Category Archives: News

First day of service for Amtrak’s experimental platform in Ann Arbor

Amtrak and RLE International (an engineering firm) worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation to develop an innovative system for getting people easily onto trains. People needing wheels for their mobility have been a special concern, given that many trains’ floors are several feet above the level of the platform at most stations around the USA. With this system, gentle slopes lead up to a platform at the same height as the floor of train coaches. To allow freight trains to pass the platform safely, however, it must be a couple of feet from the train. This system bridges the gap with a sliding platform that can be remotely controlled by Amtrak iPhones, or deployed manually.

The first, experimental installation was built at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, Amtrak station. Dedicated on July 23, 2015 – the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – the platform was not put into regular service until September 23, when it was used for train 353, Wolverine service Detroit/Pontiac to Chicago. The first full day of use, September 24, bagan with the station-stop shown in this video by train 351, also to Chicago.

Amtrak passengers will have to pay for extra baggage

From Mashable:

An Amtrak baggage handler walks through a train before departing from Union Station in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.
An Amtrak baggage handler walks through a train before departing from Union Station in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

If you have taken Amtrak for any longer distance trip, you may have noticed something: People bring baggage.

Some people bring a lot of baggage, in comparison to what you might see on an airplane. So much baggage, in fact, that Amtrak is going to actually start enforcing some limits — and some fees.

On Thursday, Amtrak will start charging $20 for passengers who exceed limits for carry-on and personal items.

But don’t worry: the fee isn’t close to what airlines are introducing. Customers are allowed two personal items weighing up to 25 pounds and two carry-on bags weighing no more than 50 pounds each for free. Personal items might include things like a backpack, laptop, purse or other small bags. Passengers with children under the age of 2 also can bring onboard an additional item like a stroller or diaper bag. The fee applies to each item above those limits.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the fees will help preserve space on crowded trains and reduce safety concerns created by items that are too heavy.

U.S. airlines, by contrast, started introducing bag fees in 2008 and now charge a standard fee of $25 for the first checked suitcase. Some airlines have even introduced fees for carry-on bags. Those fees generated $1.6 billion for the airlines in the first quarter of this year.

But the airline charges also are more extensive than what Amtrak plans, and Magliari said the train operator didn’t start its fees to make more money.

“It is simply a space and safety initiative,” he said.

But considering Amtrak’s consistent financial losses year after year, maybe some baggage fees wouldn’t be the worst idea.

Magliari said the fee was aimed at a small percentage of the company’s 31 million passengers who exceed limits for what they can bring onboard for free.

Passengers can avoid the fee by checking their bags through to the final destination, if that service is available on their train. So on longer trips — like the nearly cross-country Empire Builder — even those bringing lots of luggage will not be impacted.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press


Troy, Grand Sakwa settle suit on transit center property cost

From The Troy Sentinel:

Photo by Larry Sobczak
Photo by Larry Sobczak

While the city and Grand Sakwa Properties have settled on the cost of the property that the Troy Multi-Modal Transit Center sits on, who will reimburse the city for the additional cost is not yet clear.

While the city paid Grand/Sakwa $3.1 million Sept. 3 and the lawsuit was dismissed, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Leo Bowman must sign the final order dismissing the case, which had not been filed at press time.

Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg-Bluhm explained that the matter was decided by case evaluation, a procedure in which three attorneys put a value on a case, which both parties accepted.

Bowman signed an order Aug. 15, 2014, giving the city the title to the land and requiring the city to pay developer Grand Sakwa Properties $1.07 million, based on a land appraisal.

Grand Sakwa had donated 2.7 acres of the total 77-acre mixed-use commercial and residential property at Maple and Coolidge to the city of Troy on the condition that Troy would develop the land for use as a transportation center. The consent agreement — dated June 2, 2000 — required that the city fund the center within 10 years of the date of judgment, which the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled never happened.

Last summer, Alan Greene, attorney for Grand Sakwa, said Grand Sakwa did not believe $1.07 million to be a proper number.

The transit center grand opening was Oct. 15, 2014.

