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MARP's 50th Annual Meeting: Brightline and Beyond

16 October 2023 - Public Meeting Coverage

On Saturday, October 14th, the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) held its 50th annual meeting at a very spooky Durand Union Station.

The interior staircase of Durand Union Station, looking down towards the first floor. Old train photos and Grand Trunk memorabilia line the walls.

A Special Tribute

To start the meeting, Em Lefko, Senator Klinefelt’s Chief of Staff, presented MARP with a special tribute in recognition of its 50th anniversary. In turn, members expressed their appreciation for the $20M towards high speed rail grants included in this year’s budget.

Em holding the framed tribute for a photo with members of the MARP Board of Directors

The special tribute to MARP, signed by Senator Klinefelt, Senator Singh, Representative BeGole, Representative Brixie, Governor Whitmer, and Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist

A cake with the MARP logo printed on it. Frosting reads "Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, 50 Years: 1973 to 2023"

Attendees were provided a catered lunch and festive cake and cookies to mark the occasion.

Brightline: Florida’s Higher-Speed Intercity Rail

Katie Mitzner holds a microphone while addressing a large audience from beside a lectern. A slide on a projector screen shows a picture of two Brightline trains at a station platform in Florida.

Katie Mitzner, Director of Public Affairs at Brightline and Michigan native from Mason, gave an hour-long keynote presentation at the start of the meeting. Her talk detailed the construction of the line between Miami and Orlando International Airport, which began operating 6 round trips on September 22nd with a planned increase to 16. A future rail line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles suburbs, dubbed Brightline West, is “shovel ready” – fully planned and awaiting approval.

Brightline is the first privately funded intercity passenger rail service in America in over 100 years, and connects cities that are “too close to fly, and too far to drive.”

Notably, Brightline avoided freight interference by building a second track along the existing rail line used for service in addition to reconstructing the existing track. As a result, both are interoperable and a dispatch company dynamically routes both passenger and freight trains to eliminate conflicts and keep Brightline running to schedule.

All attendees received a commemorative pin from the inaugural ride to Orlando last month.

Me holding up the pin, a small caricature of a Brightline train, outside Durand Station

Legislative Update

Steve Vagnozzi, Government Affairs Coordinator, provided an update on legislative developments. He has met with approximately 25 legislators, focusing on those serving on the four transportation committees. The $20M allocated for rail has allowed for two new staff positions within MDOT’s Office of Rail, and MARP is pushing for one position to be dedicated to passenger rail.

MDOT Office of Rail Update

A combination of SOGR, CRISI, and RAISE grants for track curve reconstruction, fencing installation, bridge replacement, and the full rebuild of the Detroit New Center station in 2016 have been awarded. The most recent grant was awarded on October 4th in the amount of $20.3 million to replace the Manistee River Bridge north of Manton along the proposed Traverse City passenger rail route.

Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC) Annual Meeting Update

The Director of MDOT Rail and State Representative Jason Morgan attended MIPRC in September. MARP notes that while Michigan was, for a time, the only state with 110-mph service outside of the Northeast Corridor, we are seeing other states, such as Illinois and Minnesota, begin to pass us in terms of investment and general interest among policymakers.

Ann Arbor to Traverse City Rail Update

This section is copied verbatim from a handout provided to attendees.

The northern Michigan passenger rail project was recently awarded state and federal funding to move forward with a Phase II study and begin a Service Development Plan. The Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority is the agency that is responsible for the grants and they are working with the Groundwork Center and other partners to complete the study. In September, the project partners were finally able to get approval from the US Department of Transportation to move forward with the study process and will soon begin their search for a consulting firm to complete the technical parts of the study and plan.

The planning study should take about a year and half to complete and will identify and prioritize the upgrades needed along the corridor to maximize freight and passenger opportunities, which could include crossing signal and track improvements, safety technology, potential bridge replacements, capacity improvements, and equipment needed. And, this phase will also include developing the business plan for passenger service, which includes updating the project’s market and ridership forecasts and travel demand and lay out the stations and schedule of service.

We’re excited that MDOT was awarded a $20 million federal grant to replace the railroad bridge over the Manistee River. That project will greatly enhance the freight and future passenger service in northern Michigan.

Groundwork and the Village of Kalkaska applied on behalf of the northern Michigan passenger rail project to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor ID program. We expect to hear about that award in November.

Other Updates

I asked if MARP could provide any insight on the recent test train seen traveling the Holly Sub between Pontiac and Durand.

An Amtrak California locomotive pulling three Horizon coach cars passes through Durand.

Image credit: RailStream

Unfortunately, the most realistic answer was the correct one: This was not a test train for a Wolverine extension. Instead, this testing was to determine the feasibility of eliminating certain axle count requirements and consist limitations imposed by host railroads across the country, hence the short length of the train. The excursion was not specific to Michigan.

MARP Member Business and Upcoming Election

MARP will have a table on Sunday, November 5th at the Lansing Train Show.

John Guidinger formally announced he will be stepping down as chairperson after this year. Nominations are open, and an election will be held next summer to select a new chairperson who will assume the role at the annual meeting in 2024.

MARP is a membership-based 501(c)(3) advocacy association with over 200 members in good standing. Past meeting minutes are published online here.