further study.

The study gives refreshed specifics to the long-discussed concept of connecting Michigan’s two largest cities by train. Michigan hasn’t had a Grand Rapids-to-Detroit line since Amtrak was created in 1971, although four prior feasibility studies were done from the 1980s through 2002.

One route would travel between Detroit, Wayne, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Holland. The other would follow much the same path but go to Howell, rather than Jackson, in between Ann Arbor and Lansing.

It would cost less up front to establish service at 79 mph, but the faster and more frequent service could turn a profit in part because the ridership forecast would be much higher.

“This service is viable and worth looking into,” said Liz Treutel, a transportation expert with the Environmental Council, who explained that the study looked at whether coast-to-coast rail made sense from an economic and ridership perspective. “I think the biggest thing the report revealed is that, yes, the ridership potential is there and the costs are relatively reasonable for a transportation project.”

Treutel said establishing coast-to-coast rail service would likely take seven to 10 years, beginning with full feasibility and environmental impact studies.

The $100,000 feasibility study indicates that a 110 mph service could see 1.71 million riders annually by 2040 for the Lansing-down-to-Jackson route and 1.59 million for the Howell-through-Ann Arbor route. Also involved in the effort are the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The “more frequency you have and the faster you go, the more riders” you will see, Treutel said. The 79 mph route would have either two or four daily trips, while the 100 mph service would offer four or eight daily trips.

Carmine Palombo, the deputy director for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which helps regional leaders with transportation planning, said the idea is a good one but the cost factor and competition for funding would play major roles in whether it gets done.

“Having a train that connects three major cities ... it makes sense,” Palombo said. “I’m not surprised that the ridership would be fairly good. It all comes down to money. Will this give you your biggest bang for your buck with what you’ve got?”

Initial estimates for the Jackson route show that securing and upgrading 202.8 miles of rail line to handle 79 mph trains would cost about $141.6 million, and selling tickets on four roundtrip trains a day would require an operating subsidy of about $6 million a year. Setting up the same route for 110-mph service would require $540 million in capital improvements, but eight round trips a day could generate $14 million a year, per the study.

Upfront costs for the 186.1-mile Howell route are a bit lower but follow the same trend, with capital costs of $131 million and yearly losses of $5.2 million for 79 mph service, compared to $436 million in upfront costs but $12 million a year in profit for 110 mph service.

The next steps would be to do a comprehensive environmental study of the corridor, develop a detailed implementation plan and examine the potential for a public-private partnership to attract private capital to the project.

“We look forward to the results of the statewide rail study and the recommendations that this study will produce,” Michael Ford, CEO of the Regional Transit Authority, said in a statement. “We will work with our partners in Grand Rapids as we explore opportunities to expand the mobility options of people in this state, specifically in our region."

Other lines are being explored, including establishing a rail connection from Ann Arbor to Traverse City.

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