Category Archives: News

Final draft of Ann Arbor train station study awaits state, federal review

From The Ann Arbor News:

Amtrak's Wolverine train at the Ann Arbor station.
Amtrak’s Wolverine train at the Ann Arbor station.

Ann Arbor officials said back in May the Ann Arbor Station study was nearing the final stretch and a recommendation was expected in the next month or so on a preferred location for a new Amtrak station in the city.

More than three months later, nothing has been announced, but city officials say there should be news sometime in September.

Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said a final draft analysis of alternative locations for a new train station was to be delivered to the Michigan Department of Transportation on Wednesday afternoon.

He said the draft report includes a comprehensive review of options for a new train station both on Fuller Road and Depot Street, as well as a no-build option.

“The report also discusses a recommendation to preferred location,” Cooper said in an email on Wednesday, declining to disclose the preferred location.

“Recognizing this is a draft document and subject to agency review, comments and amendments, it is best to wait until the final version is available,” he said.

The Ann Arbor News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the draft report and is awaiting a response from the city.

City officials have been talking about building a new Amtrak station for several years, and the current study has been ongoing since early 2014.

It’s the city’s position that the existing station on Depot Street is inadequate and will become increasingly inadequate in the years ahead in terms of passenger demand, quality and comfort, access, intermodal connectivity, and integration within the city.

Assuming MDOT’s review indicates the draft report is responsive to previous input from MDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration, Cooper said it will be forwarded to the FRA for final review, and a final report could be released in September.

“I’m thinking we’re into early- to mid-September if all goes well,” Cooper said, noting public meetings to discuss the recommendations will be scheduled after that.

Cooper said late last month the city was leaning toward holding off on the public engagement until after Labor Day to avoid summer vacation issues and to maximize the opportunity for public engagement and comment.

When asked for an update in early July, Cooper said the city’s project team was working through the FRA’s comments on an earlier draft report.

The city has given serious consideration to demolishing the existing Amtrak station on Depot Street and building a new station at that location, as well as another option that would involve building on the footprint of a city-owned parking lot along Fuller Road in Fuller Park in front of the University of Michigan Hospital.

As for the idea of returning the historic Michigan Central Railroad Depot on Depot Street to use as a train station, something the federal government asked the city to explore as part of the Depot Street alternative, the city’s project consultant laid out a list of reasons in May why that wouldn’t be a very good option.

If the city decided to stick with the existing Amtrak location on Depot Street, the city’s project team has concluded the city would need a portion of the DTE-owned MichCon site north of the station to build a new station and parking facilities there. DTE has agreed to collaborate with the city to make that work if that option is chosen.

The project team has evaluated options for Depot Street that include a new station either at ground level or elevated.

The project team is working with assumptions that ridership along the Detroit-to-Chicago corridor will increase significantly in the coming decades, with daily roundtrips by Amtrak increasing from three to 10, along with new commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit that’s expected to start within a few years.

City voters will have the final say before a new station can be built.

The city hired URS Corp. for $824,875 to lead the train station study. A little less than $165,000 came from funds the city previously budgeted, with the rest covered by a federal rail grant the city accepted in 2012.

The $2.8 million federal rail planning grant also is expected to cover some additional future expenses as the project moves forward.

Final design of a new Amtrak station is identified as a $2.6 million expense in 2016-17 in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan. The actual construction of the new station is shown as a separate $44.5 million line item in 2017-18.

City officials expect 80 percent of the funding to come from the federal government with other local partners potentially contributing funds.


Talgo to keep Wisconsin trains, get $10 million more in settlement

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A new Wisconsin train from Talgo sat on the track at the Milwaukee manufacturing facility where trains are assembled in 2012. The Talgo trains left the state last year.
A new Wisconsin train from Talgo sat on the track at the Milwaukee manufacturing facility where trains are assembled in 2012. The Talgo trains left the state last year.

Wisconsin taxpayers will end up paying $9.7 million more for two state of the art train sets — for a total of roughly $50 million — but leave the trains with their Spanish manufacturer, under the settlement of a nearly 3-year-old lawsuit.

The settlement, which still needs to be approved in court, ends a political saga going back half a decade.

