Join Renew Donate Gift It
Site Search Show Navigation

Train Travel Up North Closer To RealityPrint

Thriving Communities | September 6, 2012 | By James Bruckbauer

A new study will examine the costs and benefits of better rail service Up North.
A new study will examine the costs and benefits of better rail service Up North.

These days, with a pro-rail Republican Governor, bi-partisan legislative support for rail, and a relatively ambitious State Rail Plan, transportation officials are breathing new life into the Pure Michigan state’s great rail revival.

Soon, trains could be chugging along to northern Michigan, connecting Michigan families to large metropolitan areas like Detroit and Chicago and bringing millions of visitors to experience the rich beauty of northwest Lower Michigan.

That is, of course, if a strong case can be made to upgrade the already state-owned tracks between here and Ann Arbor for freight rail, first.

While train travel Up North may still be many years away, a new study by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is breathing new life into an old idea.

Over the next two years, the MDOT will investigate how rail can spur economic development Up North.

The study, part of Michigan’s State Rail Plan, will answer many questions about rail’s potential in this region. What are the costs and advantages to investing in freight rail service to northwest Michigan? How can existing businesses in the region benefit from better rail? If rail service is improved, are there opportunities to attract more businesses to the area? What businesses outside of this area could benefit from using rail service to one of northern Michigan’s port towns? What’s the best long-term strategy for shipping agriculture products?  And most importantly, how can we reduce transportation costs in the region?

The study could lay the groundwork for an Up North passenger train.

Here at the Institute, we’ve always recognized that in order for passenger rail to make sense, freight rail must come first.

Northwest Lower Michigan, after all, produces a huge amount of specialty and commodity agricultural products, and shipping them south by rail would help the region’s economy. Shipping goods by rail can lower transportation costs for many agriculture producers, as well as help them forecast expenses. And with a strong rail system in place, northern Michigan becomes much more attractive to major companies looking to relocate or expand.

Our rail network also will connect businesses to many of northern Michigan’s ports, where cargo can be placed on boats and sent all over the world.

The economic boost from freight rail will accelerate the development of passenger service.

Right now, most families in rural towns between northwest Lower Michigan and southeast Michigan are cut off from public transportation. And Michigan’s visitors—3.2 million last year alone—can hardly reach destinations north of Lansing unless they have a plane ticket and cab fare, or a car with plenty of gas. Trains no longer connect, as they once did, thousands of travelers to Michigan’s most popular destinations like Traverse City and Petoskey.

Meanwhile, the state must focus on the Detroit to Chicago connection, which received a $640 million boost from the federal government, sees record ridership despite slow-downs, and connects millions of travelers to places around the country and Canada.

Then the state will focus on expanding our rail network. Those expansions include more frequent connections between Grand Rapids and Chicago, a commuter line between Detroit and Ann Arbor, a commuter line between Livingston County and Ann Arbor, and eventually a continued line from the Ann Arbor area to Up North.

In Michigan, with strong support and pro-rail leadership, the train is approaching the station.

We’ll keep you posted on ways you can get involved with the study.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.