• Amtrak to Detroit, and the old Michigan Central Station

  • Pertaining to all railroading subjects, past and present, in the American Midwest, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. For questions specific to a railroad company, please seek the appropriate forum.
Pertaining to all railroading subjects, past and present, in the American Midwest, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas. For questions specific to a railroad company, please seek the appropriate forum.

Moderator: railohio

  by jsmyers
Amtrak and the State of Michigan have been working for my whole life to bring "high speed" rail to the Detroit-Chicago route. The recent direction of public policy has been encouraging. The Michigan Central line is virtually freight-free from Porter, Indiana to the Detroit Metro area. Norfolk Southern, CSXT, and CN (Grand Trunk) serve pretty much everything in southern Michigan without using the line. It has curves, but it is comparable to New Haven to Boston or Portland to Seattle. In other words, the potential for much greater speed exists.

The current station location has its advantages. It is near one of the major business districts in the city (New Center). Close to higher education institutions (Wayne State and College for Creative Studies), and not far from the region's major hospitals (Henry Ford, VA, Detroit Medical Center). It is on a street that should have light rail operating on it in a few years. But it is also 3 miles from Downtown and nowhere near Canada.

Why should it be near Canada? VIA currently operates 4 a day service to Toronto from Windsor. The station is about 1.5 miles from the city center of Detroit, across the river. Canada is also getting closer to speeding up their "corridor" between Windsor and Quebec city, the heart of which is Toronto to Montreal.

Detroit is actually closer to Toronto than to Chicago. In my opinion, Detroit's biggest asset is is location between to of the largest financial and media centers in the continent. This fact, combined Michigan's excellent quality of life, higher educational institutions, and low real estate prices, give it a lot of reasons to be optimistic about its future, regardless of the auto industry.

I have no illusion that we are going to see cross-Ontario long distance trains between Detroit and the east coast. But I think that Detroit has to house a joint VIA/Amtrak station where passengers can clear customs and immigration and change trains. Having this connection will do wonders for both VIA and Amtrak's load factors.

But where can this station be?

It is about 4.25 miles from the mouth of the rail tunnel to the existing station location by rail. There are curves, junctions, and the fact that customs issues that make it very unlikely that a Canadian train is going to serve a station in that location. It is also an additional 2 miles to get to the New Center area from Chicago than the MCS would be. On top of that, the existing station is in a relatively active area for freight terminal operations and providing enough tracks and platforms for commuter, VIA, Amtrak, and freight trains is going to be a challenge.

But the MCS is less than a half mile from the portal to the tunnel. There is some through freight in the tunnel, and the MCS station area had been used as a truck on flat car terminal for a time, but otherwise, it is out the way for freight. If a new double stack compatible tunnel is created, it is likely to emerge further from the river and out the way of MCS.

It only makes sense to me that this is where the Detroit train station must be. Should the current structure stay? That is another question, and I will address that later (probably tomorrow).
  by NellieBly
I'm interested to hear that "Amtrak never served Michigan Central Station". In 1974 I went from Chicago to Toronto by riding an Amtrak Turboliner to Detroit (MC Station), taking a bus downtown, catching a bus through the tunnel to Windsor, and another city bus to the CN station in Walkerville, where I boarded a set of Tempo equipment.

In 1982, I rode the "Lake Cities" (Amtrak's, not E-L's) from Chicago to Toledo. We had to back into the Michigan Central station, then head out toward Toledo. So yes, it does appear that Amtrak served the station.

Last summer I rode from Pontiac to Ann Arbor and return, and observed that most of the Amtrak riders get on/off trains in Dearborn and Ann Arbor, not in downtown Detroit. In fact, it's questionable whether downtown Detroit even exists any more. The Renaissance Center, last I saw it, was a fortress surrounded by barbed wire fencing. I did ride the Detroit downtown people mover (no passengers to speak of) and also the narrow gauge trolley that no longer runs (we were the only riders).

My advice if you visit Detroit: stay in Windsor, ON.
  by jsmyers
MudLake wrote:One point (out of many) that I take exception with is your characterization of MCS's location. On one of my frequent trips to Detroit, I recently drove around MCS to get a first-hand view of what the station looks like today. Needless to say, a renovation of any type looked to be virtually impossible. It's that far gone.
The building might be that far gone, but the structural integrety of the building is still probably pretty good.
MudLake wrote:The area around the station appears to be anything but gentrified. It's largely open land (bulldozed, I presume), some vacant buildings, and a handful of other dilapidated structures. It's not downtown and besides, downtown Detroit is as depressing as any of major American cities. Lastly, the terms "Detroit" and "land speculation" strike me as the quintessential oxymoron.
That is because most of the land immediately surrounding the station (including the station, is owned by the Detroit International Bridge Company and held, unused, in order to fend off competition for their bridge. Land speculation is THE reason Detroit is like it is as much as any other force. People buy land at low prices and then do nothing with it, hoping that somebody else will do something that will make it worthwhile. Stadiums, highways, and casinos have all been a big part of the speculation in Detroit since the 70s. It is usually cheapest to do so by demolishing any structures, in order to reduce liability and tax assessments.

