Railmark Canada Ltd. is set to assume the operations of the Algoma Central Railway passenger service. The company, a Canadian subsidiary of Railmark Holdings Inc., recently finalized a set of agreements with CN to acquire assets and take over the Sault-to-Hearst rail line. Railmark has a plan in place to ensure the long-term viability of the transportation link.
For more than 15 years, Railmark has operated in 19 countries around the world, including a significant presence in Ontario and Michigan. The company operates short-line railways and tourist rail expeditions such as dinner and entertainment tours. Railmark also provides rail logistics and mechanical services.
“We see great potential in the ACR passenger service,” said Allen Brown, President and CEO of Railmark. “We look forward to continuing to engage with the regional stakeholders, CN and the Government of Canada to keep the line operating and make it a viable and sustainable operation.”
In September 2014, the ACR Passenger Service Stakeholders Working Group, with consensus from CN, which owns the ACR, undertook a request for proposal (RFP) process to identify a qualified third party to take over the remote passenger line. A number of bids were submitted. After a due diligence process, CN selected Railmark’s proposal to continue operating the remote passenger rail service. In a separate procurement process, Railmark was also chosen by CN to operate the Agawa Canyon Train Tour.
“CN is pleased to have concluded an agreement with Railmark Canada Ltd. to assume operation of the Sault Ste. Marie-to-Hearst, Ontario, passenger train, along with the Agawa Canyon Train Tour,” said Luc Jobin, CN’s Executive Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer. “CN believes Railmark’s passenger train expertise will benefit the operation of both services.”
As part of its bid to operate the ACR passenger rail line, Railmark outlined its plans to increase ridership by expanding the number of offerings while ramping up services and marketing efforts. Specifically, the company intends on adding dining tours and other entertainment-based voyages. By presenting a greater variety of excursions and providing a higher-value purchase for passengers, its business plan sees the remote rail service becoming self-sustaining within five years.
In January 2014, Transport Canada announced its intention to cut its annual investment into the ACR passenger service. The Working Group was then formed to come up with solutions to keep the regional transportation line in operation. The Federal Government later issued a one-year funding extension, which is set to expire March 31, 2015.
Based on an economic impact assessment from BDO Canada, the ACR passenger service currently generates between $38 and $48 million in annual economic activity, supports more than 200 jobs, and generates over $5 million in tax revenue each year. With Railmark’s expansion plans for the ACR, these numbers are expected to increase considerably. The discontinuation of the rail service will result in a significant loss of these current and future benefits, along with and an additional one-time impact on the values of properties located on, or in close proximity to, the rail line in an amount between $60 million and $67 million.
In recent years, the Government of Canada has been investing $2.2 million annually into the remote ACR passenger line. Under Railmark’s proposal, the amount needed from Transport Canada is $7 million over five years, considerably less than previous investments from the ministry. And after the five-year period, Railmark’s business plan calls for an end to public funding as the service becomes self-sustainable.
“The Federal Government has the ability to keep this critical remote service in operation for a relatively limited investment,” said Joe Fratesi, Chair of the Working Group and CAO for the City of Sault Ste. Marie. “With time running out before the March 31 funding deadline, we look forward to hearing back from Transport Canada in the near future on the ministry’s decision to help keep this transportation link in operation. Our MP, Bryan Hayes, has been very helpful at ensuring this critical issue remains top of mind for the government, and his efforts to date are appreciated.”
The Working Group represents a larger committee of concerned regional stakeholders, including the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation, Municipality of Wawa, Town of Hearst, First Nations, Township of Dubreuilville, Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association, Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, and home, cottage and land owners serviced by the ACR line.
A passenger train service in Northern Ontario won’t just survive by increasing its passenger base.
The increased passenger base will come over a short time if operators think outside the box, create products, destinations and top-notch services that make them yearning to come back again.
