by Jon King, Michigan Advance
April 28, 2023
Amtrak may be poised to begin overhauling the way it operates in Michigan, including potentially closing crew bases and centrally locating train service employees in Chicago, according to union officials and a state lawmaker who has been in direct contact with the transportation company about its plans.
Union representatives said that long-term plan, which Amtrak officials would not confirm, has been touted as a cost-saving effort, although critics argued it will result in lengthening delays by increasing the dispatch times for mechanical failures and other incidents.
Currently, Amtrak contracts with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to operate three routes: the Pere Marquette, which connects Grand Rapids with Chicago; the Blue Water, which connects Port Huron with Chicago; and the Wolverine, which connects Pontiac to Chicago.
To operate those lines, there are four terminals where train crews are based: Pontiac, Port Huron, Grand Rapids and Battle Creek.
However, according to union officials and state Rep. Samantha Steckloff (D-Farmington Hills), the company’s long-term operating goals include eliminating the crew bases and relocating all train service employees in Chicago. The first phase of that plan involves closing the Battle Creek crew base, a move that’s already underway, union officials and Steckloff said.
Amtrak officials deny the Battle Creek crew base is already being closed and would not confirm any long-term relocation plans.
Donald Roach is the Michigan state legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation (SMART), which represents Amtrak conductors and engineers.
Roach told the Michigan Advance that he believes this ultimately is part of an effort by Amtrak to decrease travel times on its routes to Chicago.
“Their plan is to build the infrastructure to where they can maintain a higher rate of speed,” said Roach. “They’ll try to keep that 110-mile-an-hour corridor up all the way from Chicago to Pontiac as best that they can. I know that they’re not going to be able to run 110 everywhere, but the plan is that they can get that route to be run under a timeframe of six hours.”
According to Roach, a key part of that plan is to eliminate the need for a crew change in Battle Creek, a move he said Amtrak claims will create an annual savings of $2 million dollars, although he said they have yet to see specific documentation to back up that estimate.
“We just believe that Amtrak might be feeding the state of Michigan a little bit of bull,” he said. “If they use the phrase, ‘It’s going to save the taxpayers’ money,’ of course people’s ears are going to perk up because that’s their job, right? To save as much money as possible. But we don’t know what the costs are. We can’t really drive home where they came up with that figure of $2 million. And every time you ask them, ‘How’d you come up with that number?’ they don’t supply you with any type of documentation. That’s just their estimate.”
Marc Magliari, senior public relations manager for Amtrak, confirmed that Amtrak believes there is the potential to save $2 million in annual savings by closing the Battle Creek crew station.
In all, it’s estimated that five conductors and one engineer would be affected, although Roach said at one time there were between 15 and 20 employees who operated out of the Battle Creek terminal.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Roach. “I mean, even if you had 30 employees there, just the cost of their wages wouldn’t total $2 million. But I don’t know how all those numbers are calculated.”
When asked by the Michigan Advance to comment on the plan to close the Battle Creek crew station, MDOT spokesperson Michael Frezell provided a brief statement.
“MDOT works closely with Amtrak to enhance operations in Michigan,” he said. “We are reviewing Amtrak’s proposed changes to crew bases with a goal to provide cost-effective rail services that benefit both passengers and taxpayers.”
However, Roach said one major aspect of the plan that is not being given enough consideration is the increase in crew response times to incidents if they are having to be dispatched from either Pontiac or Chicago, as opposed to Battle Creek, which is the midway point.
“Say there’s a trespasser strike where the train hits a trespasser on the right of way,” said Roach. “The train is going to stop and that crew cannot proceed any further and will need to be replaced by another crew.”
He said because crews get a two hour call time, it could take between four and six hours before they can arrive on scene.
That potential issue was demonstrated in October when passengers on the Wolverine line abandoned the train west of Ann Arbor after multiple mechanical and other issues made what should have been a five-and-a-half hour journey into 19 hours instead.