Take a look at this custom tour of Corktown in google maps.

-Yellow is the station and surrounding railroad area.
-Red denotes blighted land and influences such as the bridge, the stadium, and the vacant land held in speculation due to either.
-Green denotes areas that I consider either gentrified or stable and healthy.
-Blue denotes areas that are not stable and healthy, but are a victim of some other nearby blighting influence, such as the station or the freeway.

So yeah, if you drive around the station within a few blocks, all you are going to see is vacant land, held by a company that is concerned that somebody will try to build a bridge on it. Corktown itself is a pretty vibrant place. If the station were developed in a coordinated fashion, it would join the party.

More about Corktown, including pictures: http://www.modeldmedia.com/features/corkinvest.aspx
  by jsmyers
NellieBly wrote:Last summer I rode from Pontiac to Ann Arbor and return, and observed that most of the Amtrak riders get on/off trains in Dearborn and Ann Arbor, not in downtown Detroit. In fact, it's questionable whether downtown Detroit even exists any more. The Renaissance Center, last I saw it, was a fortress surrounded by barbed wire fencing. I did ride the Detroit downtown people mover (no passengers to speak of) and also the narrow gauge trolley that no longer runs (we were the only riders).
That perception is pretty ignorant of the facts of the last 5 years. The Renaissance Center's first floor was rebuilt to remove the fortress effect. Now it looks like:

http://www.bing.com/maps/default.aspx?v ... &encType=1
http://www.bing.com/maps/default.aspx?v ... &encType=1

Other recent downtown Detroit Improvements:

Campus Marius (opened late 2004, area includes a new spec office building and the Compuware headquarters):
http://www.bing.com/maps/default.aspx?v ... &encType=1

Washington Blvd and Book Cadillac (Hotel just opened, streetscape goes back to 2005ish):
http://www.bing.com/maps/default.aspx?v ... &encType=1
NellieBly wrote:My advice if you visit Detroit: stay in Windsor, ON.
That advice is only valid if you want to go to the Windsor Ballet... or if you are between the ages of 19 and 20 and want a beer. (Chinese food is one other thing that the town's got on Detroit.) Windsor isn't a bad place but it doesn't have nearly as much to offer as Detroit.
  by mkellerm
NellieBly wrote:My advice if you visit Detroit: stay in Windsor, ON.
I think that characterization is more than a little unfair (full disclosure: Michigan native currently in exile). First, some actual numbers: Detroit served 59,973 passengers in FY08, as compared to 75,840 at Dearborn and 66,622 at the three northern suburban stations combined. Not what one would hope for from a center-city station, but there are hardly tumbleweeds blowing through the current station.

Second, downtown Detroit is clearly in better shape today than it was 20 years ago. There are, among other things, (1) new baseball and football stadiums, (2) new commercial development in the Campus Martius section of downtown, (3) new hotels, including the recently opened Westin Book Cadillac, (4) new public spaces along the Detroit River, etc. There may have been razor wire around the Renaissance Center when Ms. Bly visited, but it was much more likely to be associated with a construction project than to be some permanent barrier to entry. GM, before the carpocalypse struck, invested a lot of money to make the Renaissance Center more accessible from the rest of downtown. Don't get me wrong, there are serious structural problems in Detroit (most of which stem from attempting to maintain the physical infrastructure of a city that has lost half of its population, combined with massively dysfunctional political relations between the city and suburbs), but until recently it was on the right track.

Finally, to get back on-topic, the common theme linking the improvements described above is that they are all located along the Woodward corridor, easily accessible from the current Amtrak station. They will be even more easily accessible once the (privately funded) Woodward light rail begins operations (skepticism here is appropriate, but Roger Penske -- new owner of Saturn -- is the chairman of this project, so there is a good chance it will happen). In my view, a rail station in Detroit will only be a success -- both as a transportation facility and as an source of economic development -- if it has easy access to the Woodward corridor. The fundamental problem with the MCS site, in addition to the operational difficulties associated with providing service to the northern suburbs, is that it is stuck in the middle of nowhere -- and always has been.

