Coming Soon, To a Railroad Station Near You

This has turned out to be a week of trains and transit, so here is a guest column from David R. Busse,  a TV journalist, railroad fan, avid user of public transportation and registered independent voter. Dave is extremely knowledgeable about all things train, and notes another good reason for the Ann Arbor City Council to make sure federal money for a new train station doesn’t slip away because of short-sighted thinking.  — JL 


With all the focus in Washington on problems with the rollout of Obamacare, it might be a good time to remind people in the Midwest of an old phrase kicked around in the first term of the Obama administration.

Remember “stimulus money?”

One project that came to fruition with this and other federal funding will be arriving on Ann Arbor’s doorstep next year. It was not exactly “shovel ready” when proposed. Thanks to some unusual and very practical cooperation between transportation planners in California and several Midwestern states, the tired passenger cars on the Chicago-to-Detroit Amtrak corridor will be retired in favor of brand-new cars, designed specifically for “corridors” of passenger train growth in those states. California – a leader in such undertakings, if you can believe it – led the consortium of states in designing and bidding on the cars. This will be the third group Caltrans has procured for three different routes in the Golden State, and they are currently under construction at a railcar plant in Rochelle, Illinois. A big group of those cars will be dedicated to Chicago-Detroit service – the trains that serve Ann Arbor.Railcar

A big design improvement in these cars will be the use of platform-level automatic exit and entry doors. Your current Amtrak service uses cars with narrow entry way and manual doors, allowing passengers to use them only when a crew member is available to open the doors and assist passengers up the steep vestibule stairs. Regular Amtrak passengers know the drill and it can be excruciating on holidays and weekends, especially when snow and ice have clogged the stairs. Train pulls into station, crew member attempts to clear snow and ice from steps, passengers get off, embarking passengers line up next to one of the few open doors and wait…waiting for detraining passengers to get off, then wait for their fellow passengers to climb the narrow vestibule stairs, with luggage, kids, etc., and get on. Handicapped passengers find it even more of a tedious challenge. When the outgoing passengers board and the train starts moving again, the delay causes a late departure. What should have taken three or four minutes sometime takes ten or fifteen…or longer. Go thru that same scenario at six more stations westbound and you have trains arriving in Chicago substantially late, with mostly unhappy passengers.

Despite your state’s enlightened investment in rail infrastructure including state-of-the-art track and signaling systems for higher train speeds and increased track capacity, these long “dwell times” at stations – the time spent loading and unloading passengers enroute – is a huge impediment to faster schedules and consistent timekeeping. The new Amtrak cars you’ll see by this time next year will have wide doors with floors just a few inches higher than platform level. All doors on one side of the train will open for passenger loading and unloading at each stop, and passengers with hand luggage will be able to simultaneously get on or off the train. Handicapped access will be via easy low-tech ramps and their seats will be reserved close to the doorway – no steps to worry about. Station dwell times? Using the California experience as an example, expect average time savings of 70 percent…or more! Think of that if you use Amtrak’s Michigan corridor service over the upcoming holidays, and if you really want to have some fun, put a watch to the “dwell times” on your ride. Then compare after the new cars arrive.

If the California experience on the popular San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara run is any indication, the presence of these new cars will draw more travelers…especially in college towns, like Fullerton, where the Orange County city’s restored railway station serves Amtrak local and long-distance trains and Metrolink commuter trains as well as serving as the downtown transit hub. Along with the dramatic increase in train service frequency and numbers of passengers, a vibrant downtown of shops and restaurants exists just steps away. Same story in Solano Beach, Old Town San Diego and Oceanside, and a world-class station is under construction in Anaheim. I’ll bet Ann Arbor residents might visit any of these places and say, weather conditions notwithstanding, “we need to have something like this.”

The new cars are supposed to be coming late next year, and like it or not, they will highlight – in dramatic fashion – which cities along the route are ready for the new business.

What will it be like to arrive in Ann Arbor on one of the new trains next year and beyond? Will arriving passengers, getting off their WiFi-equipped trains see a modern facility meshing with other forms of public transport, e-kiosks connecting with hotels, car rental, ride-share, car-share, bike-share and whatever other new transport technology tends to crop up in cutting-edge college towns?

That is why the discussion of transit hubs and Amtrak stations among government leaders and citizens in Ann Arbor is so critical right now. You need a new train station, whether you like it or not, tied in to all forms of local commerce and transport, and unless the ball gets rolling right now, a train passenger’s first view of your vibrant city may be less than stellar. Does your city’s current station project an image that may encourage people to ditch their cars and try the train?

Federal and state taxpayers are providing Michigan with a modern fleet of cars and smoother track. Now the local cities along the Chicago-Detroit corridor need to get rolling on train stations to match.

David Busse
Diamond Bar, Calif.