Amtrak Hopes to Link Chicago and Detroit to Toronto

The extension of the Wolverine Line is part of a plan to refurbish its national network outside the northeast.

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

10 thoughts on Amtrak Hopes to Link Chicago and Detroit to Toronto

  1. A single seat service to Toronto would be nice. But first Amtrak should get its house in order on the existing Chicago-Detroit segment. It suffers from the standard Amtrak requirement to yield to freight trains. Passengers are exposed to random 2-4 hour delays on that link between Chicago and Detroit. Very few passengers are going to endure such delays because flying is faster and more reliable.

  2. I have taken this route 3 times this year. From Chicago to Toronto: Amtrak 350-Q-line-Tunnel bus-Transit Windsor Crosstown 2 bus-VIA 78.From Toronto to Chicago:VIA 71-Transit Windsor crosstown 2-Tunnel bus-Q-line-Amtrak 350.The transit connection is about 1 hour between stations.The fastest way to get this up and running would be to extent the Transit Windsor Tunnel bus route twice a day to connect the stations.Amtrak 350-Tunnel bus new extended route-Via 78….Via 71-Tunnel bus new extended route-Amtrak 350.This trip can be made in one day and people are already doing it daily.

  3. I don’t think cross-border single-seat rides work very well. The Toronto-New York train requires a long, LONG stop in Niagara Falls so that everyone can get through customs and the train crews can change. It’s a bit of a waste of time. It’s especially frustrating that the both the Canadian side and American side have relatively frequent bus and train service, but there’s only one very slow train per day that actually crosses the border. It would be better to have a Chicago-Windsor train or a Toronto-Detroit train or just a Detroit-Windsor train. Then, people can then go through customs at their own pace and switch to a different train/bus as soon as they make it through. Also, in the past, Canada has been reluctant to supply customs officers for little-used border crossings unless someone else pays up, so that will likely throw a wrench in the works too.

  4. There was a time when you used to take the train across the border but stayed in your seat as the customs officers simply walked the aisle. That changed after 9/11 when the US went crazy with border security theatre and now everyone has to get off. The process does indeed suck compared to, say, the EU.

  5. The cascades route between Seattle and Vancouver does a quick, in seat passport check to supplement customs in Vancouver since there are no intermediate stops on the Canadian side of the route. The Chinese fire drill in Niagara Falls is a ridiculous spectacle to have to take part in and could be done similarly to the cascades border check.

  6. @JohnRodgers

    I agree – having done both train trips, the Niagara Falls 1.5 hour stop (whether or not Homeland Security is finished) is a serious disincentive to train travel. I’ve read the NY State HS staff don’t like having to drive there from Buffalo Gilbert Perrault Airport to check the train, so they make it as onerous as possible.

  7. This is a great concept. It needs to go through Detroit and use the Michigan Central station. An overnight train from Chicago to Toronto with set out sleepers like the Caledonian Sleeper in Britain would be a real winner. Coupled with three day trains, this would be a great service. Customs is not a huge issue. I just rode the Adirondack, and it wasn’t bad at all. They came through the train. It’s not pie in the ski. This is very doable. The corridor is anchored by cities with excellent public transit and many people that don’t own cars.

  8. Can’t believe this doesn’t already exist. What a country….
    I took Amtrak from Ann Arbor to Chicago 4 years ago. Nice ride, and helped by the Zingerman’s sandwich purchased on the way from UMich campus to station.

  9. Still waiting for Amtrak to connect to San Francisco. You know, the supposed tech capital of the world.

  10. Needs support of state (and province, in the case of Ontario) government.

    Amtrak gets delayed by the damn freight railroad companies, which are breaking the law. But the only way to fix that is for the states to buy the tracks.

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