The bizarre and expensive outcome for Wisconsin — paying for a product but not keeping it or ever using it — reflects the depth of the political disagreement in which Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed, and then GOP presidential candidate and Gov. Scott Walker nixed, a no-bid contract with Talgo Inc. for trains from Madison to Milwaukee and then on to Chicago

The manufacturer ended up suing Walker and Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb seeking a clean title to the trains — and also sought an additional $10 million as a final payment on them — and has reached a settlement that largely achieves that, said Lester Pines, an attorney for Talgo. If the manufacturer is able to sell the trains, it will return 30% of the net proceeds of the sale, up to a limit of $9.7 million, to Wisconsin.

Spokespersons for the Walker administration and the state Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment late Wednesday. But Pines confirmed details of the settlement and provided a copy of a stipulation in the case that was signed Wednesday by both sides and that will be filed in Dane County Circuit Court on Thursday.

“(Talgo) didn’t like this litigation and it’s happy it’s over,” Pines said. “They’re not in the business of suing people.”

Under Doyle and a Democratically held Legislature, the state agreed in 2009 to a no-bid contract to buy two new train sets from Talgo Inc. for Amtrak’s Hiawatha line, which runs from Milwaukee to Chicago, for $47.5 million as well as additional trains for a proposed Madison to Milwaukee line.

Talgo, a Spanish company with U.S. headquarters in Seattle, was paid $42.2 million for the trains before the lawsuit, according to the state Department of Transportation. The state expended millions of dollars more for a temporary maintenance base and planning for a permanent base, spare parts and consulting fees.

The payments were made using bonds, with taxpayers ultimately on the hook for those expenditures.

Wisconsin won an $810 million federal stimulus grant to build a high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Madison, but the federal government revoked the award after Walker won election in 2010 on a promise to stop the train.

The lawsuit, however, centers on the trains for the Milwaukee-Chicago line and is not related to the abandoned Milwaukee-Madison line, since the state canceled its order for those Talgo trains before work on them started. The State of Wisconsin has sovereign immunity, meaning it can only be sued for failing to pay up on a contract in cases in which the agreed item has been delivered or had work started, Pines said.

The problem with the trains for the Hiawatha was exacerbated for two reasons, Pines said.

First, Talgo had priced the train sets lower to account for a 20-year maintenance contract on the trains that the state also broke. Second, the Walker administration and GOP lawmakers waited more than a year to go back on the state’s order with Talgo for the Milwaukee-Chicago train sets, allowing the company’s work on the trains to progress even further, Pines said.

“The state signed contracts with Talgo and then absolutely walked away from that,” Pines said.

In March 2012, Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee ignored the objections of the Walker administration and voted 12-4 on party lines to reject borrowing $2.5 million for additional planning to replace a maintenance base for the Talgo trains. At the time, Walker’s Department of Transportation said that vote meant the state would not be able to put the trains into service. GOP lawmakers rejected the maintenance base anyway, saying they believed the state could save money by sticking with the existing Hiawatha trains.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee at the time, said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen the settlement or talked with GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel about it. Vos said that he believed at the time that the state had protections against legal action and that the blame for the outcome ultimately rested on actions by Doyle and the previous Legislature.

“This is just another reminder of the dark days of Jim Doyle,” Vos said.

At the time, however, then state Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), an attorney and budget committee member, said the Joint Finance action was inviting a lawsuit for breach of contract and was “completely foolhardy and irresponsible.”


Ontario man looks back at 52-year railroad career

From the Detroit Free Press:

The children in this photo are students in the 1960 kindergarten class of Mrs. James Lingo, Jr. They were visiting railroaders at the Shelby Depot. In the back row, from left, are engineer Richard Hoover of Galion, conductor Bill Hocker of Galion and brakeman Roger Weaver of Ontario.(Photo: Submitted photo)
The children in this photo are students in the 1960 kindergarten class of Mrs. James Lingo, Jr. They were visiting railroaders at the Shelby Depot. In the back row, from left, are engineer Richard Hoover of Galion, conductor Bill Hocker of Galion and brakeman Roger Weaver of Ontario.(Photo: Submitted photo)

“To ride in the cab of a Hudson doing 80 miles an hour is the experience of a lifetime,” Roger Weaver said.

He should know. He spent 52 years as a railroad man, working for the New York Central’s great passenger steam engines before diesels took over in the late 1950s.

Weaver said he quit school in Cincinnati in his junior high school year to become a railroader.

“I loved trains and railroading and couldn’t wait to get started,” he said.

