Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What About Low-speed Rail?

This morning I read Hannah Clark's article, "Time for Better Railroads in Michigan?" and found a good update on what's going on in southeast Michigan. But the article is written from a northern Michigan perspective, and had this observation:

“I’d love to get on a train and go Up North, if it took four hours,” Mr. Steudle [MDOT's Director] said. “But, right now, it takes nine. It’s going to take a lot of money in physical infrastructure improvements.”

Yes, it would take a lot of money - both up front and ongoing - to maintain the tracks to Traverse city and Petosky for 79 MPH passenger service. (Not as much as maintaining a freeway for 70 MPH auto traffic, but let's face it: we do have a double standard.) But nine hours isn't really much time - if it's at night. Given comfortable sleeping and dining accommodations, an overnight train from southeast Michigan to Traverse City could have a big draw. Here's a word-picture:

Early on a summer Friday evening, a classic-looking train pulls out of the Troy-Birmingham Transit Center. Young families and retired couples have parked in the attached structure and boarded the train, some to coaches with reclining seats, others to roomettes and bedrooms with bunks and snowy linen. Sleeping accommodations at various price/comfort points offer a good night's rest to a range of individual and family travelers.

An hour after starting, the announcement comes through on the PA: it's time to serve dinner. Just as on many dinner-excursion trains now, an accomplished chef is on hand to cook up gourmet meals. Drinks, snacks, and food that appeals to kids are also available in the observation-lounge car. A game-arcade room is available for the kids who tire of watching the Michigan summer evening slipping past. For those who do appreciate the view, there's a dome car with an even better view of the countryside.

Gradually, the sun sinks to the horizon in the northwest. Sunset colors swell, and gradually fade from sky. While the older folks sink into their bunks to be rocked asleep by the gentle motion of the train, the teens hang out in the lounge and dome cars until well into the wee hours. Small children reluctantly snuggle in while their parents try to calm down their excitement - all night on a train!

An early sunrise Saturday morning finds the train rolling through the pines and birches of the northern lower peninsula, filled with sleeping people. At 6:30 a.m., the PA crackles to life with the announcement that the breakfast buffet is open: omelettes, pancakes, railroad french toast, fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries, coffee, tea, and milk. Many ignore the announcement, rolling over to catch a few more Zs, but those who make their way to the diner find both food and friendly chat as they watch the lakes and hills of Wexford County slide by.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the train rolls in to Traverse City and parks on a siding. Most of the passengers head out to the waiting rental cars, tour buses, or nearby hotels. Some have elected to use the train as their base for the weekend, renting their bedrooms over Saturday night and returning to Southeast Michigan Sunday evening. Some will be returning after a week or two of vacationing "up north".

The trip back down is much like the northbound trip. The same services and accommodations are offered, and the schedule is timed to leave early Sunday evening, arriving at Birmingham-Troy early enough to allow working folks a reasonable commuting time.

How does that sound?

I think it sounds very comfortable, a lot of fun, and pretty expensive. Driving would certainly be cheaper - no question. Subsidies might be arranged: not government subsidies, because this isn't essential transportation. It's more like a cruise on land. But it would bring visitors and tax revenue to Northern Michigan. Hotels, resorts, restaurants, area visitors' bureaus and chambers of commerce could well see it as advantageous to offer packages which include some level of subsidy negotiated with the railroad or train operator. It could work - someday soon.

Here's the reference to the article that spurred my interest::

"Time for Better Railroads in Michigan? Fed’s big bucks, local forums build interest in rail transit, freight", by Hannah Clark. Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, referred to in Michigan Land Use Institute's site.

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