WRITER | JULIE FORD
Explore Michigan by Train and Bus
Taking the car on a trip is pretty much standard; after all, Michigan is still the Auto Capital of the World. With more than 95.1 billion miles driven on Michigan’s roads every year, it’s no wonder why the lanes are crowded. The plus side of driving is independence; the downside is traveling alongside distracted, inept drivers or in dicey weather that can quickly turn a fun road trip into an anxiety-laden, white-knuckled adventure. There’s another way to get around, and it’s growing in popularity: to take a train or bus.
With a little research and an open mind, this travel alternative is greener, friendlier, and, in some cases, more productive. While this may not be possible for work travel unless home and work are on a transit route, for quick getaways and vacations, trains and buses can provide a new perspective for exploring Michigan.
For example, let’s say a traveler who lives in Kalamazoo wants to shop at Somerset Mall in Troy but doesn’t want to drive the five-hour, almost 300-mile round trip. For less than $60 round trip, Amtrak’s Wolverine line leaves Kalamazoo mid-morning and arrives 3 1/2 hours later. Yes, it takes longer and costs a little more to take the train, but the opportunity for relaxing travel, conversing with fellow travelers, multitasking, or just enjoying the views not seen by car is appealing. The Troy Amtrak station is a half-mile walk to Somerset Mall or an inexpensive Lyft or Uber ride. Three hours later, the traveler can catch the train back to Kalamazoo and arrive late in the evening. Extend the trip through the weekend using a ride service to explore more of the area, and a weekend truly becomes a mini-vacation when the driving is left to someone else.
Amtrak has three routes through Michigan that begin in Chicago: the Wolverine travels through Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor and north to Pontiac; the Pere Marquette connects Chicago to Grand Rapids, with scenic views of Lake Michigan along the way; and the Blue Water heads to Battle Creek and continues northeast to Port Huron. If traveling beyond the train stations, Amtrak partners with several bus companies to many Michigan destinations, including the Upper Peninsula. In 2017, more than 800,000 travelers boarded Amtrak trains in Michigan – an 8.4-percent increase over 2016.
“I really enjoy the Wolverine line, especially when traveling through the Huron River Valley,” says Larry Krieg, Rail Passengers Association council representative for Michigan. “It’s different than behind the wheel – parallel to I-94, but you don’t see the same things from the train. You go by rivers, see deer in the fields; there are no billboards – I find it beautiful.”
Krieg mentions that a feasibility study is currently under way to explore rail service between Ann Arbor, Petoskey, and Traverse City. “Folks in Traverse City are dying to have a train – things are so congested,” notes Krieg, adding that the state-owned track already exists. Implementation of the connection began in 2015, with hopes of summer weekend service in 2021 and regular passenger service in 2025.
For bus travel, Indian Trails, Megabus, and Greyhound – with amenities including free Wi-Fi, individual power outlets, and extra legroom – can comfortably transport travelers from local pick-up points to Michigan vacation destinations. A more diverse way to see Michigan is with group tours carefully planned by recreation departments, community centers, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at both Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan, and private touring companies.
“I pride myself on helping people see what’s in their own backyard,” says Rose Szwed, president and “navigatrix” of Step On Bus Tours based in Hazel Park. For 25 years, Szwed has explored Michigan’s gems, including historic neighborhoods, churches, cultural spots, mystery tours, and festivals to offer the most interesting and exciting tours for all ages during the week and weekends. “The trips I offer are really different and unique,” explains Szwed, enthusiastically describing her recent and upcoming trips.
One of Szwed’s Step On Bus Tours of southwest Michigan’s largest Amish community includes a rare opportunity to learn first hand about the culture and to quilt alongside Amish quilters. Detroit’s historic homes and neighborhoods tours are also very popular, especially for architectural and interior design ideas. Too numerous to mention, her distinctive and well-researched trips around Michigan fill quickly. Szwed notes, “People want everything in one package, and they want to have fun.”
Warmer days lead to weekend escapes and rejuvenating vacations. Traveling Michigan by train or bus offers a panorama far beyond the rectangle of road over the steering wheel and allows more time to relax by leaving the driving to someone else.