Chicago-Toronto train service to return by 2027

By Terry Johnson | Intercity Rail and Bus

Nov 16
Map of proposed passenger rail connection between Windsor and Detroit, using Essex Terminal Railway and CPKC trackage to reach the tunnel.

Since 2019, Amtrak has been working to reinstate cross-border service between Chicago and Toronto, as envisaged in the Amtrak ConnectsUS plan.

On November 15, 2023 the Mayor of Windsor, Drew Dilkens, sent a letter of support to Canada’s federal Minister of Transport Pablo Rodriguez, endorsing the business case which Amtrak and VIA Rail had submitted to Transport Canada in late October. A summary of the business case was also released to the media, although Transport Canada has yet to make a funding decision for further design work.

The plan calls for the Amtrak services to call at a reopened Michigan Central Station in Detroit, where Ford Motor Company’s renovations have made provision for the reinstatement of passenger rail service; pass through the tunnel to Windsor on CPKC trackage; and then reach VIA Rail’s station using the Essex Terminal Railway’s tracks, which would need to be significantly upgraded. Rather than operating as a through train, passengers would alight at Windsor and pass through a new border clearance facility before boarding a VIA train to Toronto. The initial estimate of the project cost is around $200 million, including $44 million of investment in Windsor, with services expected to commence in 2027 if funding is approved.

The return of cross border passenger service is strongly supported by passenger advocates on both sides of the border including the Michigan Association of Rail Passengers and the US High Speed Rail Alliance, as part of an expanded Midwest network.

Proposed Schedules

The recently released briefing note suggested that Amtrak’s Wolverine trains 350 and 355 may be diverted to Windsor, providing connections with VIA trains 73 and 76 from and to Toronto, and a total journey time of around 11 hours.

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Chicago [CT]06452125
Dearborn [ET]12571715
Detroit MCR13141700
Windsor (Amtrak)13291645
Windsor (VIA)14291545

An hour is allowed for border clearance in Windsor, which may not be enough to accommodate the risk of a delay to either service; the proposed later arrival of train 76 in Toronto would the connection with train 48 to Ottawa unless that schedule was also adjusted.

However, these schedules are very likely to be adjusted before the plan comes to fruition because both railways would like to add additional frequencies. Transport Canada is currently studying additional VIA Rail service for SW Ontario. Amtrak is also working to extend 110 mph running from Albion to Dearborn, after commissioning the segment between Kalamazoo and Albion in May 2021, completing a 300-mile higher-speed corridor, which will reduce travel times to below 5 hours and increase demand for additional frequencies.

Why Windsor?

One key element of this proposal is the choice of Windsor as the border clearance point and interchange between Amtrak and VIA Rail trains, rather than constructing the border post at the Detroit Michigan Central Station where new passenger facilities will need to be built anyway. The business case submitted by Amtrak to Transport Canada may contain an explanation for this which has not yet been made public.

A full comparison of the options ought to be completed and published, because there are several reasons to question the choice of Windsor, most importantly that there is strong demand for Detroit-Toronto travel and this market segment would be better served without the delay of a change of trains.

To reach the VIA Rail station in the Walkerville district of Windsor, Amtrak trains would have to traverse five miles of Canadian trackage, through an urban area with multiple road crossings. Monitoring this to the full satisfaction of US Customs and Border Protection and Canada Border Services is likely to be considerably more challenging than the 600 metres of fully grade separated track between the tunnel portal and station in Detroit.

There is also a risk that any new border facility at Walkerville would have to be relocated if the train service is upgraded. Both the 2016 Ontario High Speed Rail Report and the 2008 Windsor Strategic Rail Study recommended rerouting passenger rail services by upgrading the CPKC Windsor Subdivision between Chatham and Windsor, which leads directly to the tunnel. This would require a new Windsor station, nearer the university and downtown.

Once Amtrak’s upgrades to the Wolverine corridor are complete, it could also be possible to work the additional round trip from Chicago to Detroit in a single crew shift, resulting significant operational savings.

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Chicago [CT]10152100
Dearborn [ET]15451730
Detroit MCR (Amtrak)16001715
Detroit MCR (VIA)17151610
Potential timings with a border crossing point in Detroit

However, the politics of border security might not allow the best technical solution to be implemented, and another factor behind the decision to run Amtrak trains to Windsor rather than VIA trains to Detroit may be Positive Train Control, which is mandatory in the United States, while Canada has yet to make a decision on similar technology. The short distance US border to Michigan Central could either require PTC-equipped locomotives or a waiver that the FRA may be reluctant to approve. Should Canada’s pending decision on Enhanced Train Control be compatible with the technology used in the United States, which seems likely, this difficulty may be resolved before 2027.  

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