Living in Grand Rapids and working in Holland, I would occasionally take Amtrak’s Pere Marquette to commute, and because of Amtrak Guest Reward’s generous 100-point minimum earning per one-way trip and multiple promotions, I have been racking up rewards points all spring. I decided this trip was a worthy way to spend some of those points, so I explored my options. At first, I thought I would drive down to Kalamazoo and catch the Wolverine to Detroit, but this would leave my car in Kalamazoo, which was not an option. I could take Indian Trails from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo, but the times did not work favorably, so I realized I would have to truly make an adventure of this by taking the Pere Marquette from Grand Rapids to Chicago, then the Wolverine from Chicago to Detroit. The price for both segments was practically the same, so I purchased (with a Student Advantage discount of fifteen percent) the Pere Marquette segment for $25.50 and redeemed 1,500 points for a free Wolverine segment. I would arrive in Detroit at 6:46pm, a mere nineteen minutes before the game started, which (if the train was on time) could not be more perfect.
Arising that morning at 6:15am, I prepared for the day and stepped outside to catch the Rapid’s Route 5 downtown. The sun was just rising as I stepped on the nearly-full bus and took a seat. Fifteen minutes later found me at Rapid Central Station, bustling with the rush of morning commuters. I walked the half mile down Wealthy Street to the Amtrak station, looking forward to the day Amtrak and the Rapid will be collocated once construction of the new Amtrak station is completed. About fifty people were waiting for the train inside the tiny station and out on the platform, and no conductor checked our tickets in advance, as was usual. I stepped outside to wait for the train, and it arrived shortly thereafter. I boarded, found a spacious seat in the second of three Superliner cars, and settled in for the (supposed) four-hour journey to Chicago.
This was the first time I had taken the Pere Marquette all the way to Chicago, and I had heard that this particular train was one of the most scenic short-distance trains in the country. I would not quite agree with that sentiment, although the views along the Lake Michigan shoreline are quite picturesque. However, I was greeted with much enjoyable scenery as I grabbed some coffee from the café and began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As we neared Chicago, we encountered significant delays that resulted in a late arrival into Union Station by 45 minutes. The car attendants, to their credit, did apologize time and again for our tardiness, but it was little issue for my itinerary, as my next train was not due to depart for an hour after our late arrival.
I had just enough time to find a nearby café and grab a bite to eat between trains, so I stepped out of Union Station into the bright sunshine along the river, found a nearby eatery, and ordered a sandwich. Having not eaten much breakfast, I was ready for some sustenance, and my lunch was consumed in short order. The city was bustling as I strolled along the river a ways before reentering the hulk of Union Station. I could not help but sigh at the design of the place as I descended into its depths. European rail stations, which I thoroughly enjoy, are large, open, and airy marvels of architecture; American stations, even the most prolific among them, are dark, claustrophobic, subterranean hovels. Navigating the dimly lit maze of passageways, I was reminded of a joke I overheard while departing New York’s Penn Station several months ago:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…and lead us not into Penn Station, but deliver us from evil…”
Finding my gate, I joined the sizable queue waiting to board. This train had an abundance of cars, so I was not concerned about having to share a seat. Not that I would have minded such company; however, the Amfleet I cars of which the train consisted are not the most spacious or accommodating, and I appreciated having a free seat beside me. I was glad to remember as well that Amtrak recently released their updated fleet renewal plan, which includes the near-term replacement of such old and well-used equipment.
The scenery passed by more slowly beyond Kalamazoo, and I nursed my woes with a very out-of-character can of Pepsi from the café car. Treasure Island proved to be a quick read, and I finished it just as we arrived in Battle Creek. The landscape became decidedly more wilderness-like the farther east we journeyed, and I took in a significant amount of wildlife: turkeys, cranes, turkeys, herons, turkeys, deer, and turkeys. Not a few strutting toms were to be seen, evidently nonplussed by the roaring train passing by.