That’s the vision that B. Allen Brown, CEO of Railmark Holdings Inc., has for a rebranded train service in Northern Ontario to be called Agawa Star Passenger Train.
“I believe this can become the best destination for tour trains in North America,” Brown said in an interview with The Sault Star. “Everyone loves trains, but most have never experienced a real train and we’re going to bring that experience to them in a number of different ways. You have to think outside of the box.”
Brown is proceeding with his plans as if Transport Canada has already agreed to the agreements penned between his company, CN Rail and the local stakeholder’s group, to operate both the passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, and the Algoma Canyon Tour Train.
He’s already spoken to CN employees, is looking to establish a “central” train station that can be easily spotted from the International Bridge and is searching for new employees to make his vision a reality.
The Transport Canada agreement is the only missing piece of the puzzle.
Transport Canada currently has all the information it needs to complete its due diligence before determining whether it will provide the requested $7 million in subsidies over a five year period to operate the train system.
Sault MP Bryan Hayes said “to my knowledge officials have now” received all required documentation and are very close to making a recommendation in terms of options for the Minister to consider.”
Hayes said he’s pushing for an expedited decision once the minister has reviewed the file and recommendation.
“I’m not sure if those have been presented to her yet as I have been traveling, but hope to know more soon. Of course, I am hoping for continued funding and will know more early next week I expect,” he said.
But for Brown and his company, plans to soon be running the trains are chugging along.
Railmark Holdings Inc. is described as a 15-year-old American rail industry holding company with subsidiaries that provide railroad services in railroad operations, track construction and maintenance, rail freight logistics, rail development and railroad mechanical services.
While the company is mostly U.S.-based and headquartered in Michigan, it has conducted railroad business in 16 other countries.
Brown has been in the rail business since the industry was deregulated in the United States in 1981 and he wrote papers on the deregulation for his university thesis.
Brown has reviewed the books, examined the numbers and easily concludes that the passenger service, as it exists today, will never make ends meet without government assistance.
But his plan calls for strategic marketing in the U.S. and southern Ontario markets and the creation of new experiences that will enhance the train.
He expects that by August, new weekend dinner trains, complete with a special train chef – just short three-hour hauls – will be in place, offering various forms of entertainment, romance and family dinner experiences.
Other weekend experiences to be added will be theme train experiences like “princess train trips” or “magic train trips” that will attract the younger rider and let children live their dream of riding the rails.
The Agawa Canyon Tour Train will offer more interactive activities, better food and the Snow Train will make a return during the winter months, he said.
“We need to make sure we can hit all the cylinders from the time a person picks up the phone to book a trip right through to the time they step off the train,” Brown said. “Marketing and customer service are the key to the success of any business.”
And to ensure that customers – either locals or tourists – return, Brown is establishing a cross promotion package at the soon-to-be-released website railperks.com where special packages and offers can be found for return visits.
Railmark Holdings is injecting millions of dollars into the Brown’s vision, which follows his company’s slogan A Train of Thought.
In addition, he expects to add a locomotive and six more passenger rail carts to the fleet.
Various agreements will ensure the tracks and rail bed are maintained to government standards.
“That slogan was developed in 1998 when our company was doing a lot of construction and maintenance work and customers did not always have a good experience with others in the rail experience. We wanted to make that experience better,” he said. “Our mission is to deliver industrial or retail customers service that exceeds their expectations.”
Brown knows that in its prime, the Agawa Canyon Tour would see more than 80,000 visitors a season, 35% of which came from Michigan alone and another large chunk from other American markets.
“Our research shows that moms and dads loved their train experience, but now we have a disconnected generation and we need to reconnect them and show them what the train and Northern Ontario has to offer,” he said.
After all, Northern Ontario has four distinct seasons that present an array of activities for the outdoor sportsmen, naturalist and eco-tourist. Package it all together and Brown sees success in one-day – or shorter, several-hour – trips.