The case evaluation award that the city must pay was set at $4.15 million, which includes all costs, including Grand Sakwa’s attorney fees and the land value. The city paid the $1.07 million to Grand Sakwa last summer to gain title of the land.

Grigg-Bluhm said that based on a trial court decision on Michigan condemnation law, the city and Grand Sakwa were required to value the property to include the transit center structure, rather than the vacant parcel.

Greene could not be reached for further comment before press time.

The 2,000-square-foot transit center building has a waiting area and public restrooms, an elevator, a 90-foot pedestrian bridge from the building to the tracks, a crash wall, platform enhancements, designated parking on the Troy side, and slips for taxis and buses, although the  Suburban Mobility for Regional Transportation bus schedule does not include a stop at the transit center at this point.

Under the terms of a Federal Rail Administration Grant, the FRA has the right to demand reimbursement of the $6.62 million cost of the transit center if it is not operated for at least 20 years. If the center was  to be abandoned, the city could be disqualified from any further federal transportation grants, Grigg-Bluhm said.

The city will work with the FRA, the Federal Transit Administration, the Michigan Department of Transportation and SMART for reimbursement of the settlement amount.

“The city does intend to seek all available federal funding,” Grigg-Bluhm said.

She noted that funding is available through the FTA and the FRA, and that the city needs to go through procedural steps to seek it.

The terms of a 20-year lease agreement with Amtrak stipulate that the city perform all necessary maintenance on the center and cover operating expenses, for which Amtrak will reimburse the city 100 percent.

“I’m very confident when all is said and done that Troy taxpayers will not have to pay for a federally funded project,” said Troy Mayor Dane Slater.

“We didn’t dip into the reserves,” Slater said of the $3.1 million payment. “We can use the transit center. It belongs to the city. It (the lawsuit) is over, which is very good. My goal is that Troy taxpayers will not pay for a federally funded project. I’m very optimistic.”


SEMCOG awarded $250,000 grant for Bus Rapid Transit project

From The Royal Oak Daily Tribune:

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments will receive $250,000 in federal funding to support the development of a Bus Rapid Transit project along Woodward Avenue, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday.

SEMCOG is among 21 organizations nationwide that will receive a share of $19.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration to support comprehensive planning projects that improve access to public transit.

The funds are made available through FTA’s Transit-Oriented Development Planning Pilot Program for communities that are developing new or improved mass transit systems, the agency reported.

SEMCOG and the transit authority are planning the Bus Rapid Transit for a 27-mile corridor along Woodward Avenue from downtown Detroit to Pontiac.

Specifically, the the local funding will go towards creating a plan for communities to guide development around transit facilities; formulating strategies for economic growth; assessing development opportunities in the corridor; and evaluating the use of mixed income housing and public private partnerships in relation to the project, the report said.

“Our nation’s transportation demands have exceeded our capacity, causing millions of Americans to lose precious time stuck on congested roads and transit systems,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “By investing in transit planned around housing, jobs and services, these communities are creating ladders of opportunity for their citizens and laying a strong foundation for economic development that our growing nation demands.”

A list of transit projects selected to receive federal funding can be found online at


MDOT to stop paying for idle railcars

From the Detroit Free Press:

The Michigan Department of Transportation, responding to criticism from lawmakers and taxpayers after the Free Press reported the state agency is paying more than $1 million a year to lease railcars it can’t even use, is finalizing an agreement to halt the payments on Sept. 30, according to the state’s top rail official.

Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail, said details aren’t finalized, but this much is agreed between MDOT and the owner of the cars, Great Lakes Central Railroad: The state will stop the lease payments of $3,000 a day, but the railroad will still promise to make the railcars available to MDOT, should they be needed, for up to five years.

MDOT wants the double-decker passenger cars, formerly used by commuter train operator Metra around Chicago, for proposed commuter services between Detroit and Ann Arbor and between Howell and Ann Arbor. But neither service has been approved or funded, some of the tracks the trains would use are not ready and officials say start dates are likely about four years away.

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