The prospect of seeing trains fly by at 110 miles an hour has been a hot topic of conversation along the Detroit-Chicago railroad line for several years. In Chelsea, train talk heated up again in October, when crews went to work preparing the M-52 crossing for more and faster trains. Amtrak plans to triple the number of daily passenger trains, from three each way to nine, by 2017, and cut Chicago-to-Detroit trip times from five-and-a-half to four hours.
Amtrak’s Howard Pursley was in charge of upgrades at the Chelsea Main Street crossing, milepost 54.1 on the Detroit-Chicago line. Six different work groups “tore out main and siding track and replaced them with new 136-pound rail and upgraded [the] crossing material to concrete panels,” Pursley says. “They installed all-new underground wiring, new crossing gates with candle levers, new signals with all-LED lighting.” Then they replaced the sidewalk and asphalt. “At smaller crossings like McKinley St., only the gates and new lights will be installed.”
The federal Department of Transportation has designated the Detroit-Chicago line an “accelerated rail corridor” for high-speed passenger service. Between buying and upgrading tracks, and new locomotives and cars, the total bill for Amtrak’s three Michigan lines–the Wolverine, Blue Water, and Pere Marquette–will run more than $1 billion, with most of the money coming from the federal stimulus program. Chelsea’s recent high-speed upgrades were similar to changes made in Dexter last year. The area around the Dexter railroad crossing at Central St. sees a lot of pedestrian traffic, particularly in the fall when throngs of customers line up at the Dexter Cider Mill, often having parked blocks away. The Central St. crossing also is adjacent to the trailhead for the new path to Dexter-Huron Metropark and a quarter-mile from Huron River Dr., popular with bicyclists.
With track safety already a problem, City of Chelsea officials are wondering just how much more dangerous vehicle and pedestrian crossings will be with trains running 110 mph. Chelsea chief of police Ed Toth says Amtrak has reported fatalities west of Kalamazoo, where the track upgrades are complete and trains already are running at higher speeds. Michigan had eleven railroad trespassing fatalities in 2012 and six in 2013. There were sixty collisions at railroad highway crossings in the state in 2013.
“In Chelsea, we have had cars stuck on tracks, with no injuries or deaths,” says Toth. “Many kids and adults cross the tracks illegally, but so far not when a train is approaching. Another danger is the huge stones in between the tracks, which are not meant to walk on. There is a chance a person may trip on these stones and break an ankle while crossing the track.”
A letter from Toth posted on the Chamber of Commerce website stresses that it’s a misdemeanor to cross the railroad tracks anywhere other than designated crossings. There are only three spots where it’s legal to cross the tracks in downtown Chelsea–Main St., McKinley St., and Hayes St.–but people tend to wander across the tracks at other points, particularly around the depot.
The problems–and the city’s efforts to discourage pedestrians from crossing the tracks illegally–are not new. More than fifteen years ago, the city planted a burning bush hedge between M-52 and the old train depot. Some years later, the Chelsea Depot Association board commissioned two signs on either side of the depot: “DANGER. Amtrak passes at 80 MPH. Stand well back.” CDA board member Bill Chandler points out that the speed on the sign can be changed: “Notice the tilted 80, allowing space for 110 mph.”
In July, Chelsea’s Downtown Development Authority discussed plans to install decorative fencing along the tracks in front of the depot, similar to a fence installed on Park Street. “Fencing is on the short list of DDA plans for improvements to this area,” says DDA board member Mark Heydlauff. If funds become available, the fence would be installed by next summer. The DDA will focus first on improvements to the Jackson St. corridor and alleyway left exposed in October when the horse livery was demolished.
Toth says police will be monitoring the track area more often. But Toth, who attends annual railroad safety seminars held by Operation Lifesaver, is encouraged by new technologies coming online like Positive Train Control, which will slow or stop a train when it detects major trouble ahead, such as another train on the track. “PTC will have to be operational before high-speed trains use the track through Chelsea,” he says.
If safety is at the forefront of city officials’ concerns, some residents, like Chris Cook, are looking at other angles. “I’m all for any improvement,” she says. “Michigan is in such desperate need of mass transportation for our future. A lot of students would benefit in their travels from the Detroit metro area.”
Chelsea Farmers Supply is located a stone’s throw from the tracks. “I don’t care much about train speed,” owner H.K. Leonard said. “It may be more important for residents to have a commuter train stop in Chelsea. That service was ended in 1981.” So far, though, the only commuter rail being discussed is a proposed service from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
David Dettling, who lives just east of the depot, points out that the rail operators will need to work out their passing lanes. “There is only one rail from here to Jackson. While recently riding the Wolverine, we were sidelined near Battle Creek for thirty to forty minutes. So what would high-speed accomplish if the Amtrak train still has to wait?”
Even after the improvements, passenger trains will still share the single track with freights, which will continue to roll at the current 50-60 mph. But MDOT spokesperson Michael Frezell says the state expects to be able to accommodate both passenger and rail traffic without delays.
MDOT is leading the upgrade project because the state recently bought the track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn from the Norfolk Southern Corp. MDOT leases the tracks back to Amtrak, which already owned most of the line from Kalamazoo to Porter, Indiana, except for a short stretch around Battle Creek. In theory, Amtrak’s stronger owner-leaser position should help resolve the longtime situation in which freight trains took precedence over passenger trains. But freight bottlenecks, particularly around Chicago, can jam up the whole system in Michigan.
Trains are already running at 110 mph on the Chicago route between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana. In an email from aboard the train, rider Gavin Clabaugh says the trip is noticeably faster west of Kalamazoo (his GPS clocked in at an occasional 112-115 mph), but the train rattles around more. Railway officials expect the existing locomotives and passenger cars to be replaced sometime in the next few years by a new and faster train made in America.
For police chief Ed Toth, the bottom line remains safety. “It’s real simple to me,” Toth says. “You hear a train whistle, gates come down, stay away from the tracks. It’s not worth the risk.”