“He’s working on the premise that he’s providing this service in a couple weeks and he’s going to keep moving forward until he hears otherwise,” said Tom Dodds, co-chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Stakeholders working group tasked with finding a solution to save the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger rail service.
Railmark Holdings has said it needs to hire more than 30 employees ranging from rail operators to ticket and marketing agents and food services operators to security.
Brown said he spoke with CN employees and understands that some may choose to take their severance packages and retire but he’s hopeful some will make the move his way.
“I want people to work for us who are passionate about customer service and the industry,” he said.
Railmark Holdings does not currently operate any passenger service but it has operated dinner trains and has experience with short-line railway.
The now defunct dinner trains in the U.S. shut down for different reasons, Brown said.
The Michigan Star Clipper Dinner Train halted its operations after the State of Michigan purchased land from Railmark during the recession in 2009.
And the Columbia Star Dinner Train ended its run after the City of Columbia cancelled its contract with Railmark, after a business merger failed between Railmark and Train Travel, Inc., he said.
Dodds said Brown’s philosophy is on track.
“To grow and sustain the system, as an operator you need to increase the passenger base, increase the value of the experience for the passengers and increase a variety of options to attract more people or keep them coming back,” he said.
He’s confident Railmark Holdings can do the job.
Brown is “an entrepreneur and he wants to drive this forward and he has the full support of the community efforts behind him to make this work.”
In the near future, Brown also wants to establish a train station, with some line extensions so the tour train, passenger train and extra rail cars can all be stored together, with a station building in the middle.
While the Destination North site has been considered, Brown said there are limitations to the site with the road system and overhead wires.
He prefers the Gateway site where a small station can be built and rail lines created to accommodate the train system.
Brown anticipates that his vision will create an additional 22 jobs, and if his passenger service system grows to other locations in Ontario as he hopes, the future could mean that passenger customer service headquarters will be created in Sault Ste. Marie.
Just over a year ago it was announced that the federal government was cancelling its $2.2-million annual subsidy for the local passenger service. A one-year extension was granted by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in order to give local stakeholders time to develop a local solution that would save the passenger rail service used by the rural communities, property owners and tourist operators along the route. That extension ends March 31.
Via Rail is looking at building a dedicated passenger rail network in the Quebec City-Windsor corridor to improve its on-time performance and boost ridership, says the company’s CEO.
“It’s a definite possibility, meaning that we are acquiring track as it becomes available in the corridor,” Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said in an interview with CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.
Desjardins-Siciliano, named as president and CEO of Via Rail Canada last spring, said he believes he can raise private capital to fund the purchase of track.
He admits that 98 per cent of Via’s trains run on someone else’s track, which means that passenger trains take second place to long, slow freight trains.
Freight railways CN and CP are carrying more oil, more grain and more goods of every kind across Canada, which means there’s more likelihood of freight trains needing the rails.
“When they do, then the passenger train takes the side track and waits for the freight train to get along. So that congestion issue is what stands in way of greater penetration of train travel for passengers and increasing ridership, he said.
“That is why we are advocating looking into building a dedicated track network.”
On-time performance fell in 2014
Via’s on-time performance declined last year to about 77 per cent because of increased freight traffic, Desjardins-Siciliano said. His goal is to improve that performance to attract more passengers as trains currently run at about 60 per cent capacity.
Desjardins-Siciliano said he believes there is an appetite in Canada for more rail travel, both from younger passengers who welcome the opportunity to relax in an environment where they can use social media and older travellers who would prefer not to drive.
There is also an opening for Via to provide more regional service around Toronto and Montreal where commuters are frustrated by congested highways, he said.
He points to an investment of private money, including Canadian pension funds, in the track for the U.K. to France Chunnel as proof that there is interest in rail infrastructure among private investors.
Currently, the federal government underwrites Via’s operating costs to the tune of $350 million a year.
