As the pandemic ebbs and people around the planet resurrect their back-burnered travel plans, our transportation team at Groundwork is putting fresh energy into the Ann Arbor to Traverse City passenger rail project. For extra assistance, we invited college senior and train devotée Michael Goldman Brown, Jr., to pitch in as a contractor to help spread word of the project and to re-awaken connections with community leaders in the 10 potential train-stop towns along the route. Here we ask Michael to share a few thoughts about his love of trains and his work with Groundwork.
Michael, let’s start at the beginning, with your own train story. Can you recall how your fascination with trains started?
It’s a little rough to pin my train passion on a particular thing, but the earliest thing I remember is that my favorite book when I was little was a picture book about trains, Freight Train, by Donald Crews. And I had a few train sets when I was a kid—my parents and grandmother took me to the local Lionel Train dealership. So, I guess I’d say a mix of the book and train sets.
The iconic children’s book that ignited Michael’s
What was your first train ride?
When I got older I begged my parents to take me on a train. So when I was like 9 or 10, we went to a train near my home. We bought tickets for a very short ride, from Birmingham to Royal Oak. And the attendant was like, “You are only going from Birmingham to Royal Oak?” It’s a good example of how extensive train service used to be, where you could go to every small town. People just have no idea.
I guess the next train experience I remember was in 8th grade when our school took us to New York City, and I made my chaperone take our group on the subway. That was really my first time being on a system the scale of New York, and I loved it. Later on, when I was choosing a college, I chose the University of Toronto, and for me, access to the subway there was a real selling point. When I was about to start as a freshman, I had a day when I had some extra time and I rode the subway from one end of the city to the other, and I got to see the whole system. My home is near Detroit, so now I take the train from Windsor to Toronto almost every time I go back and forth to school.
The 248 miles of New York’s subway system, which carries 4.3 million people a day—and captured the 8th-grade Michael’s train curiosity.
So how will you be applying all that train fan-dom to the Ann Arbor to TC passenger rail project?
I’ll be working on helping identify community, business, and municipal stakeholders in towns along the route and help engage with them. I’ll be creating presentations with data like forecasted ridership numbers to show stakeholders that the project is worthwhile. I’ll also be working on social media posts to generate excitement for the project.
What theme will you be working with to bring the public in?
We will be creating a set of posts with pictures of historic train stations and graphics that will highlight facts about cities and attractions along the line, and about the potential impacts of passenger rail service on individual towns.
Example of social media infographic that Michael will be posting soon.
As you’ve talked to people about the A2TC rail, have you encountered naysayers?
Well, first, I have not encountered anyone who reacted negatively in the times I have told people about the project. I really have been quite surprised that I’ve encountered no skepticism. For example, I mentioned it to my dentist and the dental hygienist in a conversation we were having about Sleeping Bear, and they seem like people who’d be happy to hop in their cars and drive up north, and they were both excited to hear about it.
Why are you not a doubter?
I have always had deep faith in trains in North America. I have never had doubts, and if you look at public transit numbers across the nation in the last decade, you see a lot of increases. And I’ve seen how full the trains are in places like Toronto and New York City, even when they are running every 15 minutes. Really we have underinvested in trains in the United States; that is the real problem. I believe this will be a quality service, and I believe the people will come.