Category Archives: News

Passenger rail service in northern Michigan being studied: Part two

by John Amrhein, Michigan State University Extension

Part one of this Michigan State University Extension article introduced a feasibility study of passenger rail in northern Michigan being conducted by the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and discussed current passenger rail service in Michigan. The potential value of such a service becomes clear as we review some of the points made by Program Director Jim Lively in a presentation to the Northern Michigan Counties Association.

The State of Michigan developed its first statewide rail plan in 2011. The executive summary provides an overview of the current status of rail service in Michigan, cites the benefits of rail in Michigan, and makes recommendations for moving the state forward.

Lively also pointed out that there are over 100,000 college students at 6 colleges along the A2TC corridor being studied. Great potential exists for student travel from home to college and between colleges on the A2TC route.

Significant economic development is also anticipated along the A2TC corridor. As of December 13, 2016, 17 local government bodies and business associations have signed on as supporters and are listed on the Groundwork Center’s website. The website also cites a 2009 study by Grand Valley State University that “found that Michigan cities with once-a-day train service boosted their downtown economies by up to $45 million each year.

Additional benefits of passenger rail service would include increased tourism, providing business travel options and attracting talent to the state.

Plans are to complete the study by fall of 2017, and to also do outreach and community engagement during 2017. The study will include analysis of track status, and cost estimates for needed improvements, analysis of station status and support infrastructure at proposed stops, estimates of service demand and potential revenue, funding and finance options, estimates of economic benefit to the communities along the route, and proposals for a management and operating structure and potential public/private partnerships to operate the line.

Excursion trains are being planned for summer and fall of 2018 to demonstrate the potential. Rail improvements and funding would likely be addressed in 2018 and beyond.

Phase two of the A2TC effort would bring further engineering study between 2018 and 2021 with weekend service beginning in 2012. Securing equipment would occur in phase 3 in 2022-2024 with regular passenger service beginning in 2025.

If you are interested in learning more, or keeping up to date on A2TC progress, check out the A2TC page on the Groundwork Center website. To learn more about the Northern Michigan Counties Association, email John Amrhein at

Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive

Please join us for an early evening hosted by MSU Archives and MSU Press featuring an enlightening retelling of the history of a World War II-era steam locomotive and the determination of two generations of volunteers to keep it running!

Kevin P. Keefe will be speaking October 26, in Conrad Hall, Room 102, from 5:00-7:00 p.m. regarding his new book Twelve Twenty-Five: The Life and Times of a Steam Locomotive.

Pere Marquette 1225 was built in 1941 at the peak of steam locomotive development. The narrative traces the 1225’s regular freight service in Michigan, its unlikely salvation from the scrapyard for preservation at Michigan State University, and the subsequent work to bring it back to steam, first by a student club and later by a railroad museum. Milestones along the way include 1225’s retirement in 1951, its donation to MSU in 1957, its return to steam in 1988, a successful career hauling tens of thousands of excursion riders, and its starring role in the 2004 movie The Polar Express.

The MSU Archives will host an open house featuring unique historical documents and photographs of the 1225.

Keefe will have books available to sign and light refreshments will be served.

Date and Time

Wed, October 26, 2016

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM EDT

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Conrad Hall

888 Wilson Road

East Lansing, MI 48824

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Dowagiac man leading efforts to fund repairs to local train station

From Dowagiac Daily News:

For the past five winters, the bright white lights hanging from the roof of Dowagiac’s historic train depot have shined like a warm beacon during cold evenings downtown.

That brilliant visage may soon burn out, though, without some generosity from the local community.

Dowagiac’s Ron Leatz has recently began a new fundraising campaign to pay for repairs to the 1903 train depot’s outdoor lighting system, which has begun to fail due to ongoing wiring problems. Leatz is seeking to raise $5,200 in donations to fund the work, in hopes of having it completed by year’s end, he said.

Leatz, a volunteer with the Michigan Association for Railroad Passengers who serves as the “host” for travelers
riding the Amtrak trains that stop at the depot, was responsible for organizing the initial “Light Up the Depot” campaign in 2010 that funded the installation of the lights to begin with.

The Dowagiac man was inspired to install such light fixtures on the historic train station after seeing the efforts of the Niles’ Four Flags Garden Club, which pays for the installation of Christmas lights every winter at the city’s own vintage Amtrak station, Leatz said.

