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Growing number of intercity travelers boarding the train

A conductor assists as Julie Frank Zinn Delaware Ohio board an Amtrak traDyer Ind. statiThursday morning October 18 2012. The

A conductor assists as Julie and Frank Zinn of Delaware, Ohio board an Amtrak train at the Dyer, Ind. station Thursday morning October 18, 2012. The Zinns, who chose the Dyer station for its safety and ease, picked up the train in Dyer to begin their Totally Trains Tour which will take them through the West, up the Pacific coast to Seattle and back. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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More travelers are boarding trains to travel between cities in the Midwest, spurring new efforts to upgrade to higher-speed travel along Amtrak rails.

Ridership of intercity rail on Amtrak routes in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan grew 35 percent from 2007-2012, according to Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission calculations.

In February, the rail service installed new safety systems that allow trains to reach speeds up to 110 mph between Porter in Northwest Indiana and Kalamazoo, Mich. The Chicago-to-St. Louis route began operating at 111 mph in October.

“For any reason people drive up I-94, they could travel the Wolverine,” Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said of the route from Chicago to Detroit that passes through Northwest Indiana and Kalamazoo. “Either for a weekend commute, family business, medical consultations at a larger hospital.

“Some are also just riding for fun or tourism.”

Increased ridership is encouraging more investment in passenger rails from states and federal governments.

The Michigan Department of Transportation is conducting a Chicago-Detroit corridor study that will determine the feasibility of building a double-track passenger mainline for the 50-mile leg between from Chicago and Porter.

Also, Amtrak is weighing plans to purchase new trains that can reach up to 125 mph to run on routes in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and California.

Rick Harnish, executive director of Midwest High Speed Rail Association, hopes that planning for the high-speed rail will also include designs to upgrade to bullet-speed trains that travel up to 220 mph.

Harnish expects those trains could be running within the next 20 years, but only if rail transit becomes a priority.

“People want it. It’s a matter of getting this big ship we call our government to change course,” Harnish said. “The increase in passengers shows that people want to take the train. It’s just a matter of getting the states and feds to make the needed investment.”

Farah Rana and her daughter Iman flew into Chicago from California on their way to vist family in Grand Rapids, Mich. When their flight was canceled due to the winter storm on Dec. 20, they took an Amtrak train to Battle Creek, Mich., and had their family pick them up there.

“I didn’t want to wait all day for a flight, so we got two tickets. It’s a beautiful view,” Rana said of her first train ride. “If it’s convenient, I might take the train again.”

After traveling from her home in London, England, Katie Bien took the train when her connecting flight from Chicago to Lansing, Mich., was canceled due to the storm.

“I don’t have a car and it’s reasonably priced,” she said while waiting to buy a drink in the cafe car. “It’s better than a flight. It’s just easy.”

Mike Moreno, of Wyandotte, Mich., also aboard the train due to the storm, said a train ticket isn’t his first choice because of Amtrak’s inconsistent schedule.

“You just end up getting in later,” Moreno said, reflecting on a previous ride that was three hours late to his destination in Dearborn, Mich. “It gets to be annoying after awhile.”

Chris LeBlanc, of Kalamazoo, said he used to take the train from college back home to Massachusetts, but on this preholiday weekend he was heading to Colorado to go snowboarding.

“I enjoy taking the train for the experience,” LeBlanc said. “It definitely beats the bus. The problem is waiting for the train to be on time. As long as you plan for it being late, it works out great.

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