I think that the operational difficulties with the current site are much overrated. Two things that Detroit has plenty of are rail infrastructure and developable land. You could easily convert the corridor from West Detroit to Milwaukee Junction into a six-track mainline, if necessary, and there is space available for terminal tracks associated with some future Via customs facility [modeled on the arrangements at Pacific Central in Vancouver) on either side of the rail corridor without much difficulty. If VIA had an interest in running into Detroit (which is not clear to me), the Woodward site is not going to create any more customs difficulties than the MCS site. The MCS location was driven by Chicago-New York service through Canada, and that isn't ever coming back.
  by travelrobb
Speaking of the station: NPR did a story this morning about people who are trying to save it, which the Detroit city council voted to raze in April. For the moment, protest has brought a reprieve. However, none of the proposals for repurposing the depot appear to include trains.

Check the NPR link at noon for audio of the story.
  by NellieBly
Thanks, Mr. Norman. There was one quick shot of the MC station at the end of the clip.

And BTW, I'll stand by my earlier comments about Detroit. There really is "no there, there", as Dorothy Parker famously said. I wish Mr. Bing all the luck in the world, but I really think the best solution for Detroit is to raze it to the ground and start over.
  by Tadman
I will second NellieBly's comments - I've visited MCS a few times when I went to the auto show (another hobby of mine) and it's a desolate skyscraper surrounded by roads, highways, railroads, and a few blown-out shopping districts. A town that is barely making it economically cannot revitalize every historic building - that's why the town went downhill, it didn't have enough people and business to support every big building. The only real use I can see is as a Casino because of the easy transport access. However, that plan has never been floated.

Also, Randolph Street here in Chicago has you beat regarding Batman - they filmed parts of the most recent one in the subterranean confines of our beloved suburban/interurban station.
  by jsmyers
I find it pretty discouraging that nobody wants to comment on my reasons for keeping passenger train functions at the location of the MCS...Or my evidence about improvements in the business and real estate climate in city center Detroit. But instead we get a lot of, Yeah, I only saw ugly buildings when I drove through the other year. Detroit should just raze everything and forget it. Somehow you are the expert, while the locals, who actually live there and patronize the businesses right across the street, are ignorant.

Has it occurred to any of the genius urbanists on this forum that one of the reasons that some cities start to go downhill is that they made a public policy decision to destroy the existing built environment, eliminating the motivation to keep the city there? And that demolishing more isn't really going to change anything?

I'd like to discuss more the idea of a border train station where passengers clear customs in a station (like we do now in airports). Detroit, Montreal, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Vancouver are all appropriate places for this. But our current rail planning and Amtrak operations seem to ignore this possibility. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that the MWRRI is planning a Detroit to Chicago line and the Canadians are planning to upgrade the Windsor to Quebec City corridor and they don't seem to care to connect them together.

Last weekend I promised to tell you my thoughts on keeping the building. This is a bit late.

I'm somewhat agnostic about keeping the building. But I know that it shouldn't be demolished now just because some people got sick of looking at it. What I do know:

It costs a lot of money to take down buildings.
The structural frame of the MCS is perfectly strong and solid.

So I believe that the state of Michigan and the City of Detroit should right now be working to getting Amtrak and VIA to commit to use a new or renovated facility at the location. They also have to serve it with transit, either light rail, streetcar, or the Detroit People Mover (automated LRT). Then they have to start looking at what to do with the building. The platforms and associated portions of the station are already gone, so new ones are necessary. The interior and mechanical systems of the building would have to be built from scratch. But I see little evidence that the steel should be taken down so that new steel can be put up. A renovated MCS might not look anything like the old building. It might not even have a tower, if no suitable use for it can be found.

I think the best solution would be to have a renovated, but not historically accurate, version of the old building, but with a modern glass train shed. I think sitting on top of an international train station between Chicago and Toronto makes a hotel/conference center a good use of the tower. I've also thought that a restaurant/banquet center on the top floor could take advantage of the skyline views of Detroit, Windsor, and the bridge. (Check out this relatively wide-angle shot, this very wide-angle (& HDR?) shot, and this shot of the bridge.)

But the real work is planning the development of all of the vacant land that is walking distance from the station. With fast train service to Chicago, Toronto, and eventually Cleveland and Pittsburgh, that there is business potential for a lot of information and financial industries in the very long term. There is not point in putting trains there, or fixing up the old building, unless the location is taken advantage of.

This map illustrates.

We all know how long-term of impact GCT had on eastern Midtown Manhattan. Michigan and Detroit needs to be thinking like that. It is obvious that the short-term "build your next plant here -- you don't have to pay taxes" approach has been failing Michigan for decades. A lot of the things that have been happening in central Detroit in the last 10 years or so show signs of moving to a better paradigm.
  by mtuandrew
If only most Detroiters (either those in the city proper or those in the suburbs) had cared about public transportation over the last twenty years, we wouldn't need to have this discussion. I can't fault them too much for not thinking about it, honestly, given that they were the single least likely city to need transit, but it's a worthy investment even in the best economic times. The system they do have is quite complex, with several agencies (the Detroit Department of Transportation, the Suburban Metro Authority for Regional Transit, and the Detroit Transportation Corporation [the People Mover]) competing for government attention, plus Transit Windsor providing the Tunnel Bus. Compare this with the Chicago Transit Authority - still not perfect, but easier to navigate its varied services. Likewise with the Washington, DC, Boston and even Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan areas. It seems that before Detroit should be concerned with moving its Amtrak station elsewhere, or even adding light rail on Woodward Avenue as is planned, it should collect its services under one competent provider.

