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Amtrak Hopes to Link Chicago and Detroit to Toronto

Amtrak is pushing to restore passenger service between Detroit and Toronto which could coincide with the restoration of Michigan Central Station.

Midwesterners may have a one-seat ride to Canada if Amtrak gets federal funding to add passenger service between Detroit and Toronto — a move that could take cars and buses off the roads and strengthen ties between the industrial Midwest and our neighbor to the north.

Amtrak floated its proposal to extend its 304-mile Wolverine Line into Ontario last Thursday during the Michigan Rail Conference at Michigan State University. The new line would give Michigan business leaders, commuters, and tourists another option to get to Toronto beyond driving four hours on Canadian highways.

"For many of our regional routes, our primary competition is the automobile," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Streetsblog. "As anyone who has driven between here in Chicago and Toronto over the years including me knows, there has to be a better way than slogging across I-94 (and I-69) and then the 401 (or 402)."

The initiative, which does not yet have a price tag, would consist of the construction of a new facility to process passports at the Michigan-Canadian border and track upgrades on the Canadian side. Once the train crossed the border, it would run as a Via Rail Canada corridor line to Toronto, according to the plan.

The route itself is still up for discussion. It could either run between Detroit and Windsor, perhaps through an existing freight tunnel or utilize a shuttle bus over an international crossing such as the future Gordie Howe Bridge. Or it could run along existing rail lines between Detroit and Port Huron, Mich., through a tunnel to Sarnia, Ontario with a Via operating crew, and onto Toronto. The feasibility of either route as well as crew and equipment transfers has not been studied yet.

“There would be multiple railroads to work with that we currently partnership with, and so it would take some cooperation to get such service going,” Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Frezell told WOOD-TV.

In March, Amtrak included an item for the “Restoration of the Detroit-Toronto Service” alongside other funding priorities for Fiscal Year 2020, such as an upgrade of Chicago's Union Station, rehabilitating its East River tunnel, improving the Gulf Coast line in Alabama, and an extension of the Heartland Flyer in Kansas in its annual report for Congress.

Congress had allocated $1.8 billion for Amtrak projects in 2015 as part of the FAST Act but that funding is mostly spoken for and won't cover projects on Amtrak's newest wish list. The railway operator plans on sending a revised request with a cost estimates later in the year, a sign that the corridor is an area Amtrak sees promise.

"We believe that a modernization of the National Network, with the right level of dedicated and enhanced federal funding, would allow Amtrak to serve more passengers efficiently while preserving our ability to maintain other routes," Magliari said.

Passenger service hasn't chugged between Detroit and Toronto since at least 1971; the last direct train to pass through the route did so in 1967, according to Amtrak.

Travelers seeking a public transit option between Michigan and Ontario either catch the Detroit-Windsor tunnel bus before jumping on a VIA train for a four-hour ride to Toronto or hop on a Greyhound from Amtrak's Dearborn station for a nearly seven hour road trip. Some passengers even take a two-hour Amtrak shuttle bus from Detroit's New City station on Woodward to Port Huron and transfer to Via Rail service at Sarina but that involves an overnight stay in the area.

The return of the Wolverine line could coincide with the reopening of Detroit's iconic Michigan Central Station. Ford purchased the transit depot for $90 million last year and plans a $1-billion restoration to transform the site into a campus for making electric and self-driving automobiles.

That could include reintroducing the space as a hub for regional rail lines as well as Amtrak. The Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority commissioned a $30,000 feasibility study in April.

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