All Aboard

Ever since the City of Detroit sold its streetcar system to Mexico in the mid-1950s, fans of rail transportation have longed for a modern replacement.
R.J. King animated headshot
R.J. King

Ever since the City of Detroit sold its streetcar system to Mexico in the mid-1950s, fans of rail transportation have longed for a modern replacement.

But the concept never left the station — save for the QLine, which runs up and down Woodward Avenue between Hart Plaza and New Center. The 3.3-mile trek, which opened for service in 2017, is ideal for local residents and visitors but it doesn’t connect to a wider rail network, like the L in Chicago.

Over the years, mass transit proponents routinely sought access to existing rail lines to bring forward an efficient train system to connect the city with the suburbs, but high costs, along with political indifference, have doomed every effort. These days, few people are talking about mass transit for the region, especially since the pandemic exposed the risk of crowding people into confined spaces.

Even so, our abundance of rail lines — a vestige of the Industrial Age that saw Detroit build thousands of locomotives and railcars between 1840 and 1930 for use around the country — have, in recent years, turned into a community asset. Long an eyesore, unused railroad tracks are now serving to connect neighborhoods via landscaped passageways complemented by retail shops, food trucks, and community events.

Few people recall when rail lines ran parallel and perpendicular to the Detroit River — at the site of today’s Renaissance Center was Brush Street Station, while to the west was the original Michigan Central Station at Fort and Fourth streets — but most know that what were formerly tracks for the Grand Trunk Western Railroad have been converted into the Dequindre Cut greenway (its two phases opened in 2009 and 2016).

The landscaped passageway, which runs from Gratiot Avenue to Atwater Street, has been a popular attraction for east side residents and visitors. Now comes the west side’s equivalent, with construction underway for the Southwest Greenway, a mile-long former rail line that will connect the future Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park along the riverfront to Ford Motor Co.’s emerging Michigan Central mobility innovation district at Michigan Avenue and 14th Street.

The Southwest Greenway, scheduled to open this fall, is a key part of the Joe Louis Greenway, a $211-million, 27.5-mile path under construction around Detroit that will provide greater connectivity to the riverfront and the suburbs. The Southwest Greenway and the Joe Louis Greenway, which is projected to be completed in 2030, are just a portion of the 160 miles of paved trails in southeast Michigan.

“This really is an extraordinary time in Detroit, with so much work being done to create beautiful new recreational opportunities that connect our neighborhoods to our riverfront and to each other,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan says.

Both the city and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy are helping to oversee the existing and upcoming greenway system. The Conservancy, formed in 2003, has invested more than $200 million in the revitalization of the riverfront. Its efforts are highlighted by the River Walk, which will soon stretch from Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge.

The Conservancy reports it has generated $2 billion in public and private investment. But there’s more to funding new civic infrastructure beyond removing eyesores, explains David Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation in Detroit. “Parks and trails contribute greatly to the quality of life in our region, bringing with (them) better public health outcomes and helping people connect more to one another and places,” Egner says.

R.J. King