As for a new Detroit station, I'd love to see a true downtown depot again. During the next rebuilding of Jefferson Avenue and the Lodge Freeway, leave a corridor for a two-track railroad through downtown, from Michigan Central Station to Orleans St. Create an underground Amtrak station at the foot of the Detroit-Windsor Auto Tunnel, and rebuild the ex-GTW (now Detroit Connecting Ry.) from Jefferson Avenue north to Milwaukee Junction. Presto - Amtrak can use the new track from MCS to Milwaukee Junction and stay on its current routing, VIA can serve Detroit through the tunnel without backing up (though it'd mean taking a tour of Detroit through New Center and Eastern Market), and the US Border Patrol and the Canadian Border Services Agency have this service at their doorstep.

The problem with reusing MCS for its intended purpose is that even though I'd love to see the building reused, it's always been in the wrong place. It's over a mile from downtown, always has been, and it's not in a neighborhood that's ever been a destination. Could Corktown be spiffed up and Michigan Central Station be a destination? Sure. Will it? That's the billion-dollar question.
  by Tadman
I don't know if this: "Yeah, I only saw ugly buildings when I drove through the other year" is aimed at my comments, but maybe I should give more background on myself. My father and grandfather are Detroiters. My business was originally based in Dearborn, MI. I've been to Detroit many times and have been in many auto plants and still have lots of family there, including a disconnected branch of my business. The city has not been rail-transport friendly. SEMTA is gone, the people mover is in bad shape, the city obviously doesn't care to have Amtrak stop downtown. No big three executive has seriously considered train travel since the 1984 C&O special to the Greenbriar, and probably not many did since the 1950's with the 1984 exception. If you read up on motown lore, Chuck Jordan drove Ferraris, Iaccoca liked Jags, Lutz has anything with wheels and many cylinders, Heinricy races Vettes, Roger Smith had monster Cadillac Limos... It takes gasoline in your veins to work in the offices of the big three. The only game in town is not interested in rail travel, hence the endpoint move to Pontiac.

And my "occasional trips last year" aside, the fact stands that the city cannot support every big building ever built there. From Wikipedia:
"In 2008 Detroit ranked as the United States's eleventh most populous city, with 916,952 residents.[13] At its peak in 1950 the city was the fourth largest in America, but has since seen a major shift in its population to the suburbs."
If a city has a large tax base, builds itself a bunch of fancy buildings, and the tax base is cut in half, it's no rocket science that every grand building cannot be kept up. Further, the remaining tax base does not present the city with same per capita earnings that Grosse Pointe or Ann Arbor citizens present their city.

So no matter how nice it would be to have an international hub with glass canopies serving travelers to Chicago and Toronto, a lot of your target market prefers to drive or fly. Further, there's not a Metra-like system to share the terminal to defray costs. Compare to any other major city with a grand Union Station. Every one either has a Metra-like system helping defray operations costs or has scaled back to being a museum with two tracks serving the LD train, like Denver and KC.

Finally, MCS is not in downtown Detroit, and I'm not walking to downtown from MCS. It's about three miles walk, or 45 minutes.

Edit: it's also worth reading the Wikipedia story:

Some points:
1. The station never had ample parking.
2. The station is too far from downtown.
3. Renovations is projected somewhere between $80m and $300m
4. The grand hall was too expensive to maintain in 1967 at a much higher passenger volume and prosperity of the city, and it was shut down.
5. Amtrak put $2m into the place in 1978, and shut it down 10 years later anyway.
6. The station has basically been up for sale since 1955 and has found no buyers other than speculators that put it back up for sale when plans fall thru.
  by bratkinson
Bottom line is MONEY! How much to re-hab the place and bring it up to code? (Asbestos removal likely!) How much to operate (heat, utilities, clean, maintain) on an annual basis? It would seem to me that an Amshack like Dearborn is far, far, far less costly. Who gets to make up the difference?

Lastly, having been a resident of suburban Detroit 30 years ago, I can tell you firsthand that most of the population that would likely use Amtrak is out in the suburbs, not in the core city area. When the Michigan Central station was built, it was just the opposite. Urban flight has killed many large cities, and totally decimated Detroit (I was back there a few years ago). "Build it and they will come" would be highly unlikely to happen in the case of the station, sad to say.