Posts Tagged ‘Michigan’

Could Brightline be Duplicated in Ohio?

April 23, 2018

The launch of the privately-funded Brightline intercity rail passenger service in Florida has some thinking about visualizing a similar service in Ohio.

Brightline, which currently operates between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach but expects to begin service soon to Miami and, longer term, to Orlando, was the subject of the lead article in Ohio Passenger Rail News, the publication of All Aboard Ohio.

AAO said it would study the concept and its applicability to Ohio, but acknowledged that a private operator would need to step forward. It is not clear if that is likely to happen.

Although much has been made about how Brightline is a private company that does not receive public funding to cover its operating expenses as does Amtrak, AAO noted that Brightline is a public-private venture.

What makes Brightline different, though, is that as a private company it laid out its vision and business plan and then public entities helped it.

Brightline benefited from millions in state and local funds plus a $1 billion federal loan.

But what makes Brightline move is that it is as much a real estate venture as it is a transportation mode.

The genesis of Brightline began with the Florida East Coast Railway establishing a subsidiary, All Aboard Florida, which operates under the Brightline trade name.

FEC owns a freight line between Miami and Orlando that hosts Brightline trains. However, Brightline plans to build a new 40-mile stretch of high-speed track west of Cocoa, Florida, on a state-granted right of way to serve the Orlando airport.

Based on cell-phone data, Brightline projects that 500 million trips are made each year between South Florida and Orlando.

The company said if it can divert 2, 3, 4 or 5 percent of that traffic off the highways it will make a meaningful difference.

Brightline didn’t always have a clear block to implement its service, which began in January.

It was bombarded by attempts by public officials, NIMBYs and Astroturf groups seeking to derail it before it got started.

It is still fighting lawsuits from opponents of the Orlando extension.

Although the FEC has since been sold to Mexican industrial conglomerate Grupo Mexico, All Aboard Florida still has access to FEC tracks and has real estate to market.

The concept of pairing real estate development with public transportation is not limited to Florida. Numerous studies  and articles have described how public transportation arteries have stimulated commercial and residential development.

Brightline Chief Operating Officer Patrick Goddard told The Blade of Toledo that decades of studies showed the potential for rail service in a region that is experiencing population growth and is hemmed in by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Everglades on the other.

“There’s nowhere to go and no room for more roads,” Goddard said.

That is not, though, the situation in Ohio. Nonetheless, Goodard said the potential for a Brightline-type service exists in “any city pairs that are too far to drive and too short to fly.”

Goodard sees a high level of interest in trying the Brightline concept elsewhere where “there’s the possibility for government to intercede for mobility in the region.”

Efforts to institute corridor rail service in Ohio have fallen short.

In 1982 Ohio voters rejected a penny increase in the state sales tax to pay for development of a high-speed rail program in the state.

In 2010, Ohio won $400 million in federal funding for capital outlays associated with developing rail service in the Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Corridor.

The funding would have paid for track, signals, station construction and the purchase of train sets.

After defeating Gov. Ted Strickland in the November 2010 gubernatorial election, John Kasich killed the project and returned the money to the federal government.

Kasich had actively campaigned against the 3-C corridor trains, saying he didn’t want to see the state underwriting the operating costs of the service.

The same criticism was leveled in earlier years against other proposals that never came to fruition that were promoted by the Ohio Rail Development Commission and Ohio Department of Transportation to launch 3-C service, including a proposal in April 1998 to mitigate traffic congestion on Interstate 71 between Cleveland and Columbus during a 10-year rebuilding of the highway.

At the same time that Ohio was moving forward with the 3-C Quick Start project under Gov. Strickland, Florida was also planning an intrastate rail network linking Miami with Tampa vial Orlando and received federal funds to help develop it.

But newly-elected Gov. Rick Scott killed the project and returned the federal money just as Kasich had done in Ohio.

Like Kasich, Scott didn’t want the state paying for the operating costs of the service.

All of this has left Ohio with just three intercity trains, all of which operate through the state primarily between midnight and 7 a.m.

Until Brightline came along, Florida was served by two New York-Miami Amtrak trains, and the Auto Train operating between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

But the Sunshine State also had commuter rail service in Miami and a new service in Orlando.

AAO sees Brightline as a potential template to kick start the long-stalled efforts to revive 3-C and promote development of other routes.

“Brightline takes us back to the past in some ways  . . . [to] the notion that transportation and real estate go hand-in-hand,” said AAO CEO Ken Prendergast in an interview with The Blade. “It has changed the dialogue about how passenger rail in this country should be going forward.”

