MARP Membership Meeting Minutes — St. Johns – January 26, 2019

JANUARY 26, 2019

PRESENT: Approximately 22 members including Steve Vagnozzi, Joshua Hamilton, Adam Tauno Williams, Mark Miller, Robert Patterson, Hugh Gurney, Clark Charnetski, Larry Krieg, Jim Roach, Michael Frezell, Yuri Popov, Dan Platz, Robert Tischbein, Doug Wilson, Kim Powell, Nick Little, Andrew Kent

Also Present:  Jenny McCampbell, Gary McCampbell, at least one community member

Call to Order:  East/Central Regional Chairman Joshua Hamilton called the meeting to order at 10:04 a.m.

Detroit Metro Region:  Regional Chair Robert Patterson announced that the TRU Annual meeting would take place on January 31.  He also noted that the Michigan Central Station in Detroit was open to the public  today, January 26 and Sunday, January 27, to display artifacts connected to the station that have been turned in since Ford acquired the building.  As part of this event, there will be a light show against the building this weekend.

Treasurer’s Report:  Treasurer Steve Vagnozzi reviewed the 2019 Budget in some detail.  In order to produce a balanced budget, the Executive Committee has raised lower categories of memberships by $5.00 each.  In response to a question about the Michigan By Rail expense item, Vagnozzi explained that it reflected projects to be done with a Hands Foundation grant to MARP via the Michigan Environmental Council. Supported by the grant are the Coast to Coast Rail project, the Ann Arbor to Traverse City rail proposal, and a proposed commuter rail between Holland and Grand Rapids.

Vagnozzi   noted that MARP members had recently met with former Congressman Joe Schwartz from the new governor’s transition team.  Schwartz is interested in rail transportation projects that could be accomplished in a reasonable time period such as the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail proposal.

Vagnozzi   reminded the group that in the November, 2018, election there was a major turnover within the state legislature.  Meetings by MARP members with new legislators, particularly those on the appropriation committees are critical.

Speaker:  Nick Little, Director of Railway Education in the Center for Railway Research and Education, Michigan State University, was introduced by Hamilton.

Little explained that the Center for Railway Research and Education is part of the College of Business, not the Engineering School and approaches the subject from a business perspective.

He first reviewed the passenger rail structure in his native England where thousands of trains converge on Victoria and other stations in London each day.  It was a shock when he joined the MSU staff in 1995 and realized that East Lansing was served by only one train daily.

He does not foresee a day when Michigan will have a passenger rail system comparable to Great Britain, primarily due to population density.  Michigan and Britain are roughly the same size, but Britain has 58 million people and Michigan maybe 10 million.  In addition, Michigan’s major industry has been automobiles, so people naturally think first of motor transport and highways.  The fact that Michigan is a peninsula state works against rail.

Several trends may change Michigan’s fascination with the automobile.  Today, only 26% of sixteen year olds have drivers’ licenses and younger people want to live in places where they don’t need to own a car.  Little noted that with the smart phone, travelers have instant information on all types of transportation in larger cities like Chicago – walking, bus, etc.  He is a strong advocate of consolidated transportation tickets which work very well in London and other cities.  With current data programs, it is quite easy to distribute revenue equitably among several transportation providers.

Little sees the first passenger rail expansion as a direct rail link between Detroit, Grand Rapids and Holland, supplemented by connecting buses.  Little is a big advocate of connecting buses throughout the state.   He would also like to see Diesel Multiple Units connecting Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.  DMU’s can easily be expanded or shrunk depending on demand.  He suggests connecting the Pere Marquette line with the Amtrak line just north of New Buffalo.

One issue Little would like to see addressed is adequate space for luggage within a passenger’s sight line.   In Britain, luggage is stowed behind the seats.  Level boarding platforms are another key issue.  He sees a need for the Surface Transportation Administration to bring passenger and freight rail people together to resolve the issue.

Little would like to see more emphasis on batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, which have been studied in North Carolina.  Hydrogen fuel cells have the same efficiency as diesel.

At the present time, the biggest challenge in Michigan to the growth of passenger rail is reliability.

When queried about what we as MARP members could be doing to build ridership, Little responded that we should share our enthusiasm for trains and their value.  Share our knowledge about how to use the current rail system, how to get to the train from home, how to get to your ultimate destination from the train station in a distant city – the total end-to-end trip.  Share how the experience on the train is different than that on a plane.  And very important for those wary of public transportation – emphasize that it is perfectly safe to sit next to another person on the train.  Review with others the total cost of driving to another city versus taking the train.  Work for a unified ticket system.

As to “fixing the damn roads”, Little asks, “Where’s the money coming from?”

As to gaining access to stations such as Grand Rapids, Little noted that current technology could make it possible for a ticketed passenger to open the door.

St. Johns Depot:  Hostess Jenny McCampbell welcomed the group to St. Johns and its depot.  The building is owned and maintained by the City of St. Johns and is frequently rented out by the city for meetings, showers and parties.  That is why what once was the waiting room is kept open and uncluttered.

She reminded the group that at one time 95% of all travel was by train.  The city of St. Johns actually came into being because the Detroit and Grand Haven Railroad decided to route its tracks through the area in 1867.  The first station was built in 1869.  By 1910, it was totally obsolete, but the railroad company refused to take action.  Then in 1920, a tornado hit the community and demolished the old station.  As a result, the current station was built.  Fortunately, as building drawings exist as well as photos of the stationmaster at the window with telegraph and typewriter close by.  One of the few artifacts in the waiting room itself is the large safe from the original station which was returned in 2002.

St. Johns is 98.13 miles from Detroit and 90.18 miles from Grand Haven.

The original name of the community was Johns Station.  Somehow the name got transposed to St. Johns.

The volunteer group that McCampbell and her husband Gary head up is mainly involved is preservation and restoration of four railroad cars kept adjacent to the station, a caboose, a sleeping car, a post office car, and a coach.

Frezell added that an interurban once connected St. Johns with Lansing to the south.

Adjournment:  The meeting adjourned at 12:10 p.m.

Respectfully submitted,
Hugh D. Gurney