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A high-speed passenger train service between Chicago and Detroit took two big steps forward Wednesday with a $196.5 million federal grant to Michigan and the state's acquisition of a 135-mile stretch of track.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it has awarded Michigan the funds for signal and track improvements on the rail line between Kalamazoo in western Michigan and Dearborn in suburban Detroit.
Also Wednesday, the state said that it has agreed to buy the tracks between the two cities from Norfolk Southern Railway for $140 million.
The purchase money comes from the U.S. Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration, also the funding source for the track improvements.
Officials said the improvements would allow trains to reach 110 mph on the segment. It will shave 30 minutes off travel on Amtrak's Wolverine and Blue Water services between Detroit and Chicago, the U.S. government said.
The line runs through Illinois, Indiana and Michigan and served about 480,000 passengers in the most recent federal fiscal year.
"Investing in rail service will spark economic development in communities along a corridor linking Detroit and Chicago, two vital Midwest cities," Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement. "A faster, reliable passenger rail system is a priority for younger generations and vital to Michigan's ability to compete globally as businesses look to locate or expand."
Snyder said the rail improvements will also speed freight transportation, a priority for Ford Motor Co. and other businesses along the rail corridor.
"This is an important investment that will reduce travel time, improve reliability and on-time performance, and attract more passengers," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "We are creating jobs in Michigan, building our rails with American-made materials and growing the regional economy."
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, said the effort will give residents additional transportation options.
"With gas prices as high as they are it is critically important that travelers have more choices in addition to driving," Stabenow said.
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, its acquisition of the rail line, combined with Amtrak's ownership of the segment from Porter, Ind., to Kalamazoo, puts about 80 percent of the Detroit-Chicago track under "passenger-friendly ownership."
Amtrak's passenger service has suffered at various times around the country because the freight carriers that own the tracks often give priority to their own freight trains.
The state agency said it will build a double track on the busiest freight segment of the line east of Ypsilanti "to ensure adequate capacity for both freight and passenger operations."
Federal Railroad Association: http://www.fra.dot.gov.
David N. Goodman can be reached at http://twitter.com/davidngoodman