State transport chief delays Amtrak cars purchase

Gary Heinlein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The state transportation chief has delayed the purchase of a set of new passenger cars for the Detroit-Chicago Amtrak route following an audit critical of his department for leasing another set of cars that are idle.

While track upgrades continue toward 110-miles-an-hour service throughout the popular passenger route, Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle "has asked the rail staff to complete a much more thorough review of the plan for the Amtrak cars," department spokesman Jeff Cranson said Friday.

The transportation department has a $58-million proposal to buy the "next generation" passenger cars to provide more-modern amenities for riders using the Detroit-Chicago route.

But MDOT last month was criticized in a state audit for its leasing and refurbishing of a separate set of passenger cars for a proposed intercity commuter service that has yet to get off the drawing board.

Start-up of the proposed service between Detroit and Ann Arbor has been delayed until at least 2017. MDOT leased and refurbished used passenger cars for a demonstration project, intending to learn if there's enough ridership to make it a permanent route eligible for federal funds.

The state has spent $9.5 million leasing the cars, stored on a siding near Owosso. Steudle, while looking to attract a sublessor for them until the commuter route gets up and running, now wants a more-thorough assessment before pulling the trigger on the Amtrak car purchase.

"He has also asked the finance unit to dive deeply into the business plan and financial aspects related to the maintenance facility, occupation and use, as well as the potential revenue," Cranson said.

A U.S. affiliate of the Spanish firm Talgo built the Amtrak cars for Wisconsin. They're available because Gov. Scott Walker called a halt to the purchase.

MDOT's plan to buy the cars came under fire from some Republican lawmakers last year when a competitor claimed the bid process had given Talgo an unfair advantage. Its complaint sparked hearings by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The competitor, Chicago-based Corridor Capitol, didn't bid for the rail car contract but had been promoting a package deal under which it would take over the state's passenger rail service.

MDOT wants to start replacing the aging fleet of passenger cars being used on its three Amtrak routes, particularly the one between Detroit and Chicago that carries more than 480,000 riders each year. Its rail division wanted to get new cars as soon as possible for one of its three daily runs on the route in hopes of stimulating passenger gains, officials said last year.

Michigan also is part of a four-state plan, with Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, to use federal funds to replace older equipment with new-generation passenger cars for their Amtrak service. It should happen in about four years.

"They're beautiful cars with Wi-Fi, roll-on-and-off bike racks and other amenities," Amtrak's Ray Lang told a House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee hearing this week.

Lang, senior director of national state relations for Amtrak in Chicago, said these kinds of improvements are boosting ridership and revenue. The annual subsidy the rail corporation is seeking from Michigan in 2016 is $23 million, down $2 million from the current budget year, he said.

The state is upgrading tracks on the Dearborn-to-Kalamazoo portion of its Detroit-Chicago route, and Lang said part of that stretch may be ready for 110-miles-an-hour train speeds late this year. Trains already run at that speed between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.

Lang also said Amtrak is working out issues that cause delays in the congested rail corridor around Chicago. Delays while waiting for other trains are one reason on-time service between Detroit and Chicago ranges, according to monthly Amtrak data, from as low as 6 percent to just over 50 percent.

When trains can run the whole route at 110 miles an hour, the time between the two cities will drop to about four hours, down from around 5 hours, 40 minutes, Lang said.

"Reduced trip time will result in more ridership," he said.