MICHIGAN ASSOCIATION OF RAILROAD PASSENGERS
Durand Union Station, Durand
September 20, 2008
Those Signing In: Hugh Gurney, Viola Van Til, Duke Van Til, J. R. Valderas, Andrew Kent, Jim Hinkins, Michael Frezell, Clark Charnetski, Kaz Fujita, Dick Pekarek, Jim Wallington, John Guidinger, Marilyn Guidinger, Norma Ward, Barry Adams, Jim Slater, Greg Pullano, Lawrence Krieg, Roger Webster, Daniel Myers, Mary Myers, Barney Whittaker, Rich Vavra-Musser, Jesse Auerbach, Dave Randall, Diane Patterson, Robert Patterson, Larry Sobczak, Bob Tischbein, John DeLora
Also Present: Ross Capon, National Association of Railroad Passengers; Tim Fischer, Michigan Environmental Council; Therese Cody, Michigan Department of Transportation
Chairman DeLora called the meeting to order at 10:05 a.m. and introduced Norma Ward, who welcomed the group to Durand Union Station. The restored building is owned by the City of Durand, population 4,500, and has been restored, preserved and operated by Durand Union Station, Incorporated, a non-profit, mostly volunteer organization. Ward thanked DeLora for his support over the years.
Ross Capon, NARP
DeLora then introduced Ross Capon, Executive Director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a man with tremendous credibility on Capitol Hill in Washington. Capon briefly discussed his trip from Washington aboard the Capital Limited, one of three long distance trains currently operating with a diner/lounge. The City of New Orleans and the Texas Eagle are the other trains so equipped. Conversions to diner/lounges have stopped at seventeen after considerable expense by Amtrak.
Capon next discussed chokepoints on the Amtrak system including the Norfolk Southern route between Porter, Indiana, and Chicago, Illinois. A right of way exists just to the north of the NS and additional tracks could be reinstalled to eliminate congestion. Capon stated that now was a good time to talk to all candidates for public office face to face and let them know about your support for passenger rail. Several bills currently under discussion could include passenger rail including an energy bill, an economic stimulus bill, a Positive Train Control bill and the Amtrak Reauthorization bill. Senator Hoburn of Oklahoma currently has a hold on this latter bill until a drilling bill is passed.
Most important is a good appropriations bill which should be in the neighborhood of $1.8 billion. NARP has written to Obama, McCain and Nader and to all fifty governors stressing the importance of passenger trains. In Capon’s opinion, public officials will always find the money when they have to. Amtrak is generally not seen as a crisis situation, since it keeps plugging along.
Amtrak ridership is way up and it is an energy efficient way to travel, utilizing 2650 btu’s per passenger mile vs. 3515 btu’s for automobiles. Amtrak could be even more energy efficient since many of its locomotives designed for long train consists are currently pulling relatively short trains. Capacity constraints are preventing more ridership. In 30 years, Amtrak has received less funding from the federal government than will be spent on highways in 2008 alone. Capon pointed to development along the Downeaster route as an example of how passenger rail can stimulate economic development.
At the current time, Air-Rail connections exist in Baltimore, Newark, Burbank and Milwaukee and all are very successful. Airlines have no playbook for $110 per barrel oil and have lost $1.6 billion in the first quarter of 2008. Long distance trains actually account for 47% of Amtrak’s 5.4 billion passenger miles. Amtrak is working with many states on high speed rail projects which will improve the performance of all trains.
Positive Train Control systems are currently being demonstrated on four major freight railroads and Chicago METRA by Wabtech, which has developed an entire system including positive train control, GPS, power supply, safety and security. Positive Train Control promises to reduce freight-passenger conflict. Two bills currently being considered may spur public investment.
Capon was interviewed by NBC regarding the commuter train wreck in California and was quoted in an article which appeared in the Los Angeles Times. R
eturning to the bottleneck issue, Capon stated again that a right of way exists for additional tracks from Porter, Indiana to a point west of the Calumet River in Illinois. Improvements in one state, Indiana, will improve traffic flow for both freight and passenger trains in adjacent states including Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. Another major chokepoint is near Ft. Worth, Texas, where a major east-west route crosses a north-south route at grade level. Studies are underway there for a grade separation.