Desjardins-Siciliano said the taxpayer has paid enough and he believes the passenger rail service can make money in the Windsor to Quebec corridor, with the help of a private-sector upgrade.
He estimates upwards of $3.5 billion of investment in track alone would be necessary to carry Via’s current diesel engines, which can go about 100 mph (160 kph). A high-speed network would be at least three times as expensive, so that’s not in the cards, he said.
“So I think the objective, my objective obviously, would be to reduce the government subsidy to where it’s a pure public service,” he said.
That would mean the Ontario to Quebec network would pay for itself and provide a return to investors, while service to remote locations, such as Churchill, Man., White River, Ont., and Prince Rupert, B.C., would continue to need a subsidy.
The North-South Commuter Rail (WALLY) is a proposed 27-mile long commuter rail service that would connect Ann Arbor and Howell, with intermediate stops along the way. It is being evaluated as a way to improve mobility along US-23 and to promote economic development and job creation in the region.
A feasibility study is being undertaken by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) to assess in detail the feasibility of the North-South Commuter Rail service. This federally-funded study will take about 15 months to complete and will consist of distinct phases and tasks that have been identified in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The results of this assessment, which includes in-depth public and stakeholder involvement, will be used to determine project costs, ridership, potential station locations, and the capacity and willingness of the affected communities to build, operate and help fund the project. If the project is found feasible, the study will help to prepare the project for future federal funding.
Two community meetings have already been held, one on March 12th at the Brighton Community Center and one on March 16th at the Ann Arbor District Library. A third meeting has been scheduled for:
Monday, March 30, 6:30-8:30 PM
Bennett Recreation Center
925 W. Grand River
The intent of these meetings is to provide an update on the status of the North-South Commuter Rail (WALLY) project and an overview of the feasibility study. There will be a presentation at the beginning of the meeting followed by discussion to answer questions and obtain public input on the project and the process. The presentation and format will be the same for all three meetings.
In addition to the meetings, an interactive website has been established and your participation is encouraged (www.nsrailstudy.com). For additional information, please contact Michael Benham at AAATA at (734) 794-1851 or email@example.com.
The number of train-vehicle crashes has spiked in recent years and the blame is being squarely put on one factor: driver error, including distracted driving.
Michigan has the 10th highest collision rate in the country with 78 crashes last year: 12 people were killed and 25 were injured, according to recent figures released by the Federal Railroad Administration.
In 2013, there were 61 crashes, three fatalities and 26 were injured. From 2013 to last year, those killed in the state in railway crashes is up almost 35 percent.
Increased regulations and safety measures over the last 40 years contributed to a steady decline in the number of accidents nationally, but experts say this recent uptick in Michigan and nationwide is due to multitaskers at the wheel and distraction from smartphones and electronic devices.
Nationally, the numbers of train collisions are up as well. The federal railroad agency now says every three hours in America a person is struck by a train. In 2014, there were 267 fatalities from crashes, compared with 231 in 2013, a rise of about 19 percent. Trespasser incidents (meaning pedestrians on the tracks) accounted for 526 killed last year — up 22 percent from 2013.
“The sad truth is that nearly all these deaths are preventable,” said Sam Crowl, state coordinator of Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide nonprofit promoting railroad crossing safety and trespassing prevention. People are just in too much of a rush, he said.
“Impatient drivers just don’t care; they are going to hurry across,” said Crowl, a former locomotive engineer and Conrail safety official.
The nonprofit launched a campaign on social media including Twitter with reminders to pay attention when coming to a train crossing. The campaign stresses “Around train tracks, stay focused — stay alive.”
48-year-old first fatality of year
This month, a 48-year-old woman in Wexford County, about 20 miles south of Traverse City, became the state’s first train collision fatality of 2015.
Around 10 a.m. March 3, Kathryn M. Paddock of Liberty Township was traveling on East 14 Road when she struck a northbound train and was killed instantly. Police said neither speed nor alcohol were factors.
