Rallying for rail: Plan to start year-round passenger service from Ann Arbor to TC chugs ahead

REGION – Northern Michigan is getting ready to "do the locomotion." While rail service for freight is used on a limited basis in the area, the long-term goal is to expand the number of miles and companies that use rail for freight service and then to bring passenger trains back into the area. "We don't want to lose rail service in northern Michigan," said Mary Jo Fifarek, vice president of government relations for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. "It makes good economic sense. And it has the potential to be a tourist attraction as well as an economic boost."

Cherry Growers, Inc. is the poster child for what rail service can do for a company.

Located in Grawn, Cherry Growers is a major fruit processor that used to be a regional company. It is a grower-owned cooperative comprised of about 100 growers, who deliver apples and cherries from their orchards located throughout Michigan. But when rail service became available to the company, it changed the way they did business.

"It helped us grow from a regional company to a national company," said Tom Rochford, president and general manager of Cherry Growers. "For us, freight costs are reduced through the use of rail service versus trucks.

"So instead of having just one base of operation and being a regional company, we now have warehouses in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles."

Cherry Growers' business is divided into three categories: food service, retail and industrial products.

The industrial products are pie fillings, puddings and cheese sauces. It also offers retail products that include single serve assortments of applesauce and shelf stable juices. Its industrial line of products includes frozen cherries and apples.

"All of them can be easily shipped," said Rochford. "And freight shipping has opened up the world for us."

Cherry Growers ships via Federated Railways, Inc., which last summer acquired the Tuscola & Saginaw Bay Railway Co. Inc. The name was then changed to Great Lakes Central Railroad.

The 405-mile short line moves freight between Ann Arbor and northwest Michigan and provides rail equipment, rail car and track repairs. Federated and state officials are discussing plans to provide year-round passenger rail service from Ann Arbor to Traverse City and the Boyne City area.

"It will take at least two years to establish the passenger route," said Mike Bagwell president and CEO of Federated. "Our plans are the train to go from south to north non-stop. Eventually, we'll have some shorter stops, but the express train will be non-stop."

But one of the drawbacks of the trip is that it will take six hours.

"We're concerned about that," said Fifarek. "We had a Chamber transportation committee meeting recently and one of the things we talked about was the need to literally and figuratively bring the proposed passenger train up to speed."

Bagwell said the rail service will be prepared to offer entertainment and food on the train.

"Or maybe have some video games," he said. "The passenger cars are huge and we can design the seats in them to make them more conducive to long trips."

Federated Railways is in the business of leasing passenger train cars. It will use some of these stainless steel cars for the Traverse City to Ann Arbor runs.

Another question that proponents of the passenger rail service have concerns the quality of the tracks.

"Before passenger rail service can become a reality, there is a lot of work to be done," said Bagwell. "It will deal mainly with warning signals at crossings and upgrading our tracks."

That's where Sen. Jason Allen's office is preparing to help out.

"We are a big proponent of rail service in northern Michigan," said Joe Agostinelli, legislative director for Allen. "For one thing, it literally takes a lot of weight off of our state road system. When you're talking about shipping freight, we feel it's better to have those heavy shipments on our rail systems instead of our roads.

"We're looking at introducing legislation that gives rail right-of-way options to local units of government in cases where a section of track could be sold and shut down by a private owner. The local units of government would be given the first chance at buying and maintaining that portion of the track."

Everyone, it seems, is jumping back on board when it comes to rail service in northern Michigan.

"It makes economic sense," said Agostinelli. "And besides, trains are just cool." BN