Category Archives: News

Amtrak adds 10 extra trains to handle Thanksgiving travel in Michigan

Amtrak will operate 10 extra trains in Michigan for the 2015 Thanksgiving holiday in addition to its regularly scheduled service.

On Nov. 25 and 29, an extra eastbound morning train will depart Chicago bound for Grand Rapids and an extra westbound evening train will depart Grand Rapids bound for Chicago.

On Nov. 25, 28 and 29, an extra eastbound morning train will depart Chicago bound for Ann Arbor and an extra westbound evening train will depart Ann Arbor for Chicago.

Click on the timetable below for more details.

Amtrak plans on utilizing every available piece of equipment to handle one of their busiest travel weeks of the year.

Amtrak recommends that passengers book their trip early in order to best match desired travel times and days.


Quirky Lansing railroad tower on the move

From The Lansing State Journal:

Michael Frezell, president of the Lansing Model Railroad Club, said his group will work to save the Michigan Avenue Tower, now located in Old Town by a city parking lot.(Photo: Judy Putnam/Lansing State Journal)
Michael Frezell, president of the Lansing Model Railroad Club, said his group will work to save the Michigan Avenue Tower, now located in Old Town by a city parking lot.(Photo: Judy Putnam/Lansing State Journal)

Model train lovers hope to preserve a piece of Lansing’s railroad history by relocating and restoring a narrow two-story tower that once stood next to the Lansing Union Station that is now Clara’s Restaurant.

I’ve craned my neck more than a few times as I wondered about the history of the quirky little building, which was relocated to Lansing’s Old Town nearly 30 years ago.

It looks like a house built by Dr. Seuss.

Michael Frezell, president of the 40-member Lansing Model Railroad Club, asked Lansing Parks and Recreation officials last year if the building, known as the Michigan Avenue Tower, could be donated to the 40-member club.

The city has given its approval.

In 1986, Conrail retired the tower. It was moved from the former train station on Michigan Avenue and plopped down next to a city parking lot on Grand River to be part of a now-defunct electric train museum.

Instead, it has sat empty and marooned, and Frezell worried that it would be demolished.

“There isn’t a lot of them around. This is the only one in the Lansing area that’s surviving,” he said.

Likely built in the 1800s, it’s weathered and rotting in places. People apparently seeking shelter took refuge in the downstairs before the city boarded up the door. Old blankets are on the floor. One of its nine windows is broken. A staircase is missing.

Frezell, whose day job is as a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the tower was once used by railroad workers to control the junction between the Michigan Central and Pere Marquette railroads and to operate the Michigan Avenue crossing gates to stop traffic, prior to automation.

Plans are to move the 234-square-foot building in the spring eight miles to the club’s property in Delta Township near Woldumar Nature Center. The club has a large model railroad layout located inside the old Millett Depot that was relocated there in the 1960s.

Appropriately, the tower will be used as “a living history artifact” for a dispatcher to control the model trains, the club said in a release. That job is now being done on the second floor of the depot.

First, though, the club has to raise an estimated $35,000 to transport the tower, clean up the old site, replace the missing stairway to the second story, and to repair and restore the little building. A GoFundMe site has been established.

Plans are for most of the work to be done by volunteers but a professional mover will have to be hired to lift the tower from its concrete pad and haul the 19-foot-high tower, possibly with it lying on its side.

Frezell said the group is up for the challenge of saving the tower. He has been a member of the model train club for 20 years.

“I think my parents gave me a train set when I was 5,” he said. “I’m 44. I never got over it.”


High-speed rail not the right solution for Canada: Via CEO

From the Financial Post:

Head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service Yves Desjardins-Siciliano says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.
Head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service Yves Desjardins-Siciliano says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.

That the push for new high-speed train systems in Ontario and Alberta is gaining momentum just as the federal Liberals prepare to take office with plans to double infrastructure spending is surely more than a coincidence.

But the head of Canada’s dominant passenger rail service, Via Rail Canada, says high-speed rail is a tremendously expensive proposition, and it makes little sense to invest in it until the serious existing congestion problems on Canadian railways is solved.

“Back in 2012, there was a report published that pegged the cost of high-speed rail between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal at $10 billion, and for $10 billion it would get you 10-million customers,” said Via CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano. Simply providing dedicated passenger lines at conventional speed, he said, “will cost $3 billion for seven million (passengers), so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit.”

