Category Archives: News

Grand Rapids, Detroit train idea taking shape

From The Detroit News:

The Michigan Environmental Council has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study on public transporation options, including establishing rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids.(Photo: John T. Greilick;file / The Detroit News)
The Michigan Environmental Council has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study on public transporation options, including establishing rail service between Detroit and Grand Rapids.(Photo: John T. Greilick;file / The Detroit News)

Passenger train service between Detroit and Grand Rapids could be reinstated in the next decade if state transportation experts determine the public has an appetite for a new line and can figure out how to pay for it.

Supporters say the idea of connecting Michigan’s two largest cities by train is gaining appeal on both sides of the state as each undergo economic and cultural revivals making passenger service more appealing to business travelers and tourists.

The Michigan Environmental Council, the Lansing-based group that supports increasing public transportation options, has undertaken a $100,000 feasibility study and embarked on a series of hearings this summer along the route to get the public’s input. More hearings are scheduled later this month in Dearborn, Plymouth, Ypsilanti and Brighton. Also involved in the effort are the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“There really is not a way to connect to Michigan’s major cities and our coasts without taking a car,” said Elizabeth Treutel, a transportation police expert with the council. “There are no rail options. If Michigan wants to be competitive, if we want to attract talent, if we want to keep our college-educated people here, we have to have more and better options to get around. And people have to be willing to recognize that and invest in it.”

Even boosters acknowledge that re-instituting the service will be challenging.

“Getting rail service up and running is a very difficult task,” said Kathleen Lomako, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which helps regional leaders with transportation planning. SEMCOG has been working on a passenger rail project from Ann Arbor to Detroit for years and struggled with funding.

“Connecting our region to other parts of the state, it’s a good thing. It’s about figuring out how difficult is that going to be to do, how much it’s going to cost and who pays for it. Those are all questions that need to be answered.”

The Detroit to Grand Rapids line isn’t the only one being explored. Preliminary discussions have been underway for months on establishing a rail connection from Ann Arbor to Traverse City. The Michigan Land Use Institute is pushing MDOT officials to study the feasibility of the route using existing freight rails with the hope that it could be operational by 2025.

Michigan hasn’t had a Grand Rapids-to-Detroit line since Amtrak was created in 1971. Those heading the effort said that four feasibility studies on resuming service were done in the 1980s through 2002.

The current Coast-to-Coast Passenger Rail study is examining three possible routes that would run on freight tracks from Holland through Grand Rapids and Lansing and to Detroit. Two routes would go through Ann Arbor; one going through Jackson and Ann Arbor and the third through Plymouth and Brighton.

The study will be conducted by a transportation management firm to determine cost, time, ridership and how to fund it. It will also consider public feedback given at meetings held by the Michigan By Rail team, a coalition of organizations led by MEC and the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

Organizers said the line could take a decade to implement. The train, Treutel said, would have to go between 79 and 110 mph to compete with car travel.

The only way to get from Detroit to Grand Rapids and back by passenger train involves traveling to Chicago and connecting for a return trip.

Andrew Layman, who lives in Ann Arbor and attended a public hearing on the rail project there last month, said he’s interested in seeing better rail options in the state that are “reliable and affordable.” But he worries about whether the public will eventually support the service with tax dollars.

“The entire country and the state of Michigan is lacking, really,” said Laymen, 29, comparing the state’s train service to that of Europe. “I just think we’re behind the times and this is long past due. It’s a good initial study.”

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who backs the passenger rail concept, said he’d like to see it “be a reality” rather than a “pipe dream of train enthusiasts.’’

“I suspect that people here would want to make good use of a train if it was available to Detroit for business, for entertainment, to go over and see a Tigers game in the afternoon and the Red Wings in the evening,” Heartwell said. “I hope there would be a similar appetite in Detroit to come over to Grand Rapids … for ArtPrize or to drink the craft beers.”

But Heartwell sees more taxes as the stumbling block.

“If you are looking at Proposal 1, you say it’s a pretty slim appetite,” the mayor said of last spring’s statewide road proposal that was trounced by voters.

State officials said they are interested but proceeding cautiously.

“MDOT is working with the locals to address the legislative requirements, but there is a lot of ground to cover before this would advance beyond a study,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s office of rail. “We will need to examine various factors like what the ridership and revenue will be, where the operating funding would come from, whether or not communities would provide stations, would the host railroads allow it, and what kind of safety systems are needed.”

Still, Treutel said there is a “viable reason to look at this right now” in part because Amtrak ridership has been climbing over the last decade.