By the time he was 17 he was living with his grandparents in New London and gravitated to the New York Central’s Big Four line that connected Cleveland to Columbus, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

He worked as a tower operator, a brakeman and a conductor on freight and passenger trains.

As a brakeman he often rode in the cabs of the Big Four’s Hudson, Mohawk and Niagara steam engines before the diesel era began.

“I can remember when 55 passenger trains on the Pennsylvania and New York Central would pass through Crestline in one day.”

As a temporary tower operator in Vernon Junction, Weaver watched the last Pennsylvania Railroad train cross the Big Four on its way to Toledo. That line is long gone, as are many of the lines Weaver worked.

He was a brakeman on a freight train pulling 175 cars across the B&O diamond in Shelby.

There was a time, he said, when passenger trains ran south on the B&O from Willard to Newark.

Trains in Willard were headed for Chicago in one direction and Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the other direction.

He can remember busy days switching freight cars from Crestline to Shelby; Greenwich to New London and Wellington to Berea on the NYC’s Big Four line.

He said the huge yards at Bellefontaine were impressive.

“Now they are gone. It’s just all weeds,’’ he said.

He spent most of his career working for the Penn Central and then Amtrak. He retired in 2007.

Weaver wasn’t aware that there would be a special event this coming weekend at Galion’s Big Four Depot but he may be able to make it.

After all, railroads were his life and he hasn’t forgotten.


Niles Amtrak stabbing suspect faces 8 new charges

From The South Bend Tribune:

The Saginaw man who allegedly stabbed four people on an Amtrak train coming into Niles last December was arraigned Wednesday on eight new charges. He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing next Tuesday on the new charges, as well as the four initial charges against him.

Michael Darnell Williams, 44, now faces four charges of assault with intent to murder, as well as one additional charge of assault with intent to murder, five counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, one count of carrying a concealed weapon (knife) and one count of resisting and obstructing police.

No determination, however, has been made yet on whether he can be found criminally responsible for the acts.

Williams was arrested after a Dec. 5 stabbing aboard an Amtrak train headed to Port Huron from Chicago. Williams told police he started attacking people after one person he had been talking to “turned into a demon.”

Amtrak personnel called Niles police. When they arrived at the Niles station, officers made their way aboard the train and confronted Williams, who they said was armed with a knife.

Niles police officer Shane Daniel subdued Williams with a Taser and arrested him.

The four initial charges stemmed from his alleged assaults on conductor Dontrel Bankhead, 40, who was stabbed two times in the head, two times in the neck and several other times in the body; passenger Bonnie Cleasby, 59, who was stabbed in the abdomen; passenger Dan Stewart, 56, who was stabbed once in the check; and passenger Gail Vanhorst, 47, who was stabbed in the chest.

The new assault with intent to murder charge is for his alleged assault on officer Daniel, while the five assault with a dangerous weapon are for his alleged assaults on the conductor, three passengers and Daniel. The resisting and obstructing police charge is for allegedly resisting Daniel.

Williams was sent for a forensic examination after his arrest and was found to suffer from visual hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and schizophrenia. He then received treatment and last week was found to be competent to stand trial in a court hearing before Berrien County Trial Judge Dennis Wiley.

Wednesday, Wiley said the preliminary hearing on all 12 charges will be held next Tuesday, despite a request from defense attorney Shannon Sible to delay the hearing until a report comes back on whether Williams can be held criminally responsible for his actions.

“He shouldn’t have to make a decision on how to proceed until we get the report on criminal responsibility,” Sible said.

Whether Williams can be held to be criminally responsible for his actions is different than the competency issue, Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd said. If Williams is found to be not criminally responsible, his attorney could use it as a defense.

While Sible asked that the preliminary hearing be delayed, at the same time, he noted that Williams is “quite frustrated” with the time that has elapsed since his arraignment last December.


Detroit-Windsor rail tunnel project put on hold

From Crain’s Detroit Business:

Detroit-Windsor Rail Tunnel.
Detroit-Windsor Rail Tunnel.

The $400 million effort to build a new rail tunnel underneath the Detroit River has been put on hold because its private-sector backers say the business case for new tunnel doesn’t exist.

“It’s idle for now,” said Marge Byington Potter, executive director of corporate affairs for the Continental Rail Gateway. The project has been in the planning stage since 2001.

