By Pat Maurer
Future travelers might be able to hop on a train at Clare, Marion or McBain and “ride the rails” all the way to Traverse City, if a plan is developed there to expand rail service.
According to a recently released report by the Michigan Land Use Institute, an 11-mile rail passenger service between the Williamsburg/Acme area and downtown Traverse City could be only the beginning.
Passenger rail service from Williamsburg to downtown Traverse City could be an option to relieve their growing traffic problems and eventually could potentially lead to an expanded rail service to Grawn, then to Cadillac, where it could connect with Amtrak routes south to Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, or even connect to Amtrak routes southeast across the State through McBain, Marion, Clare and Mt. Pleasant on its way to Ann Arbor and Detroit.
The Michigan Land Use Institute is examining alternatives and proposing different ideas to spark a vigorous community conversation and, ultimately, action to restore passenger trains in the Grand
The report cautioned, “To be clear, there is no plan for developing a train in the region. This report is intended to get us closer to making that plan.”
The report, Getting Back on Track – Uncovering the Potential for Trains in Traverse City, was co-authored by James Bruckbauer, MLUI Policy Specialist and Maura Niemiesto, MLUI Research Assistant. It was released in mid-July and explained to the public at a meeting of Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers hosted by the MLUI.
At the meeting, Bruckbauer outlined the need.
With no alternative routes, the US-31 and M-72 highways are some of the most congested in Northern Michigan, especially in the summer.
The report said, “A passenger train line would provide more options for traveling one of the busiest stretches of road between Acme Township and Traverse City. It could lower the car count along busy U.S. 31, which currently stands at about 25,000 cars a day when Antrim and Kalkaska workers commute to their jobs in the city —and is considerably higher during the summer,” Bruckbauer wrote. “During the tourist season, the trip between Williamsburg and downtown Traverse City can take an hour.”
He reported that the project could stimulate growth in the three communities, boost tourism and draw people and businesses to northern Michigan.
He also said summer train service on the 11-mile stretch between the communities could eventually lead to expanded service, possibly year-round and extending to points in southern Michigan.
Many challenges will need to be met and funds raised before the rail service becomes a reality.
Bruckbauer wrote, “The tracks between Williamsburg and Traverse City have the lowest condition rating permissible for actual use. Significant upgrades are required before passenger trains can travel the route.” The speed for trains hauling freight is limited to ten miles per hour.
Great Lakes Central, who owns the line now used only for hauling freight, estimates that it will cost roughly $1.7 million to get the tracks in good enough shape to handle passengers: bolt tightening and replacement; railroad tie replacement; and road intersection safety improvements.
“Commuter rail would be too expensive for an initial train line in the Traverse City region, and is not now a realistic option,” the report said. “However, with proper planning and strong partnerships, a tourist-focused shuttle train with lower start-up and operational costs and more flexible service could be a viable first step. Then, over time, as demand and population grow, commuter trains could become a more realistic option.”
Bruckbauer included in the report, “Once a new system is built—i.e., track restored, equipment purchased, stations built—we estimate that it would cost $100,000 to $200,000 a year to operate a summer-only, weekend shuttle train. That includes staff salaries, fuel, and train and station maintenance. Of course, as service levels increase, so do operational costs.”
The report continued, “Community leaders should assemble funding from both the private and public sector to upgrade the tracks within the next three to five years, while forming partnerships that establish an operational and jurisdictional structure for running passenger trains. As demand by year-round residents for the service grows beyond the summer months, the partnership should be ready to explore running a year-round service.”
In 2010, the Michigan Environmental Council and Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers held 16 forums to find out what the public thought about a proposed Michigan State Rail Plan.
Over the past decade there have been some attempts to offer limited passenger rail in the Traverse City area, including a “Dinner Train,” which offered excursion train service through the scenic Grand Traverse area.
Michigan also has a number of scenic tourist trains, mostly in small towns with historic, unused rail lines, locomotives, and passenger cars. They mostly rely on volunteers for operation and include trains that highlight the legacy of Michigan’s historic rail infrastructure including: the Steam Railroad Institute, in Owosso; the AuSable Valley Railroad, in Fairview; the Huckleberry Railroad, in Flint. There are many others across the state that run excursion trains during summer months using vintage and restored locomotives.
Hugh Gurney, author of an article about the idea in the Northland Newslink that serves Amish communities, wrote, “A number of Amish Communities along the suggested route to downstate connections could be seeing passenger rail within easy horse-and-buggy distance.”