Michael Ford, the CEO of the Regional Transit Authority, said that although his focus is on improving transit in southeastern Michigan, the discussions for the passenger rail service are important for the public to weigh.

“Any mobility options that can connect the region from a city like Grand Rapids into Detroit would be obviously very, very important,” Ford said. “People want more mobility, they want to be able to get to great cities and go back and forth and not have to take their car.”


Operation Lifesaver awarded grant to boost rail safety education and awareness

qi9kIxKKThe state is getting a new grant to boost rail safety education. Michigan Operation Lifesaver has been awarded $8,400 from Operation Lifesaver, Inc., in partnership with the Federal Railroad Administration.

It is part of the nonprofit safety group’s ongoing “See Tracks? Think Train!” public awareness campaign.

The money will be used to boost awareness on billboards, movie theater advertising and displays for public events.

Federal statistics show that about every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train in the United States.

Michigan ranks 10th nationally for crossing collisions train incidents, with 13 deaths from 79 crashes in 2014 according to Sam Crowl, State Coordinator for Michigan Operation Lifesaver.


New East Lansing Station to open this summer

From the Lansing State Journal:

The new Amtrak Station in East Lansing .(Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)
The new Amtrak Station in East Lansing .(Photo: Dave Wasinger/Lansing State Journal)

The new Amtrak station near Harrison and Trowbridge roads will be complete this summer (2015).

The station, which is part of the new $6.3 million Capital Area Multimodal Gateway, will be three times larger than the existing station on the property. It will have an enclosed lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows as well as luggage and bike storage, said Laurie Robison, spokeswoman of Capital Area Transportation Authority, which operates the station.

There is no set date for completion of the station. Construction crews just have to finish mechanical and electrical work before final inspections can begin, Robison said.

Once the station is ready to open, CATA will demolish the smaller station – something customers have been waiting for.

“It’s absolutely needed,” said Gerald Lee, of Lansing. “This station is very small and a lot of Michigan State University students use it when they move in. I can’t wait.”

Lee was waiting for a Greyhound bus to Buffalo, N.Y., to meet with his six sisters for a small family reunion. Lee said he uses the bus service at the station three times a year, but would likely travel more often when the new passenger station opens.

Renovations include adding four canopied bus bays, 150 parking spaces with a payment kiosk and an overflow area for taxis and buses. When the project is fully complete this fall, the station will serve as a transit hub for Amtrak trains as well as bus service from Greyhound, Megabus and Indian Trails.

Jonathan Keith, a cab driver for M-Cab, is relieved there will be spaces for taxis. In the cramped parking lot only made smaller by construction, Keith said he’s had to wait 15 minutes to exit onto Harrison Road with a van full of passengers.

“It’s a pain,” Keith said. “Buses just park on the road because they can’t navigate through the parking lot. This is long overdue. I’m glad CATA stepped up to it.”

Work began on the property in August 2014 when the former Michigan State University Surplus Store and Printing Services buildings were torn down. MSU owns the site and leases it to CATA.

The project is funded by a $6.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Algoma Central Railway stakeholders back to the table

From the Sault Star:

Photograph:  August 21, 2009   Ren Farley
Photograph: August 21, 2009 Ren Farley

ACR passenger rail service officially ceases Wednesday, July 15, 2015.

It’s the second time this year that passenger train service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario has been threatened to come to a screeching halt.

Last week’s announcement that Railmark had not been able to meet the precondition of securing a line of credit for the operation and would not be running the passenger rail service after July 15 means it’s back to the drawing board for the stakeholder working committee in search of a new third-party operator.

Economic Development Corp. CEO Tom Dodds said late Tuesday that the train will stop on Wednesday.

In the meantime, Mayor Christian Provenzano, and Dodds, in his position as chair of the stakeholder working group, are both penning letters to CN Railway, requesting that they consider operating the service on an interim basis until a new operator is found.

“We know CN doesn’t want to run a passenger service but we’re trying to thread something together that will see the operation of the train for a period of time while we can work together and find an operator,” Dodds said.

CN Rail could be the recipient of the federal government subsidy provided to operate the train.

“We appreciate that they don’t want to run the train full time. That’s why we began this process but unfortunately, it didn’t net us the result we were looking for,” Dodds said.

CN Rail was ultimately responsible for choosing the third-party rail operator.

It was the city who chose not to sign a contractual agreement with Railmark because it failed to meet a precondition of securing a line of credit of about $550,000 – or three months of operational costs.

Dodds said that work is being done to rework the expression of interest and request for proposals into one document in an attempt to get interested parties to submit a proposal and business plan.