Prendergast said transit-oriented development in several cities should encourage the belief that trains and real estate can grow symbiotically in Ohio.

He said that some “pretty remarkable development” is occurring near a bus rapid-transit corridor in Columbus, along the HealthLine busway in Cleveland, and next to the Cleveland RTA Blue Line rail station in Shaker Heights at the site of the former Van Aken shopping center.

Of course, Brightline benefited from being birthed by a railroad. There is little likelihood that either Norfolk Southern or CSX, which make up large segments of the 3-C corridor, would be as receptive to intercity rail passenger service as is the FEC.

Closer to Ohio, the Michigan Department of Transportation acquired from NS the route used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit Wolverine Service trains.

MDOT owns the tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo while Amtrak owns the rails between Kalamazoo and Porter, Indiana.

The two agencies have been cooperating in the past few years to upgrade the line for higher speed service with a top speed of 110 mph.

Michigan’s efforts could benefit Ohio, Prendergast said, by creating a dedicated passenger corridor between Detroit and Toledo

CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National have parallel routes between the two cities and consolidation of those routes would leave a line available for passenger use.

Prendergast said it is unlikely that NS would agree to allow additional passenger trains between Cleveland and Toledo so a new line for passenger trains would be needed for high-speed rail service.

He speculated that this would be an opportunity for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission to get involved, “now that it has the legal authority to do things other than highways along the highway corridor.”

AAO also sees potential for combining various existing underused rail lines that railroads might be willing to sell that could lead to a Columbus-Fort Wayne-Chicago corridor.

Prendergast said ORDC is soliciting public comments for a 2020 update to an Ohio rail plan, but has no funds have been set aside for passenger train startup projects.

ORDC created a plan in 2002 that it updated in 2007 for a statewide passenger rail network known as the Ohio Hub. It has never gotten beyond paper and public hearings.

As AAO looks for a private sector initiative to materialize in Ohio, Prendergast warned not to expect any help from Amtrak, which he said “only reacts in response” the efforts of others.

Aside from questions of whether a private developer is interested in a Brightline style project in Ohio – and that is a big IF – there is also the question of whether Ohio units of government would respond as they did in Florida.

“If they, or someone like Brightline, came in with a similar message, I think it would resonate,” Prendergast said.

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Lake State Honored by Railway Age

March 14, 2018

Lake State Railway has been named the Class III railroad of the year by Railway Age magazine.

The trade publication cited the short line, which is based in Saginaw, Michigan, for its efforts to reverse a traffic decline and rehabilitate worn out tracks.

In 2013, LSR traffic had fallen 27 percent on the former Detroit & Mackinac line that it had acquired in 1992.

The railroad faced diminishing carloads and customer closings. Further, the customers who remained were shifting business to trucks because they were convinced that abandonment of the 201-mile railroad was imminent.

More than 100 miles of track on the Huron Subdivision was classified as excepted track due to lack of maintenance.

With carloads having fallen to 3,606 annually, LSR drew up and implemented a five-year strategic plan to reverse the fortunes of the line.

The railroad sent representatives into the field to meet with customers to win back their confidence in rail service and win back their business. In the process it landed five new customers.

The track was rebuilt and more than a half-billion in on-line industrial projects are under way, some of them trans-loading facilities.

Twenty miles of new or relay rail was put down and five miles of industrial tracks were built as part of a $10 million capital program.

Service frequency was also increased to better serve customers. What had been a weekly to Grayling, Michigan, is now operating five days a week.

Local service in Grayling will expand to two shifts later this year.

The plan has led to the creation of new jobs and thousands of new rail carloads.

LSR acquired 190 aggregate cars to support its largest customer and a fleet of mill gondola cars to win back business that another customer had planned to divert to truck.

Leasing 60-foot Plate F 286K boxcars enabled LSR to win new business from an oriented strand board mill in Grayling.

Train Crew Alert Michigan Authorities to Whereabouts of Murder Suspect

March 12, 2018

Police say the crew of a Michigan short line railroad helped them apprehend a suspect wanted in the killing of his parents.

A Great Lake Central Railroad conductor and conductor trainee spotted the suspect, James Eric Davis Jr., standing near the company’s tracks in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, late at night.

They contacted the railroad’s dispatcher who in turn notified police. Davis was arrested about a half-hour later.

Authorities believe that Davis was planning to jump aboard the GLCR train, which was moving at 17 mph at the time.