Langdon noted that the cost of improving the Porter-Chicago route would be about the same as one Interstate highway interchange. Charnetski asked for clarification on the “South of the Lake” study done by Amtrak several years ago. Cody expressed fear that some of the right of way mentioned by Capon near the Gary Airport was in danger of development. Guidinger asked about funding for studies to further planning.
Capon then discussed the NARP Vision for passenger rail in the United States. NARP envisions a rail network using existing rail lines which would serve an additional 361 metropolitan areas in the U.S., including Las Vegas, Columbus, Nashville and McAllen- Edinburg, TX. The National Surface Transportation Commission has recommended a less extensive expansion, but does recommend increasing annual public investment in passenger rail from the current $1 billion to $9 billion.
Capon again stressed that all improvements to the rail system improve both passenger and freight movements. He demonstrated this through slides of the addition of a third track at L’Enfant Plaza in the District of Columbia, a new bridge over Quantico Creek in Virginia and a double track high bridge on a commuter line in Florida. California has spent over $3 billion on passenger rail improvements as a result of a voter initiative. An additional bond issue is on the ballot there this fall. California now counts for 21% of Amtrak riders.
Over the last few years, Amtrak funding has increased incrementally. The environment right now for improved funding is very positive. Organized labor is a major supporter of Amtrak.
In response to a question from Charnetski, Guidinger stated that Amtrak Thruway Bus stops in California were signed with bus signs, not train signs.
In response to a question from Robert Patterson, Capon stated that Amtrak CEO Kummant serves at the pleasure of the Amtrak Board of Directors, which is appointed by the President. The CEO needs to stay in line with the Board and the White House. Kummant currently sees more advantage to extending high speed rail south of Washington than in dealing with incremental improvements north of Washington. In that sector, a new tunnel at Baltimore is critical. FRA Chairman Boardman, who is very pro passenger rail, testified recently in favor of an electrified, grade separated line from Maine to Florida.
DeLora next introduced Therese Cody, Rail Operating Programs Manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation, who reported that the state legislature is now wrapping up the 2008-2009 appropriations bill. Amtrak will continue operating while a new contract is negotiated for the Pere Marquette and Blue Water. She thanked MARP, Durand Union Station, WESTRAIN and others for their support. Both ridership and revenue are up substantially on all Michigan trains, largely due to the increase in gas prices.
The Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter study is proceeding with a goal of some trains running by the fall of 2010. At this stage, MDOT is negotiating with the freight railroads for permission to operate this service. Improvement of the West Detroit junction is currently out to bid. MDOT is negotiating with the Great Lakes Central Railroad for rehabilitation of cars currently stored in Owosso.
The Positive Train Control west of Kalamazoo is functioning well, with plans to step up permitted speed to 110 m.p.h. next year. Following the California train wreck, she fielded calls from the Los Angeles Times concerning Michigan’s experience. China is also looking into the Michigan system.
There is hope for a new station in Detroit. Durand now has an automated ticket machine. Currently, funding is not available for a new station in Ann Arbor, but that may change with the commuter rail service. Local government has been charged with providing additional parking there.
Responding to a question from Robert Patterson, Cody stated that trains are cleaned and serviced at Pontiac under contract. DeLora explained that cars are being cleaned, but oxidizing of the siding makes the cars still look grungy.
Cody agreed to request additional coaches on the Blue Water and Pere Marquette during the holiday period. She asked to be kept informed of any events we are aware of that would require additional cars and she will order them if given enough lead time.
As to the future of the Ypsilanti-Kalamazoo line, both Amtrak and MDOT have met with Norfolk Southern concerning acquisition. High speed is ready to go from Niles West to the Michigan state line.
The Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter line is seen as the first leg, with extensions to Pontiac and Chelsea coming later. The former terminal in Pontiac has been demolished and a new station will be developed. A major question deals with who will own it. MDOT isn’t interested. Cody will check on the status of parking at Pontiac.
State law mandates that MDOT negotiate a fixed price contract with Amtrak. However, if we keep her informed of problems, she can be the squeaky wheel to see that issues are resolved. She has not heard whether the Pere Marquette and Blue Water will have Superliner equipment this winter. Because coaches with minor repairs have already been spoken for, rehabilitation of additional coaches for Michigan will probably cost around $800,000 each.