“We’re hopeful that we can drive to a quicker solution because we’ve been done this already,” he said.

Of the original 20 or so expression of interests that were initially received, four serious applications were received.

Of those, one proponent revealed he didn’t have the experience required and withdrew.

Eventually, Railmark had been selected.

Dodds said media reports about the situation have created a renewed interest in the route again.

The reinstatement of the federal government funding also offers more hope that another viable proposal will come forward, he said.

“The reality is we need someone who can pick up and run that train Thursday, but I have no sense right now if that is possible or not,” he said. “CN has been given the information and they need to make their decisions internally.”

The ideal candidate would be a current Canadian operator who already has the licencing and insurance requirements needed to run the service.

Also needed is enough trained rail crews to ensure that standards are met and relief engineers are available to meet the ‘go slow’ orders on the track.

Familiarization of the line also becomes an asset with those orders.

But Dodds said all options will be explored.

Sault MP Bryan Hayes said he hasn’t been officially asked to do anything at this time but has been involved in the process since the beginning and will continue to serve as an intermediary between the working group and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.

“The stakeholder group is going to continue to work with Transport Canada officials to develop a solution,”Hayes said.

“I have been assured by Minister Raitt that the money is still there but we want to find a qualified operator. It’s unfortunate that things didn’t pull through with Railmark.”

Hayes said if a new operator is found, the same due diligence process will have to be undertaken by the federal government, ensuring that a viable business plan is in place.

“Whoever comes forward still has to have a business plan that makes sense to the federal government. We want long term sustainability without ongoing requirements of federal funding down the road,” he said.

Hayes said he will support the city and the stakeholder group and do what he can to assist from the federal government perspective.

He too expressed hope that CN considers running the train service in the interim.

“They have expressed that they are not interested in the passenger service. . . They continue to be supportive of a third party operator but I hope in the interim, they step up because if they don’t, it will shut down until we find a third party operator,” he said.

Railmark provided the passenger train service since May 1 without any government subsidy because the agreement had never been signed.

Dodds said that to his knowledge, there has been no request or action from Railmark to receive funding.

“I don’t know of his intent but there was no agreement in place and there never was,” Dodds said.


Stakeholders steamed passenger train service between Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst to cease

From the Sault Star:

Photograph:  August 21, 2009   Ren Farley
Photograph: August 21, 2009 Ren Farley

SAULT STE. MARIE, ONTARIO – Al Errington is simply steamed that passenger train service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst will cease July 15.

“We need somebody with the financial resources and the personnel resources to operate that passenger train well,” said a “very aggravated” Errington, Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) co-chair and owner of Wilderness Island Resort, responding to CN Rail’s announcement that the termination stemmed from the inability of the train’s current operator, Railmark Canada Ltd., to obtain financing.

Errington has been a vocal critic of the Michigan-based outfit, questioning everything from past practices to staffing levels, pointing to a lack of engineers or crew numbers certified to run the train, forcing operations to stop after the maximum 12-hour, working-day limit is reached.

“Railmark has been a disappointment since they started operating,” he said.

CN officially discontinued its operation of the passenger train on May 1.

Things appeared more on track in April, when Transport Canada announced that Railmark had received its certificate of approval to operate on new legislation, only days after Transport Canada Minister Lisa Raitt announced that the government would provide $5.3 million over three years for the continued operation of the passenger rail service. The money was to be filtered through the City of Sault Ste. Marie with logistical agreements made between the city, Railmark and the government.

CN continued operations for the following few weeks as the transition unfolded.

The subsequent ride has been far from smooth. In late June, city council, on the recommendation of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp., opted not to sign a contribution agreement with Railmark because the company was unable to secure a line of credit equivalent to three months of operating expenses, as required in a pre-condition. Railmark said the average monthly billing for federal subsidy is about $183,000 per month and, based on that, it was determined a line of credit of about $550,000 would be required.

Errington said the city was correct in its decision.

“There should be no risk to Sault Ste. Marie,” he added. “If there is risk, there is something wrong about the deal.”

Railmark president Allen Brown told The Sault Star then he was determined to continue to operate the passenger service and work toward meeting pre-conditions.

When reached by the Star Friday afternoon, Brown didn’t say much.

“I don’t really have any comment until after Monday night,” he said, referring to the update city council is slated to receive on the matter — this was planned prior to this latest development — during the regular council meeting.

Linda Savory-Gordon, a CAPT co-chair, said she expects EDC CEO and stakeholder spokesperson Tom Dodds to ask council for its support in efforts to lobby the federal government and CN. Dodds could not be reached for comment Friday.

