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.
Several local organizations have pledged support for a study, which begins today, to examine the possibility of a West Michigan to Detroit-area passenger rail line.
The Holland Visitors Bureau, Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, Macatawa Area Coordinating Council and Experience Grand Rapids each made a contribution totaling about $10,000 to fund a ridership and cost estimate study that could lead to actual service several years from now, project manager Liz Treutel said.
Treutel, who heads the study for the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council, explains the seven-month project will examine ridership demand between the Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit corridor to better understand the impacts of establishing coast-to-coast rail service.
$80,000 was sourced from federal grant dollars, while the remaining $20,000 came from local match contributors, like West Michigan and other locations along the corridor, Treutel said.
For those Grand Rapidians looking to hop aboard a train to Detroit in the near future, a car still is the best choice.
“It’s not a full-blown study,” Treutel explained. “The two main components are ridership analysis — are there enough people to take the service, how much are they willing to pay, where will they go?
“The second component is looking at economic feasibility — are there riders, if there is, is this the kind of service that is economically viable and provides benefits for communities?”
Some might recall a time when passenger rail service existed along the line before 1971. The state was left with three Amtrak lines that exist today, Treutel said.
The Michigan Department of Transportation reports its rail ridership has grown from 568,555 passengers in 2004 to 777,463 riders in 2014. Its best year was in 2013 with more than 795,000 passengers.
Those numbers, including interest in re-establishing a line between the west and east coasts, helped spur conversations to get this initial study on the right track, Treutel said.
One possible benefit toward commuter service, she adds: The line already exists but is used by commercial traffic. Still, it could be at least another five years before actual service begins.
“We’re really wanting to recognize the importance of a transit system of many modes … something that would really, seriously compete with automobile traffic and get to a destination a lot faster, Treutel said.
Peter Varga, CEO of the area’s Interurban Transit Partnership best known as The Rapid, supports the study’s goals to determine what a new passenger line could mean for West Michigan and locations along the corridor.
It remains too early to dive into specifics, but Varga said The Rapid will be ready to participate when the time comes.
“We want to know what the data is, for sure,” Varga said. “All of us have always believed that rail service, which used to be more robust in Michigan, is due to come back at some point and this is a good start.”
The following opinion reflects the position of The Grand Rapids Press editorial board.
Traveling from Grand Rapids to Detroit is easy. That is, if you own a vehicle.
Otherwise, you can buy a ticket for a bus ride down I-96. If you’re really itching to go by train, you can bus to Kalamazoo and hop aboard Amtrak’s Wolverine Line to Detroit.
Better yet, within the next decade, you might be able to take a train right out of Grand Rapids itself. It is welcome news that a study will be conducted into the cost and feasibility of a new train route between Michigan’s two largest cities.
The $100,000 study, authorized in February by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, will determine the efficacy of a Detroit-Lansing-Grand Rapids-Holland rail corridor.
The Grand Rapids region should work to support efforts to establish rail service to and from Detroit. It is very early in the process, and plenty of questions will go unanswered until the study is complete. But public and private transportation and economic development groups in Grand Rapids should work to ensure they have a strong voice in the process as it moves forward.
There are many compelling reasons to connect Grand Rapids and Detroit by passenger train. Both cities are up-and-coming; Grand Rapids is enjoying a much-storied renaissance, and Detroit is beginning to rebuild after bankruptcy. The future holds much promise for each, and new connections between the two — physical and otherwise — are a plus.
Rail travel also has become increasingly popular among the younger generation. Fewer are buying cars, and more are choosing to live in cities that have or are connected to formidable public transit systems.
There’s also been increased demand in recent years for Amtrak’s Grand Rapids-to-Chicago Pere Marquette Line, which has seen near-record ridership numbers. As Detroit raises its profile and grows, it is increasingly likely that demand for a Grand Rapids-Detroit train will grow even more.
The leader of a coalition of states that foot most of the costs of Amtrak’s short passenger routes says its members are awaiting answers from a federal agency about a new policy Indiana cited in its decision to end a line between Indianapolis and Chicago.
Depending on its final form, the policy being drafted by the Federal Railroad Administration could make it impossible for some states to keep their Amtrak routes running, said Patricia Quinn, who chairs the Portland, Maine-based States for Passenger Rail Coalition.
The Hoosier State line’s last day of service is April 1, and the Indiana Department of Transportation in Friday’s announcement blamed an emerging FRA policy that the state said would effectively deem Indiana a rail carrier even though it does not own any tracks or trains.
INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning called that idea “insane,” saying it would significantly increase costs, paperwork and liability for operating the line, which was among 28 Amtrak routes under 750 miles affected by law Congress passed in 2008 that forced 19 states to pick up most of the costs of those lines by late 2013.
Indiana and seven local government partners, agreed in October 2013 to pay Amtrak $2.7 million to keep the 196-mile Hoosier State line rolling for one year. Indiana twice extended funding for that line.
INDOT had been negotiating for months on long-term agreements with Amtrak and Iowa Pacific, a private company that wanted to take over the Hoosier State’s operations when it decided to end the line because of the FRA’s new policy.
The Federal Railroad Administration has said that as states take on bigger roles managing Amtrak’s short passenger lines, they assume a greater burden to ensure they are safe for passengers and train crews.
“We continue to offer assistance to the state of Indiana — we want to see this service continue, and we continue to work with the state and local officials to ensure that it can,” the FRA said Wednesday in a statement.
The Hoosier State line began service in 1980 and runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, with stops in four Indiana cities. It’s Amtrak’s least-traveled route, moving only about 34,000 passengers in fiscal year 2014.
Most of the 19 states affected by Congress’ cost-sharing law are coalition members, Quinn said, and each is worried about the new policy’s impact. She said details FRA provided to Indiana contain new oversight requirements and extra costs those states “just aren’t willing or able to take on.”
Quinn added that the coalition’s member states are “anxious to engage” policymakers to make those concerns known.
INDOT has said it would only reconsider its move to end the Hoosier State line if the FRA or U.S. Department of Transportation reversed the rail carrier policy.
U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, sent a letter Wednesday to the FRA’s acting administrator urging the agency to “reverse its decision” to deem INDOT a railroad carrier.
“INDOT is not in a position to assume either the additional liability or the regulatory burdens that a designation of ‘railroad carrier’ would impose,” Coats said in a statement.