Eventually, we pulled into Ann Arbor, where a number of commuters boarded for points beyond Detroit. I had read that a significant number of people used the Wolverine to commute, and now I was witness to that fact. Our progress slowed considerably between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and we stopped several times for lengthy periods, once even having to back up out of a side track after allowing the westbound Wolverine to pass. The sun was low in the sky as we pulled out of Dearborn, and with the end so close at hand and already running quite late, we pulled yet again to a stop, much to my chagrin. I could only stare out the window and wait; even once we got moving again, I felt I could bike faster than the train was moving. At this leisurely pace we trundled into Detroit, where I got off a full hour and twenty minutes late. I helped a woman get her enormous bag down the steps, walked out on to the street, and found the DDOT bus stop on Woodward. And waited.
|A view of Wolverine from my bus stop|
The bus came, ten minutes behind schedule, and the reason for its tardiness was apparent upon boarding. I stood most of the way down Woodward as a free seat was scarce to be found. When planning this trip, this segment made me most nervous, not because I was unfamiliar with city buses, but because I had heard less-than-flattering stories about the DDOT buses in particular. However, despite being very crowded (which can be seen as a very good thing, depending on how one measures the merit of a given passenger load), I was very comfortable with my admittedly short experience aboard. Comerica Park came into view, and I got off with Tigers baseball on the mind, finally having arrived at my destination.
In thinking about this adventure (odyssey might be a better word to describe it), I have come to realize a few things. First, I did not go through all this time and expense because it made sense. Between the cost (which would have been $62 if not for the redemption of rewards points and a student discount on the balance), time (a full 14 hours total, 11.5 hours on the train – I could have biked to Detroit faster), and nonsensical routing (462 miles instead of 150 miles), this trip did not make sense, especially given that the alternative was being the seventh passenger in a vanpool. Instead, I embarked on this adventure because I could. I had the time, resources, desire, and purpose to go, and I got to taste several new experiences along the way (full length of the Pere Marquette, 110mph speeds, essentially the full length of the Wolverine, connecting through Union Station, and a Tigers game to boot).
Second, I was able to demonstrate that travel without a car, even for shorter distances, is possible. True, no one in their right mind would take the journey I did, but it still works in a pinch, and it could pave the way toward a more comprehensive rail network that would make such trips more feasible. I do not understand why Amtrak does not connect Michigan’s two largest cities directly, but hopefully sometime in the future, this will become a reality. The Chicago-centric model Amtrak has decided to take in the Midwest leaves many desirable city pairs unserved or practically unserved; perhaps this is an opportunity for an alternative rail model to take shape under the direction of a different, complementary transportation authority (are you listening, Detroit?).
Apart from the rail issue, what I was very pleased with (and what actually does work very well) is the connection between rail and public transit. On both ends (and in Chicago, for that matter), getting to and from the train station is simple and nearly effortless. Even in Detroit, with its chronic transit woes, the DDOT Route 53 straight down Woodward was just what I needed to get from the station to Comerica Park. A transit system that works and allows for intermodal transportation is a valuable asset, one any city should be reticent to neglect. Even Detroit is making strides toward a more comprehensive transit network in the development of a regional transit authority, encouraged by the work of such organizations as Trans4M. Transit matters, pure and simple.
Third, despite the delays, Amtrak truly is a low-stress form of transportation. Get a ticket and get right on board, no security necessary. Find a large, spacious seat, and feel free to stroll around. Grab some coffee from the café car, take in the scenery, always have the right-of-way (at least with respect to cars), and do whatever task suits your fancy. Depart and arrive right downtown, and forget dealing with traffic, gas prices, and road conditions. I will always consider the train for my travel needs, and even though I will not always be able to choose it, I will make an effort to use it whenever possible. Just because it does not work all the time does not mean it never works; we should be using what we have to show the need for increased and improved service. Amtrak, federal and state governments, and the railroad industry are all moving in the right direction, and the more we are able to cheer them on through our use and advocacy of our existing rail network, the better the service we can expect in the years to come.
For those of you interested in the stats on this trip, here they are:
Total travel time: 14:00
Total train time: 11:30
Pere Marquette: 04:45
Total bus time: 00:30
Total wait time: 02:00
Total cost: $27.50
Total train cost: $25.50
Total bus cost: $2.00
Total distance travelled: 462.7 miles
Total train distance: 457 miles
Total bus distance: 5.3 miles
Total walking distance: 0.4 miles
Total carbon footprint: 200 pounds CO2
Amtrak Guest Rewards points redeemed: 1,500
Amtrak Guest Rewards points earned: 100
Number of passersby who waved at the train: at least 15
Number of tom turkeys sighted in full plumage: at least 5
Number of times I thought, “I’d rather be driving”: 0