Sunday, April 10, 2016

Capacity and reliability improvements in South-East Michigan

Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) completed two important rail projects in the Metro Detroit area this winter. One is the so-called West Detroit Connection, and the other is the second main-line track between the Wayne Junction and the Dearborn station. Both projects will affect passenger rail service in the region.

The West Detroit Connection (WDC) is a single-track rail connector between the east-west Conrail main line (co-owned by Norfolk Southern and CSX) and the north-south Canadian National (CN) main line (map). The newly built overpass structure is owned by MDOT, while the connecting track is now owned by CN. As another part of this project, a mile (1.6 km) of the second track has been added to the CN main line north of the connector, as well as several crossovers.

The main purpose of this connection is to provide a shorter, more direct route for passenger trains that bypasses two busy control points and avoids interference with freight traffic on the Conrail line. Even though the reduction in travel distance is not very significant (less than a mile), the new route is expected to improve reliability and on-time performance by reducing both the number and the extent of potential delays, as it avoids two interlockings where freight congestion can hold up passenger trains. The connector is designed for the top speed of 45 mph (72 km/h) due to its curvature; however, the main time savings will be realized from the increased reliability due to the lack of conflicts rather than high speed. This logical improvement has been needed ever since the Detroit station was moved from the old Michigan Central location to its current spot in the New Center area in 1994, and it is finally open for service more than 20 years later. Amtrak trains have been using the new connection on daily basis since December.

As a result of construction of the connector and the second track on the CN main line, two rail junctions have been modified at each end of the new double-track segment: CP West Detroit and CP Vinewood. My track schematics of the new layouts at both locations can be found here (page 1 is CP West Detroit, and page 2 is CP Vinewood). Although the connector itself is single-track, Amtrak trains can now access both main tracks at both ends of the connector, thanks to the new crossovers installed on both CN and Conrail lines at CP West Detroit. The schematics also illustrate the elimination of conflicts between Amtrak trains and NS/CSX freight trains. The former move from Dearborn to Detroit (or in the opposite direction) via the newly built connector, while the latter move from the Livernois Yard or Toledo to Canada or Detroit (or in the opposite direction) via CP Scotten on the Conrail territory, and there is no single point of conflict between these movements any more.

The second rail project completed by MDOT this winter is a 9-mile (14-km) segment of the second main track between the Wayne Junction and the new Dearborn station on the former Michigan Central line (a part of the Wolverine Corridor currently owned by MDOT). All track work was finished before the end of last year, but the new track is not in service yet. According to MDOT, it is waiting for the Positive Train Control signal work to be completed before it can be placed in service. The new track has been constructed to the north of the existing track. Several crossovers have been added, and all grade crossings have been rebuilt as a part of this project.

The segments west of the Wayne Junction and east of the Dearborn station have been double-track for many years. Completion of the new second track between them creates a continuous double-track line from CP Ypsilanti to the West Detroit Connector, a distance of 25 miles (40 km). Moreover, since the single-track WDC is very short (about a quarter of a mile, or 400 m), and since a mile of second track has been added on the CN main line north of the WDC, almost all 28 miles (45 km) between CP Ypsilanti and the Detroit New Center station are now double-track, with the only exception of the connector. This expanded capacity paves the way for the future Ann Arbor - Detroit commuter rail, another overdue project for South-East Michigan. Double-tracking the segment between the Wayne Junction and Dearborn was also one of the stipulations of the sale of the former Michigan Central line to MDOT by Norfolk Southern, which retains freight trackage rights on this line.

In other news, both platforms are currently in use at the new Dearborn Amtrak station. The northern platform has been in service since December 2014, while the southern platform was not used until recently. During meets at this station, westbound trains typically stop at the northern platform, and eastbound trains now stop at the southern platform.

However, the gate between the southern platform and the Henry Ford Museum remains permanently closed, preventing easy pedestrian access to this major attraction and defying the concept of an “intermodal” station, more than a year after the station’s opening. Amtrak passengers are currently advised to take a more-than-a-mile-long roundabout taxi trip instead of a short direct walk between the platform and the museum. It is hoped that this deficiency will be rectified soon and the gate will eventually be opened and begin serving Amtrak passengers, as originally intended.

Other infrastructure improvements along the Wolverine Corridor will continue this year and next. All projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017, and higher-speed passenger service is expected to be initiated on this line shortly thereafter.