“She lived a mile and a half down the road,” said Wexford County Sheriff’s Lt. Greg Webster. “She actually ran into the train. There were no skid marks.”
Sheriff Deputy Arjay Schopieray added that weather could have played a role in the accident. “At the time the accident occurred, there was freezing rain and sleet,” he said.
This was not the first time train tragedy struck the family. In June 1994, Paddock’s brother-in-law Brian G. Paddock collided with a train at the same railroad crossing and also was killed. He was 32.
The crossing is “well marked,” Webster said, with a crossbuck sign that tells drivers to yield if a train is approaching.
“It was the same with the brother,” said Webster, who investigated both incidents. “They just didn’t expect the train to be coming.”
Perhaps the state’s worst crash in recent memory was the fatal car train crash in Canton Township in July 2009, when five young victims, including two teenage brothers, were killed.
The driver of the Ford Fusion passed at least two cars stopped at the Hannan railroad crossing before maneuvering around the safety gates into the train’s path.
“The gates were down and the car swerved around to try to beat the train,” Crowl said. “Engineers will tell you: We see people trying to race their way across all the time. All it takes is one person to think they can outsmart the train. And they can’t.”
The Michigan Department of Transportation has an annual safety program that installs enhanced warning devices at crossings where it is warranted. Nothing, however, takes the place of drivers’ heeding safety warnings.
“MDOT concurs with Operation Lifesaver that train/vehicle crashes can occur because of driver impatience or being distracted,” said MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell. “We encourage drivers to be safe at every railroad crossing and expect a train anytime. And we stand behind Michigan Operation Lifesaver’s campaign to ‘look, listen, and live’ at every crossing.”
After a recent string of deadly crashes involving vehicles and commuter trains nationwide, congressional lawmakers called for the federal government to boost the safety of railroad crossings.
But, on Wednesday, Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in news reports that Congress should avoid a “knee jerk reaction.”
“It’s almost always not the railroad’s fault that somebody gets hurt or some accident occurs at a grade crossing,” he said. “It’s the passenger vehicle or the truck trying to run a crossing when it should stop.”
On Saturday in a Louisville, Kentucky, neighborhood, authorities say a car containing four people was hit after train signals were disregarded. Two people were killed and two were injured. The vehicle was dragged about a half mile.
The Kentucky accident was the fourth serious train crash in the country in less than two months.
A Feb. 3 crash on a railway crossing just north of New York City involved the driver of an SUV who police said mistakenly thought she had more time.
According to officials, the flashing lights at the crossing activated 39 seconds before the train arrived, and the gates came down seconds later. After spotting the SUV on the tracks, the engineer hit the emergency brake and the train slowed from 58 mph to 49 mph up to the point of the collision.
Witnesses said the crossing gate came down on the rear of the Mercedes SUV. Ellen Brody, the driver, got out, most likely to inspect the damage, and then got back in her vehicle. After a brief pause, she drove forward and was struck by the train. She and five people on the train were killed.
“The collision was due to human error,” Crowl said. “It was completely preventable, and that’s what makes education and enforcement so important.”
“By getting out and getting back in, she wasted precious seconds,” Crowl said. “The gates are made of a very weak material; they are meant to break off. We tell people if they are on the tracks when lights start flashing, keep driving through.”
The collision remains under investigation.
Investigator blames law breakers
At age 22, Crowl became the youngest engineer on the Pennsylvania railroad. He spent 45 years as locomotive engineer; for 15 years he served as safety superintendent for Conrail’s entire system. As such, Crowl has investigated hundreds of collisions and fatalities.
Without exception, “All of the incidents would not have happened if people complied with the law,” he said.
As data recorders and cameras on trains almost always bear out, the consistent determining factor is not faulty warning lights or crossing gates, but poor judgment on the part of a driver or pedestrian. The federal railroad agency says 94 percent of train-vehicle collisions can be attributed to driver error, which includes distracted driving.