In order to accomplish his goal of lighting up Dowagiac’s depot, Leatz collected $8,000 from residents and businesses throughout the Dowagiac community in 2010. The city, which maintains the depot, then used the funds to pay for a contractor to install Christmas lights atop its roof.

“They used a very low wattage for the bulbs, to make it look like the kind of lighting used at the turn of the century when the station was built,” Leatz said.

Instead of serving as temporary decorations for the holiday season, the lights placed atop the Dowagiac station were installed permanently, switching on every season at the start of daylight savings time and switching off when daylight savings time ends, Leatz said.

“I did not want to collect such a large amount of money and only have them up for only 30 or so days,” he said.

The elements have taken their toll on the more than 2,200 feet of wiring powering the light bulbs, though, with the damage causing issues to the building’s electrical system, he said. In order to fix the problem, the wiring will need to be completely replaced, though the installer should be able to reuse the 1,700 light bulbs currently in place, Leatz added.

With the winter season rapidly approaching, Leatz said he is beginning to go door-to-door asking for help with the new fundraiser.

“When we did this the last time, we had people donating just a dollar or even pocket change to the effort,” he said. “When you are trying to raise this much money, every little bit adds up.”

People wishing to contribute to the cause can write checks to “Light Up the Depot,” and can either drop them off to the city treasurer office inside Dowagiac City Hall or mail them to the city at P.O. Box 430, Dowagiac, MI 49047.

For more information, people can call Leatz at (269) 782-0635.


Metro Detroit leaders reach regional transit deal

From The Detroit News:

An eleventh-hour deal was struck Aug. 2 by the top elected leaders in Metro Detroit to save a $4.6 billion transportation millage proposal to help fund regional rapid transit.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Tuesday that a “deal to make the deal” had been reached.

“It’s a huge breakthrough today,” he said.

The agreement comes after the Regional Transit Authority’s board voted 4-5 Thursday against placing the 20-year, 1.2-mill tax on the Nov. 8 ballot that would fund rapid transit.

A recent rift between counties threatened the authority’s millage proposal, but the secret afternoon meeting Tuesday addressed the concerns raised by county executives Mark Hackel of Macomb and L. Brooks Patterson of Oakland, and secured their support.

At issue was whether future funding votes would protect the interests of a few or each county, guarantees on funding allocations and concerns about when the authority would take over the M-1 Rail system now known as the QLine. In addition, Oakland received assurances that transit service would be granted to more communities in the master plan, officials said.

Patterson also said the deal addresses concerns such as ironclad assurances that every county receives 85 percent of what they raise in terms of tax revenue from the millage and that each county will have to approve any funding allocations in future votes.

“Now we’re going to set about memorializing it in writing so we know where we stand,” said Patterson.

The group of regional leaders met in downtown Detroit on the last day to move forward to have the ballot language for the transportation millage certified by county clerks in time for the Nov. 8 ballot.

A tentative meeting was set for Thursday to vote on the plan for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and RTA chief Michael Ford also attended the meeting.

The 20-year millage would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

“I congratulate the other members of the Big Four, because nobody went in there with the idea to sink it,” Patterson said. “We all wanted to save it.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said the eleventh-hour negotiations addressed his concern about governance of the transit authority with representatives from Detroit and Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

“There will be at least one vote from each county and the city of Detroit,” he said, adding that the structure ensures no community will be marginalized.

“It’s a great way of resolving the issue,” he said.

The latest development was good news for Ford, the transit authority’s CEO.

“We’re pleased that the regional leaders have reached agreement on a regional transit plan to place before voters in November and look forward to a successful vote at the special RTA board meeting Thursday morning,” Ford said in a statement.

Evans said after meeting that he remained hopeful that residents will be able to vote on the millage in November.

“While there are still minor concerns that must be addressed, our goal is to improve the public transit system in southeast Michigan,” Evans said in a statement. “The improved public transportation system that the RTA is proposing will build upon the progress that Detroit and Wayne County have made in the past few years, progress that has strengthened our region. With this plan everybody wins.”

Duggan also issued a statement Tuesday following the agreement.

“We appreciate our partners agreeing to come together and move our region forward,” Duggan said. “This regional transit plan will bring not only independence and opportunity for people all over southeast Michigan, but it will allow us to compete with metropolitan areas across the country for development and investment. This agreement also signifies that our region is starting to move beyond a half-century of infighting that has served only to divide us and hold southeast Michigan back.”


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.