Davis has been charged in connection with the killing of James and Diva Davis of Chicago. The elder Davis was a police officer in suburban Bellwood, Illinois, while the younger Davis was a student at Central Michigan University.

News stories have reported that Davis couple had come to Mt. Pleasant to pick up their son after he had been hospitalized following what authorities have termed erratic behavior.

The shooting occurred in the residence hall room of the younger Davis, who has been charged in Michigan with two counts of murder.

Yes, Watch Out for the Trains

March 2, 2018

The Michigan Department of Transportation and Amtrak have been working to boost train speeds on the Chicago-Detroit corridor, particularly on track in Michigan, that both entities own.

MDOT owns the rails between Kalamazoo and Dearborn and over the past couple of summers has sponsored track work designed to enable faster running.

One small indicator of that work is this sign in Chelsea, Michigan, located next to the former Michigan Central station, which is now owned by a local historical society.

Getting Amtrak here at 80 mph or any speed remains on my “to do” list for 2018. There is double track because there is a passing siding here.

Chelsea, located between Ann Arbor and Jackson, is not a stop for Amtrak’s Wolverine Service trains, but it was a stop for the Michigan Executive commuter train that Amtrak operated through Jan. 13, 1984, when the state ended its funding of the service.

Michigan transportation officials and rail passenger advocates have been trying to resume commuter rail service ever since.

Ex-CN Signal Maintainer Facing Prison Term After Cutting Crossing Wires in Battle Creek, Michigan

January 11, 2018

A former Canadian National signal maintainer is facing a 20-year prison term after he pleaded guilty in a federal court in Michigan to a felony charge of impairing a railroad safety signal by cutting wires at grade crossings in Battle Creek.

Jeffrey Alan Taylor, who lives in the Upper Peninsula, was captured on video cutting the wires during a 2017 visit to the Battle Creek area.

The result was that the crossing gates went down and stayed down even though no train was approaching. That caused a traffic backup.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Davin Reust told the court that it must reject Taylor’s contention that the result of his action was nothing more than an inconvenience for motorists.

“This argument ignores the obvious; removing one of multiple safety systems cannot make the system safer . . .,” Reust wrote in a memorandum to the court. “Taylor’s argument boils down to one that he should not be held accountable for intentionally creating a safety hazard because no catastrophe occurred here.”

The first two wire-cutting incidents occurred in January 2017. After the second incident, the railroad installed hidden surveillance cameras at Battle Creek crossings.

Taylor was captured on video in June after CN received a report of the gates being down.

The video showed him parking his truck near a crossing, walking to the site and using wire cutters to cut signal wires

He was not employed by CN at the time of the wire cutting incidents, but had worked for the railroad between 1994 and 2009.

William Weise, an attorney representing Taylor, said his client accepted full responsibility and did not bear any ill will toward CN. Nor was this an act of terrorism.

Weise contended that Taylor was suffering from undiagnosed depression at the time of the wire-cutting incidents.

Taylor grew up in Richland, Michigan, and was the owner with his wife of a motel in St. Ignace in the Upper Penisula that was struggling financially. The attorney also said that Taylor had been caring for his mother, who died last February.

“Mr. Taylor believed his actions would be a nuisance to the railroad,” Weise said. “This has been an agonizing experience for Mr. Taylor as he has seen the effect this has had on his family and the community around him.”

MDOT to Fund 40 Grade Crossing Projects

December 15, 2017

The Michigan Department of Transportation plans to award $3 million in funding to 40 railroad grade crossing projects.

The funding comes from the 2018 Local Grade Crossing Surface Program. Projects receiving funding were chosen through a competitive process according to criteria established by state law.

MDOT said in news release that the projects range from minor asphalt repairs to installing new track and surface materials.

The agency received 89 applications from road agencies in partnership with 19 railroads.

The annual program offers 60 percent funding for eligible projects, with railroads responsible for the remaining 40 percent of costs. The railroads and their contractors perform the repair work with cooperation for detour routes provided by local road agencies.

MDOT identified the 2018 recipients on its website.

Port Huron Wants New or Improved Amtrak Station

October 19, 2017

Port Huron wants a new or renovated Amtrak station and has received a grant to study that prospect.

The Blue Water Area Transportation Commission received the $125,000 that will fund a station site study. Public hearings will be held on Oct. 19 and 26.

It is not clear at this point if a new station would be built at the existing site on 16th Street or elsewhere.