The speed of a train is rarely a factor in train crashes, Crowl said. But drivers often misjudge the speed of an oncoming train.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to judge the speed of a train coming at you,” Crowl said. “It’s often hard to tell the difference between the speed of a freight train at 40 mph or a passenger train at 110 mph.”
People also think they can hear easily hear a train coming. Because modern railcars glide with low friction, “trains can be incredibly quiet, especially when traveling on level tracks,” Crowl said.
Little engineers can do to stop
It’s not easy to stop a train.
An average freight train traveling at 55 mph takes a mile or more to stop, which is the equivalent of 18 football fields.
For an engineer to see a car or person on the tracks and know the train cannot stop is the most helpless feeling imaginable, said Crowl, who was involved in two fatalities during his career.
“It’s horrible because there is nothing we can do. We don’t have a steering wheel. All you can do is put the brakes on.”
In 2004, a Bloomfield Hills school bus on its way to pick up students was hit by an Amtrak passenger train bound for Chicago at the railroad crossing at Kensington and Opdyke.
“The only person on the bus was the driver,” Crowl said, “but the engineer didn’t know it. He told me that after he stopped the train about a mile down the tracks he sat there wondering how many kids he might have killed.
“After that, he walked off the job and never came back to work. He was about 50 years old at the time, but that was it for him.”
Last weekend in Manton, train crash victim Kathryn “Kathy” Paddock was remembered as an adoring mother to her daughter, Elizabeth, and loving wife to husband Jay. She worked part time at Bath and Body Works, and found great joy in being a nanny for a local family. She also loved researching and testing out new cupcake recipes, or occasionally going out on a “girls night” with close friends.
Jay Paddock, Kathy’s husband and Brian Paddock’s brother, said he was too grief stricken to be interviewed. But he stressed in an email to The Detroit News: “There was no wrongdoing on the part of anyone or anything with the train. My wife either did not see the train in time or did not try soon enough to stop with the weather conditions.
“There is a yield sign at the crossing and we have lived and driven over these tracks enough to know we need to look for trains there. My brother was killed at the same crossing June 9, 1994. He drove over the tracks without looking or slowing down. It was his fault he was hit, not the railroad’s.”
A sample of accidents involving trains:
Dec. 5, 2001: Two State Police troopers rushing to help an officer who radioed for assistance tried to beat a train to the Scott Lake Road crossing in Waterford. Witnesses say the patrol car passed six vehicles stopped at the railroad crossing, ignored the flashing lights and the closed gated and drove into the path of an oncoming freight train.
June 4, 2004: A railroad gate failed to lower in time to stop a Charlotte woman from driving into the path of an oncoming train in a collision that killed her and her 15-year-old daughter.
July 4, 2006: A 70-year-old man was killed in a train-car collision at 15 Mile and Groesbeck in Clinton Township. The flashing lights were obstructed, the red lights were operating at partial power, and the backgrounds to the lights were faded, all of which contributed to the crash.
Feb. 25, 2009: A 38-year-old Holly man driving a pickup appeared to deliberately drive his truck into the side of a freight train on Fish Lake Road shortly after 6 a.m. The victim, who was dead at the scene, was the focus of a domestic violence report filed just minutes earlier and a mile away, police said.
Sept. 14, 2011: A 19-year-old motorist was killed when his vehicle was struck in Hartford Township by an Amtrak train carrying 72 passengers from Chicago to Grand Rapids. Authorities said the crossing had working lights and barriers.
Oct. 7, 2013: A 45-year-old woman died after driving around a railroad crossing gate and being struck by an Amtrak train in Shiawassee County’s Vernon Township.
Jan. 1, 2014: A 19-year-old Pontiac man driving a truck went around a crossing gate in Pontiac shortly before 10 p.m. when he was struck by a Chicago-bound Amtrak train. The man was taken to an area hospital where he was listed in stable condition.