If Via had a dedicated track to use in the busy corridor between Toronto and Montreal, Desjardins-Siciliano estimates the railway could increase its annual passenger load on the route from 2.1 million currently to 6.8 million within 15 years of construction using what he calls “high-frequency rail.”

Just last week, Ontario appointed a former federal cabinet minister, David Collenette, as a special adviser for high-speed rail, which the provincial Liberal government envisions running between Windsor, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. The same week, Alberta’s NDP government said it was in the early stages of studying a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton, something previous governments have mused about but never bought into.

Advocates of high-speed rail point out that the largest untapped market in the world is North America, where, for a variety of reasons, people have not embraced the concept in the same way their European and Asian counterparts have.

This means there is tremendous potential to develop ultra-fast railways here, a major infrastructure conference in Toronto heard Tuesday. But the first challenge is winning over travellers who are used to driving or flying to their destinations, said Tim Keith, CEO of Texas Central Partners, a private company that’s developing North America’s first-ever high-speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.

“It’s not easy to create a high-speed-rail system in an economy that doesn’t accept high-speed rail as a mode of transport,” Keith told the conference, put on by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

“The biggest challenge I have is introducing a product to market that isn’t used to the product.”

Desjardins-Siciliano has been drumming up interest among Canada’s major pension funds in building a new dedicated track between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal that would allow the Crown corporation to improve its deteriorating on-time performance.

Currently, 90 per cent of the track that Via uses is owned by Canadian National Railway Co., and is susceptible to regular bottlenecks as freight trains and passenger trains vie for the same space. In the second quarter, Via’s trains were on time 70 per cent of the time, down from 79 per cent a year earlier.

“Freight trains today are longer and heavier and therefore slower than ever,” Desjardins-Siciliano said in a recent interview. “That’s why growing (our service) requires an alternative track that would be dedicated to passenger rail.”

He noted that regular-speed rail also has the benefit of being able to stop at points in between the major cities, which meets Via’s objective of replacing travel by car, not travel by air.

And Sebastien Sherman, senior managing director for the Americas at Borealis Infrastructure, pointed out on Tuesday’s panel that high-speed rail plans “need a degree of population density,” more common in Asia and Europe than in a more sparsely populated country such as Canada. Borealis is an arm of the OMERS pension fund that owns 50 per cent of HS1 Ltd., the U.K.’s high-speed line that runs through the Chunnel. He noted that any high-speed project comes with its construction risks, demand risks, regulatory risks and political risks.

“The last thing we’d want to do is spend many years trying to advance a project if it doesn’t have community support,” he said.


Transport Canada sets Oct. 30th as deadline to submit business plans for operation of Algoma Central passenger service

From the Sault Star:

The ACR passenger train rolls into Sault Ste. Marie from Hearst March 31, 2015 at the CN Rail yard in the city's west end. Jeffrey Ougler/Sault Star
The ACR passenger train rolls into Sault Ste. Marie from Hearst March 31, 2015 at the CN Rail yard in the city’s west end. Jeffrey Ougler/Sault Star

Three companies who have expressed interest in operating the passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst have been provided with the numbers they need to complete full business case proposals.

The proposals are due Oct. 30, 2015.

Tom Dodds, chair of the stakeholder committee tasked with making a recommendation to city council, said the parties who submitted request for proposals are all different than those companies who provided bids the first time around.

The companies, a mix of Canadian and American companies, have a range of experience varying from commuter rail service to tour trains.

The original submissions all had different approaches and styles and none of the proponents had the detailed information by CN Railway required to develop a complete business case, Dodds said.

That information has now been provided to the proponents and criteria of evaluation has been clearly articulated so that the proposals can be compared evenly and fairly, he said.

“We have to compare apples to apples and we need certain measurables to do that and we think we’ll get this in the full business case proposals,” he said.

Dodds said the three proponents, whom he cannot name at this time, have also expressed some possible interest I running the tour train as well.

It’s not known if CN Railway has had discussions with other companies interested in the tour train but it has been made clear that anyone interested in the passenger train service must submit documents to Dodds and participate in the RFP process, he said.

All the submissions will be evaluated on a number of criteria that include the need to satisfy CN Railway on asset requirements, federal legislative and regulatory requirements, business plans acceptable to Transport Canada for funding requirements, requirements by the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

“These potential proponents may have a different framework going forward that what has been presented to use in the past,” Dodds said.

Stakeholders along the line have also provided ideas that may see a different type of service, more in tune with seasonal needs.