Cody is pushing for a stronger promotion coalition for the Blue Water. More land is required for a new station in East Lansing. The concept is for a gateway project with a station on the diamond. Planning continues for the Troy Transportation Center, which must be built by 2010 or the land will revert to the developer. Birmingham and Troy are working together to find funds for the project. If completed, the present Birmingham stop would be relocated.
Langdon asked Cody to consider additional trains during the Holland Tulip Festival. He asked members to review www.mitrain.com and submit additional information about communities along the Blue Water and Wolverine routes to him.
Vision Initiative: Vavra-Musser brought to the floor a proposal put together by him, Valderas and Langdon called “Frequent trains for Michigan. If there is a better choice, let me know!” Specifics of the proposal are:
- Add cars to each Michigan train as needed to handle the demand.
- Add one additional frequency on each Michigan route.
- Extend the high speed corridor east and west to reduce travel time and increase reliability.
What is needed to bring this vision to fruition include:
- A lobbyist in Lansing
- A clear and concise brochure
- Communicate, communicate, communicate!
All of us must be willing to talk to local civic groups, officials, unions and colleges about the need for additional trains. It’s not really about the dollars, but about the right idea.
Because of high gas prices, highway congestion, lack of funding for new or expanded highways, and the withdrawal of airlines from smaller communities, Vavra-Musser argued that this was the right time for such a proposal. Amtrak is currently turning passengers away. This vision would both reduce reliance on foreign oil and encourage business and tourism.
Minutes: The minutes were reviewed. Wallington moved approval, seconded by Webster. Those present voted approval.
Treasurer’s Report: Randall reported that as of August 31, 2008, the checking account totaled $5,416.54 and the value of the Pratt Fund was $13,647.96. Income was at 67% of budget and expenses were at 49% for an operating ratio of 65.6%. Vavra-Musser moved approval, seconded by Guidinger. The Treasurer’s Report was approved.
Chairman’s Report: DeLora announced that baggage service would be restored on one eastbound and one westbound Wolverine in January. Stations served include Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. DeLora will be retiring in five months and will not seek another term as MARP Chair. He plans to focus his attention at the National level.
Governmental Affairs –Langdon reported that efforts to secure a lobbyist in September fell through as the person being considered failed to come up with a second client. Nevertheless, we should work toward hiring a lobbyist in the future.
Controversy over a second Detroit Bridge has held up passage of funding for transportation at the state level. While this is resolved, Amtrak will continue to operate state funded trains.
As to unused funds, Bill Hamilton reports that $150,000 remains in the CTF Fund, but nothing from the Detroit station.
Langdon plans to contact all members of the Michigan delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives to determine where they stand on passenger rail and the 110 state representatives as well. He introduced Jesse Auerbach of the Environmental Policy & Law Center, who has been advising us on how to get support for trains. Mayor McGeehan of Holland will be taking a resolution supporting a second Pere Marquette to a conference of 155 mayors on Mackinac Island, where he will try to round up as many signatures as possible. He will encourage the mayors to send resolutions passed by their cities to their local representatives and senators, the governor and the leadership of the Michigan House and Senate.
The conference committee for transportation added $5 million to the state appropriation for the state’s share of the West Detroit junction improvement.
DeLora reported that the resolution for expanded train service proposed by Senator Basham passed unanimously.
Communications: Chase shared a draft of the “Better Choice-More Trains” brochure and asked those present to review it and give her feedback.
Membership: Paid membership is increasing as a result of a follow up mailing. Vavra-Musser is working on proposals for business memberships and sponsorships, which would help pay for a lobbyist.
He asked regional chairs to promote attendance at meetings and arrange carpools as necessary. He suggested having regional meetings during the first month of each quarter in lieu of a statewide meeting as a means of increasing participation. Chase supported this concept as it would help mobilize members to pass out literature and build awareness. She suggested members check the list of candidates for public office at www.votesmart.org
Outreach: Frezell handed out a schedule of upcoming exhibit venues where MARP will have a presence and urged members to volunteer to staff such events. The displays are a way of promoting MARP and teaching people how to use the trains. Guidinger urged members to send him information about customer service they experience on trains. He can nominate Amtrak personnel for Customer Service Awards.
Valderas urged that we avoid scheduling other events or meetings on National Train Day, so we can all participate fully in that event. DeLora asked Valderas and Chase to serve as a planning subcommittee for the 2009 National Train Day.