A working group steering committee, formed more than a year ago to save the train service, was to have met last Monday to determine how to get the complete service running again.

Many saw more red flags when it was reported last week the ACR passenger train had not been running on the southern portion of the route, between Sault Ste. Marie and Hawk Junction, since June 25.

The newly christened Algoma Spirit Passenger Train continued regular service between Hawk Junction and Hearst with Brown explaining the move was to keep the operation flowing more quickly in the face of “go-slow” orders. The order, which allows trains to only travel on part of the line at 10 miles per hour instead of 30 miles per hour, was due to train conditions and the heat of the track.

“That was just shocking,” said Savory-Gordon.

Transport Canada “made it very clear,” she said, that funding was for service between the Sault and Hearst.

“That doesn’t mean you can decide to do just half of it.”

Errington branded the service disruption “a message that there were management problems.”

Savory Gordon said it’s Transport Canada’s job now to “apply pressure” on CN to run the train until another operator is chosen.

“(CN) says they are no longer running it and they don’t have to,” she said, adding CN’s reluctance to operate the line was “more understandable” when, in 2014, Ottawa chopped a $2.2-million annual subsidy.

“But now the funding is there, so there’s really no justification for it,” Savory-Gordon said.

“I don’t see, even if there’s some legal hitch, how they can morally refuse to allow that to happen on their line.”

CN has confirmed it, the ACR Passenger Service Stakeholders Working Group and Transport Canada, have been in “regular discussions” and continue to explore short- and long-term solutions.

However, the company has been steadfast in the past it is not in the passenger rail business and no longer wants to operate the service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.

This stand appears not to have changed.

“We will continue to work with the stakeholder groups and with Transport Canada to find a long-term solution,” Mark Hallman, CN’s director of communications and public affairs, told The Sault Star Friday when asked if CN would take over running the route. It will continue to operate the Agawa Canyon Tour Train daily for the season ending Oct. 12.

Errington said he does have “sympathy for (CN) in that regard.”

“Passenger trains do not fit their culture,” he added. “We don’t want them operating the passenger train either, but we need more co-operation in making sure we have an effective operator of the passenger train. I hope we can find one quickly with the co-operation of CN.”

As for recruiting Railmark, CN insists it did its job.

“During the processes in which we were looking for a third party to take over, CN did its due diligence in terms of looking into the company and selected it as the best that was available at the time,” Hallman said.

“There have been, clearly, issues between Railmark and the municipality in terms of finding a funding mechanism, but that doesn’t involve CN.”

CN is required to ensure continued operation of the Agawa train as a result of contractual agreements it has based on 2008 Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., funding the train received for upgrades to its coaches and the installation of an audio-video system. NOHFC provided $5 million toward a $10-million train refurbishment and revitalization project in the hopes of increasing tourism.

CN indicated in June it seeks a third-party with secured financing to acquire the Agawa Canyon Tour Train and would consider all qualified operators with suitable committed financing.

“I guess because they don’t have a legal obligation to us and to the stakeholders that depend on that passenger train, they don’t treat it with as much respect,” Errington said.

Stakeholders along the route, including property owners, outfitters, tourist operators and small communities, say the continued service is essential to them.

The recent disruption to the route’s southern portion stymied tourism, many reported.

“It hasn’t been a very nice year and this was shaping up to be one of the best tourism years in over a decade,” Errington said.

“And the fact it could end up being a very negative year and possibly a devastating one for businesses like mine, is not good for the local economy.”

Now, the service’s entire cancellation spells not only lost dollars, but threats to the well-being of those who use the line to reach remote destinations, both Errington and Savory-Gordon contend.

“We consider it a really serious crisis because there are people totally in a mess,” Savory-Gordon said. “I even heard of somebody who needed medication and it couldn’t be delivered by train. It is a terrible mess.”

Technically, Railmark Canada can effectively shut down its operations immediately, leaving stakeholders along the line stranded and without service.

Errington, whose tourist resort along the ACR relies on the passenger rail service to transport guests to and from the operation, said people are “cut off here” and are without cellphone service.

“There could be canoeists out there on a two-week canoe trip,” he said. “They come to the train and they’re waiting there. ‘Well, where’s that train?’ This is a wilderness area and trains are supposed to be reliable and that’s what we need.” He questions the quality of the last remaining week of service.

“Are we going to have trains going or not?” he said. “Trains are supposed to be the essence of reliability. At one time, people used to set their watches by trains going by.”