Minimum requirements during CN Railway’s operation of the train was to provide 104 trips per year; they operated 156 trips per year. Railmark’s proposal was initially for 156 trips per year.

“A new proponent may change those numbers or redistribute those numbers to accommodate the busier tourist season,” he said. Operators will be required to pay CN Railway a line user fee.

Earlier this year it was announced that a Michigan company, Railmark Ltd., was the successful proponent of the first RFP to run both the passenger rail service and the tour train.

However the deal was never signed because Railmark was unable to meet all the pre-conditions required in the contract. Railmark had not received any financial compensation for running the train. CN Railway resumed operation of the tour train and the passenger service was halted mid July.

The entire issue began more than a year ago after it was announced that the federal government was withdrawing its $2.2 million annual subsidy for the passenger train service and CN Railway said it would discontinue operations.

The local stakeholder group was formed, a business case completed and the passenger train service was reinstated in a remote access funding program, with a guarantee of $5.3 million of funding over three years. The funding was granted to provide the operator time to grow the service into a self sustaining operation.

A business case study showed the passenger train service injects more than $38 million annually into the region’s economy through property investment and tourism.


Mt Pleasant could get shuttle train

From The Mount Pleasant Morning Sun:

What started as a brainstorming conversation on how to transport people from one end of Mt. Pleasant to another has morphed into the possibility of a shuttle train that would operate within the city.

The shuttle, which is only a concept now but could come to fruition within two years, would run on existing train tracks from Pickard on the north end of town to the SmartZone on Central Michigan University’s campus.

Which is where the idea has it’s beginning.

“We had community forums last year, asking what sort of development should happen in the SmartZone,” said Erin Strang, CEO of Central Michigan University Research Corporation, which anchors the SmartZone. “The conversation, whether it was residential, retail, business, always came back to this: what does transportation look like?”

During months of discussion, Strang said that the consensus seemed to be that a mixed-use development on the property should have less traffic, less parking lots, and more walkability.

With working train tracks running along the east end of the SmartZone a train made sense, so CMURC started researching what it would take for a shuttle to run the length of the city.

They contacted Great Lakes Central Railroad, which operates the tracks that run through Mt. Pleasant.

President Chris Bagwell told CMURC he’d been waiting for a call like that for years.

“This concept works in a college environment,” Bagwell said. “It’s a great fit.”

And, as it turned out, the logistics of implementing and running a shuttle service isn’t too far out of reach.

GLCR is already capable of handling all operation of the shuttle trains including providing engineers and the cars themselves, and the majority of the infrastructure exists.

With the exception of two switches that would need to be installed, the tracks are ready and classified for shuttle passenger travel.

GLCR owns 23 shuttle cars that are refurbished, waiting on other larger, more expensive projects in the state to be ready to go, some of which are years down the road.

Michigan Department of Transportation, which owns the tracks, knows about the project and is in support of the concept, Strang said.

As the concept stands, the shuttle would run the just-over three miles from the north to south ends of town, with four or five stops along the way, between 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m.

Stops would be Pickard Street, downtown Mt. Pleasant, either one or two stops on CMU’s campus, and the SmartZone.

The stops would be “subway style” meaning quick 15-20 second passenger boarding times, Bagwell said, with a trip from one end of town to the other taking around 15 minutes.

In addition to the funds needed to be paid to GLCR to operate the shuttle ––about $1 million per year–– stations or platforms would have to be built at each stop.

First though, Bagwell said an authority or governing board would need to be created to oversee the operation. Then, a feasibility and ridership study would be conducted.

“It’s going to take community support,” Bagwell said.

Both Bagwell and Strang tout the economic impact a shuttle train can have on a community.

“That connectivity increases marketability,” Strang said. “If someone is waiting on a platform, and there’s a little shop there, of course they’ll poke their head in; we’ve met with developers who, when they learn about the possibility of the shuttle ask why we didn’t lead with that information. There are so many possibilities.”

Strang also says there are larger implications that can be explored, like tying the shuttle into existing public transportation options.

If funding existed and an authority was created, Bagwell said it would be about a two-year process to make the shuttle a reality.

The conceptualizing has created a buzz in the passenger train world as well; the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers is holding their member meeting at CMURC’s office Saturday. Both Bagwell and Strang are on the agenda, with Strang set to speak about the possibility of a Mt. Pleasant shuttle.

That meeting, scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., is open to the public.

“It’s exciting because this enables our ability to develop the SmartZone, and beyond the SmartZone,” Strang said. “Anytime business is growing, it’s a win for us.”