“We’re reaching out to the public to do a couple of things. One, let them know this study is occurring, and two, get their input or feelings on the existing Amtrak station or any potential sites they can think of,” said Dave McElroy, BWAT assistant manager and finance director.

“I think it’s been talked about in the community for a long time. It’s been highlighted in a few community long-range plans. It’s one of the few Amtrak stations that hasn’t been updated in the state.”

Most of the grant funds came from the federal government with the remainder channeled from the Michigan Department of Transportation. The study is expected to be completed next spring.

The primary objective of the study is to identify potential site options and determine what requirements may exist for a new or rehabilitated station.

“There is no predetermined location and it has not been predetermined that an existing station will be replaced,” McElroy said.

Among the complaints that passengers have expressed about the current Port Huron station are parking and security issues, as well as access for those with disabilities.

“I’m not talking about the neighborhood. I’m talking about the lighting, the parking, blind spots, things that make people feel unsafe,” McElroy said. “It’s just the lighting and layout that exists there. If parking’s (an issue) now, and they project ridership to increase, it’s going to be a problem then. But we’ll see when the study comes back.”

Port Huron is the eastern terminus of Amtrak’s Blue Water, which originates in Chicago.

Sanders Presents at Michigan Conference

September 29, 2017

Akron Railroad Club President Craig Sanders gave a presentation at the 14th Michigan Railroad History Conference titled Michigan’s Bootstrap Campaign: Passenger Rail Development in the Amtrak Era.

The conference was held on Sept. 23 at the Maas Conference Center of Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Sanders described how the now-named Michigan Department of Transportation sought to improve rail passenger in the state following the inauguration of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.

Michigan’s intercity rail service in the early Amtrak years was limited to two daily roundtrips between Chicago and Detroit.

Since then service in the state has expanded to three routes linking Chicago with Detroit, Grand Rapids and Port Huron. The Detroit corridor also reaches north to suburban Pontiac.

The state has purchased much of the Chicago-Detroit corridor within Michigan, buying from Norfolk Southern 135 miles between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, and landing $511 million in federal funding to upgrade the line for higher speed service.

The state and communities served by Amtrak have also invested in station rehabilitation and many cities not served by Amtrak are linked to it by connecting bus service.

Despite these successes, the state has also had some misses. It stopped funding an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter operation after ridership fell substantially, and a Detroit-New York train funded in part with the state of New York ended in 1979, in part due to lower ridership between Detroit and Buffalo, New York.

Several proposals to establish service between Detroit and Grand Rapids have failed to come to fruition.

The Michigan Railroad History Conference began 30 years ago at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn as an educational outreach program of the Bluewater Michigan chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

The conference features a full day of presentations on Michigan’s railroad history and is rotated among various cities in the state.

CSX Repairing Route of Pere Marquette

September 28, 2017

CSX is repairing a broken seawall below the CSX railroad tracks in St. Joseph, Michigan, that hosts Amtrak’s Chicago-Grand Rapids, Michigan, Pere Marquette.

The break in the seawall had allowed waves to erode the bluff. A barge and giant crane are lowering rocks to fill the gap in the seawall.

CSX pulled permits from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to add stone to shore up the hillside, which local officials believe will last longer than a steel wall.

Nearby residents first noticed a gap in the wall in the 1990s. At that time it was about 20 to 30 feet wide, but today it is an estimated 120 feet.

The residents said they have been communicating with CSX about the problem for 15 years, but the railroad has not taken action until now.

St. Joseph City Manager John Hodgson said CSX officials told him they did not think the bank was in danger of collapse or that the tracks, 45 feet from the edge, were at risk.

Hodgson, though, insisted that this type of slope can fail without warning and that it has occurred in the past.

In May 1943 heavy rains washed away the bluff, derailing a freight train.

MDOT Taking Comments on Freight Plan

August 30, 2017

The Michigan Department of Transportation is accepting public comment through Sept. 29 on its draft state freight plan.

The plan is a supplement to the 2040 MI Transportation Plan and provides a comprehensive overview of the state’s freight transportation system, including existing assets, system performance and investments needed to “ensure long-term success,” MDOT officials said in a news release.

It will provides a framework for freight system improvements and priorities.

A public webinar has been set to discuss the plan on Sept. 12.

Michigan’s railroads handled more than 479 million tons moved to, from, within and through the state in 2014. Coal, chemical products and metallic ores were the top commodities moved by rail in 2014.

By comparison, tucking companies hauled 65 percent of tonnage moved, while rail handled 21 percent, according to the plan.