KALAMAZOO, WE'RE HOMEWARD BOUND. Watch the towns fly by, and this weekend Amtrak will be offering additional service to the southern Michigan dunes, parking a 10 pm departure from Chicago at Kalamazoo from 1.29 am to 5.50 am, providing a 7.30 am arrival in Chicago. Despite the recession, the Michigan trains are full.
The Amtrak Wolverine Service trains have been selling out -- even after adding additional coach and business class seats on the Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit/Pontiac corridor on weekends this year. For the period October 2009 through July 2010, more than 390,000 passengers rode the route, up nearly six percent from the previous year, with July 2010 ridership up nearly 23 percent from July 2009. This route in Western Michigan is shared with the Amtrak Blue Water to and from East Lansing and Port Huron, which is up 15 percent for the year, 50 percent in July.
The additional service, trains 356 and 357, must be threaded among the freight trains (subscribers only) on Norfolk Southern (ah, the ironies, the owner of the former Nickel Plate, and successor company to a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary now owning the west end of The Water Level Route).
Amtrak agreed to operate the morning slot running with the flow of its existing traffic (preceding the Capitol Limited) that didn’t require a meet with an already-scheduled passenger train on NS property. Thus, train 357 is due to arrive just as Wolverine Service train 350 is leaving Chicago Union Station at 7:30 a.m. Train 356 follows the eastbound Lake Shore Limited by a half hour at 10 p.m., though it does encounter No. 355 in two main track territory, just as the Lake Shore does. The fact that holiday freight traffic might be lighter also certainly helped Amtrak win approval from the host railroad.
The additional trains make use of equipment that has otherwise laid over at the Amtrak coach yard in Chicago.
Rather than sit in Chicago from the 4:16 p.m. arrival of train 353 to the next day’s departure of train 352 at 12:16 p.m., the equipment can make an overnight round-trip. With a mandate under its reauthorization to improve efficiency, Amtrak has been looking for ways to better utilize its assets to produce more revenue.
Should the new train become a permanent service, it further blurs the distinction between commuter and intercity train service.
There is no question that establishing a regular early morning slot which would get western Michigan travelers into Chicago for a full day of business or leisure activities (rather than at noon, as is now the case) has the potential to generate substantial ridership gains on two outbound trains that leave at 4:10 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. A late evening departure also provides travel flexibility and a safety valve for mis-connecting passengers off of badly delayed trains from the West (since January, the cost of Michigan mis-connects alone has topped $183,000).
That's long been a sore point with Passenger Rail advocates. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service, particularly the Harrisburg and Philadelphia to New York trains, are clearly commuter trains, as are the 6.15 Hiawatha from Milwaukee and the 5.08 from Chicago. The commuter and intercity distinction brings complications to the proposed service to Rockford and the North West Frontier. That's a topic for another post.

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