It’s always been in the plan to accelerate the trains and shorten the schedules. The motivation is productivity, both for the customer and for those of us who operate the service for the taxpayers of Michigan and the rest of the country. There’s been no decision made about closing the crew base in Battle Creek. It is just a possibility once the schedules are shortened and we have some more operating experience and how the schedules actually work, both of which haven’t been completed yet.
– Marc Magliari, senior public relations manager for Amtrak
Another incident last month involved an Amtrak train heading for Chicago which hit a car that illegally crossed the tracks near Battle Creek, forcing a more than four-hour delay while a new crew was dispatched from Chicago and Port Huron. Union officials said that’s because operations are already being wrapped up in Battle Creek so that engineers are no longer stationed there.
Magliari, the Amtrak spokesman, told the Michigan Advance that together with MDOT, they are involved in what they’ve called the Accelerated Rail Program.
“We operate the service in Michigan under contract with MDOT, and certainly when the trains can cover more ground in the same or more or better time, it’s more productive for the people riding the train,” he said. “It’s also more productive for those of us who operate it, because crew members can cover a certain amount of ground faster and cover the territory better with, 110 mile an hour speeds versus 79 mile an hour speed.”
However, Magliari said within that framework of working towards providing more efficient transport along the Michigan lines, nothing has been decided yet.
“It’s always been in the plan to accelerate the trains and shorten the schedules,” he said. “The motivation is productivity, both for the customer and for those of us who operate the service for the taxpayers of Michigan and the rest of the country. There’s been no decision made about closing the crew base in Battle Creek. It is just a possibility once the schedules are shortened and we have some more operating experience and how the schedules actually work, both of which haven’t been completed yet.”
As to how that savings would be achieved, Magliari didn’t provide any specific details other than to indicate that fewer employees would be needed.
“It is possible under that estimate to need fewer people to operate the service if the schedules are shorter,” he said. “It is theoretical, and we’re not going to make a decision based on a theory. We’re going to make a decision and make a recommendation to the state of Michigan after actual operating experience.”
That potential outcome is not something Steckloff wants to see happen.
Steckloff, who serves on the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, told the Advance that the subcommittee is aware of Amtrak’s plan to consolidate crews in Chicago, and close the Battle Creek crew station.
“I certainly did not think rail and Amtrak would be among my top priorities when I ran for state House, but government has a way of directing you toward unknown passions, and as it happens, I’ve become passionate about this,” she said.
Steckloff said a confluence of factors have led to this direction by Amtrak.
“The collective bargaining agreement between SMART and Amtrak limits in-motion working time to six hours for SMART workers,” she said. “The Wolverine line currently takes longer than that to complete, thus requiring a crew change sometime in the middle [Battle Creek].
“The state of Michigan has invested nearly $200 million to upgrade the portion of the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, which the state purchased for another $150 million, to get the line prepared for high-speed travel of 110 miles per hour,” she continued. “It is the goal that, once those updates are complete, the Wolverine line would take less than six hours to travel between Pontiac and Chicago. The time reduction would eliminate the need for a crew change.”
Steckloff said that she has voiced to Amtrak her preference that Michigan-based crews still be used for all of the required services, as well as any new services in the state.
“What really concerns me is that our passenger rail system in Michigan is still entirely Chicago-centric rather than Michigan-centric at all,” said Steckloff. “Hopefully, we can get to a point in the not-hopelessly-distant future where we have service between Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids; service from Detroit to Toledo; service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City and Petoskey; and connecting service into Canada to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
“These additional lines, as well as increased frequencies on the existing three lines, will help to cement Michigan as a uniquely important state for passenger rail and impress upon Amtrak the need for many Michigan-based crews.”
Roach agreed, emphasizing that the reduction of employees and the crew base they operate out of will inevitably lead to less efficiency, not more.
“There’s going to be extensive delays, and I think that that really needs to be driven home,” said Roach. “I’m doing that myself with the department saying, ‘Hey, you know, the delays that you guys are going to incur are just going to be horrendous with waiting for a crew to get transported to this location.’”
This story was written by Jon King, a contributor to the Michigan Advance, where this story first appeared.
Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.