West: Langdon announced that the New Buffalo City Council was scheduled to approve the contract for the new station platform during the coming week. The opening of the new station is expected in the spring. Langdon is continuing to work with MDOT on having the Pere Marquette continue to stop in New Buffalo even after the new station is complete. A major grade separation makes connecting the two routes through New Buffalo difficult.
The www.mitrain.org website is being redone, so Langdon would like any suggestions on improvement sent to him. WESTRAIN is paying for billboards and a direct mail piece promoting the Pere Marquette.
The present Grand Rapids station is being repainted, the parking lot repaired, and a fence constructed which will separate the parking lot from the station.
Ridership on the Pere Marquette was down in July due to lack of equipment. At the suggestion of one of the members, Langdon agreed to meet with Hank Meijer about having Meijer pay for refurbishing a car.
East/Central: Wallington continues to work with Indian Trails on establishing more Amtrak Thuway Service. He is hoping to get better connections at Battle Creek. However, Indian Trails needs more incentives to work with Amtrak. DeLora reported that he met recently with Brenda Cheney of Indian Trails and got the idea that MDOT had put a lot of obstacles in their way. Port Huron will handle the Blue Water Group promotion next. year.
North: As a result of Monteith’s resignation, Kent now lacks a liaison in Northwest Lower Michigan. Only one passenger excursion, from Owosso to Cadillac, is scheduled for the fall of 2008. A video which aired on Channel 19 on the railroads of central Michigan acknowledged the assistance of MARP and MARP member Graydon Meints.
Metro: Open houses are scheduled in several locations to present the Detroit Metropolitan Area regional transportation vision. This vision includes more city and suburban buses, rapid transit corridors, and a light rail system. A privately funded group including the universities is promoting a light rail system from the New Center area to Hart Plaza, which seems to overlap with a DDOT plan for light rail service from the State Fair Grounds to downtown Detroit. The Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail service will terminate in the New Center area.
The interim mayor of Detroit is enthusiastic about a regional transportation system as well as expansion of Cobo Hall. Hinkins suggested we push for a commuter rail station at Cobo Hall.
Charnetski brought up the $32 million figure quoted by the WALLY consultant for a Howell-Ann Arbor commuter rail service with increased speed and longer platforms.
While a two county authority would be ideal, Livingston County is reluctant. However, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority is willing to serve as the funding conduit.
Gurney reported that City Manager Shea Charles of Howell and many of the city agencies in Howell were quite enthusiastic about WALLY. Most people at an August hearing in Howell seemed positive. However, the Livingston Board of Commissioners is leery of funding commitments.
Newsletter: Valderas expressed concern that too many newsletters were not being distributed. Langdon suggested that we get back to having the Regional Chairs oversee distribution and check the number actually needed. Indian Trails has expressed a willingness to distribute for us. According to Fujita, there is no distribution at East Lansing. In response to a question from Charnetski, Randall stated that we do not exchange with other ARP’s. The next issue should be out in mid-October, with a deadline at the end of September.
Lobbyist: As a follow up to the earlier discussion, Wallington moved that MARP hire lobbyist services on a part time basis at critical times during the year. The motion was seconded by Langdon. Langdon offered to check on people who work with transit and the Michigan Environmental Council, which seems very familiar with the legislative process. Vavra-Musser and Chase expressed concern that MEC may not be the right vehicle, that they may have a different focus. DeLora suggested that he, Chase and Langdon serve as a subcommittee to review the proposal and report at the next meeting. Charnetski moved that the issue be tabled until the next meeting, and Wallington accepted this motion.
Meetings: As a follow up to another earlier discussion, Vavra-Musser proposed that during the first month of each quarter, a regional meeting conducted by the regional chair be held in lieu of a statewide meeting that month. The motion was seconded by Langdon. After considerable discussion, the question was called. The motion failed on a tie vote.
Wallington then proposed that one meeting each year be a quarterly meeting chaired by the regional chair. The motion was seconded by Langdon. The motion failed.
Railvolution Meeting: Robert Patterson called attention to his e-mail in which he recommended against attendance as too costly.
October Meeting: The next meeting will be October 18 at the Metro Transit Center in Kalamazoo.
The meeting adjourned at 3:10 p.m.
Hugh D. Gurney
John DeLora, Chair