She did not explain why the project is on hold and deferred all other comment to the project’s primary financial backers, Toronto-based Borealis Infrastructure Management Inc. and Calgary, Alberta-based Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

The companies issued a joint statement via email Monday afternoon: “The Continental Rail Gateway replacement tunnel is being idled pending review by the partners, Canadian Pacific and Borealis Infrastructure. At present, the business case and economics of the project are not sufficient to proceed with a majority privately funded development. We continue to focus our attention on the existing tunnel, which remains in full commercial operation and is a key component of Canadian-United States border infrastructure.”

CP and Borealis had committed $200 million to the project, with the remainder expected to come from government sources.

The state of Michigan last year committed $10 million to the tunnel project, contingent on its getting all its other funding and approvals. No other government funding had been secured.

Borealis is the investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System. It is financing most of the tunnel work and owns the land necessary for the project near Detroit’s current rail tunnel. Borealis increased its stake in the tunnel and the project to 83.5 percent from 50 percent in an $87.7 million deal in 2009.

Montreal-based Canadian National Railway Co. had been part of the project but sold its share to Borealis in February 2000.

Byington Potter told Crain’s this month that project officials were in talks with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration for a $190 million Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing loan to round out the capital costs. For the loan to happen, Canadian federal environmental approval and all other permits had to be in hand. That process was ongoing, Byington Potter said at the time.

She said she expected Canadian environmental approval by the end of summer. The project wasn’t seeking any other Canadian and U.S. grants to offset the borrowing, she said.

Once all the capital was in place, the project had to receive approval to proceed under the Canadian International Bridges and Tunnels Act and get a U.S. presidential permit from the U.S. State Department.

Construction was estimated to take two years.

The financing premise is that the project would recoup its costs from tolls that rail companies negotiate. Such tolls are typically based on each kind of rail car, such as tankers and boxcars. Byington Potter didn’t have toll estimates.

Land for the new tunnel is near the current rail tunnel’s Detroit entrance, just southwest of the U.S. post office at West Fourth and Eighth streets. It handles about 400,000 rail cars annually.

The traffic volume with the new tunnel was expected to be about the same but would be done more efficiently with the use of double-stacked rail cars, Byington Potter said.

The new tunnel was planned to be about 50 feet below the riverbed, 30 feet deeper than the current tunnel. It also would be several hundred feet longer and would be dug by specialized boring machinery rather than constructed as tubes sunk into the river, which is how the current tunnel was built in 1910.

Design and engineering work on the new tunnel has been done by Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Inc.; Toronto-based MMM Group; and Iselin, N.J.-based Hatch Mott Macdonald Group Inc.

The current twin-tube tunnel underwent a $27 million enlargement of one tube in 1993 that allowed it to accept some but not all modern stacked container rail cars.

That expansion of what’s known formally as the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel eliminated the need to move cargo, especially automobiles and trucks, by ferry across the Detroit River. The tunnel remains unable to accommodate the largest stacked rail cars, especially the 9-foot-6-inch “high-cube” shipping containers that are stacked.

Canadian National built a large, modern tunnel underneath the St. Clair River between Port Huron and Sarnia that opened in 1994 at a cost of $200 million. CN maintains that tunnel almost exclusively for its own trains.

The new tunnel would be open to all rail companies, Byington Potter said.

The plan for a new tunnel originally called for the current tubes to be converted into a commercial truck link, but that was scrapped after Canada and Michigan opted to build a new bridge about a mile from the Ambassador Bridge — a span scheduled to open by 2020 and be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Before taking on its current name, the tunnel effort was called the Detroit River Tunnel Partnership, and the tube itself was nicknamed the “Jobs Tunnel” because of the thousands of jobs backers predicted it would create or preserve.

Tunnel backers also noted that the new tube would be near the proposed $445 million Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal being built by CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National as a consolidated terminal near Wyoming Avenue and I-94. The terminal is designed to accommodate existing and future freight demands.

John Taylor, chairman of the supply chain management department at Wayne State University’s School of Business Administration, has been on record for years as skeptical about the tunnel project.

“It’s very difficult financially because there’s so little traffic that doesn’t fit now,” he told Crain’s this month. “It’s just hard to justify the financing. Until we get to the point most of the container traffic does not fit, it’s just hard to justify a new railroad tunnel. I think it’s up in the air. The business case is very difficult.”