Bells & Whistles: Trains Return To Traverse City

It’s not your imagination: You’ve been hearing and seeing more trains in and around Traverse City. And if Chris Bagwell and James Bruckbauer have anything to say about it, the local tracks will be getting even busier.

For years since the Grand Traverse Dinner Train ceased operation in 2006, area tracks were rarely used; the economy had turned sour and freight rail traffic nationwide was drying up.

But now the bells and whistles have returned to northern Michigan, heralding a stronger manufacturing sector in the region as companies ship goods across the state and nation.

Enter Great Lakes Central Railroad, the Owosso-based company that operates trains along 400 miles of Michigan tracks from Ann Arbor to Petoskey and branch lines in between. Great Lakes’ rail cars are hauling grain, plastics, lumber, fertiziler and hazardous materials within the state and connecting to the major rail companies criss-crossing the nation.

Today, companies from Williamburg (Amerhart) to Kalkaska (Magnum Solvents) to to Grawn (Cherry Growers) are regular Great Lakes customers, as are Petoskey Plastics to the north and clients in Cadillac to the south. All told, Great Lakes’ General Manager Chris Bagwell tells The Ticker a train or two per week rumbles through Traverse City.

(The next time you’re tempted to complain about the delay as you wait at one of Traverse City’s 11 railroad crossings, consider this: most local crossings hold cars for 30-60 seconds. It’s not uncommon in a downstate town like Plymouth for 90-car trains to hold crossings for 45 minutes).

Though freight trains serve important roles as engines of commerce, it’s the tantalizing potential of passenger rail that has many in northern Michigan excited.

A campaign to begin passenger service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City is gaining steam, led by TC-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. It’s an idea that will require political support, funding, and a proven market – but the most immediate problem is the track itself: An estimated 95 percent of the tracks between Ann Arbor and Traverse City are ready to haul tourists north, but that last five percent is located right here in northern Michigan.

The Federal Railroad Administration classifies all track; class 6 track allows for speeds above 100mph for freight or passenger traffic. Much of the local track is classified as “excepted track,” which falls below Class 1, which carries a 10mph speed limit for freight and does not allow use by revenue passenger trains.

Groundwork is prioritizing advocacy for more funding to upgrade those tracks because – according to Bruckbauer – there is “widespread interest in establishing passenger rail service,” noting his organization has received “dozens of support letters from various communities and groups along the line, and we’ve raised enough funding to advance a major study on the project.”

Great Lakes Railroad’s Bagwell reminds that freight “will always be what pays the bills,” but quickly adds that “anybody can see that Traverse City continues to grow, and the economic development groups up there are really pushing [passenger rail].” His company envisions it as a way to diversify beyond just hauling grains or raw goods.

The state-sponsored study that Bruckbauer hails as an important milestone will explore track conditions, potential costs, economic impact, ridership, and more. The study is part of Michigan’s State Rail Plan and is expected to begin this fall.