Talking Michigan Transportation

Tim Hoeffner, unplugged: What’s the future for passenger rail service in Michigan?

October 27, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 123
Talking Michigan Transportation
Tim Hoeffner, unplugged: What’s the future for passenger rail service in Michigan?
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation about passenger rail service in the state. Tim Hoeffner, a former director of the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail and now a consultant with Quandel Consultants, is the guest.

Hoeffner talks about the history of passenger rail service in Michigan and offers his perspective about developments in recent years, including ongoing work to establish dependable 110 mph Amtrak service between Detroit and Chicago. 

Among the challenges Hoeffner discusses: 

  • Purchasing equipment to enhance riders’ experience and ensure dependable service;
  • Resolving congestion with freight lines on the Indiana portion of the Detroit-Chicago corridor; and
  • Working with communities along passenger lines to establish stations where it makes sense but balance that need with travel time.

Hoeffner also talks about the state Legislature and federal government pitching in funding for a study of a passenger line between Ann Arbor and Traverse City.  

Traverse City-based Groundwork for Resilient Communities has been a leading advocate of A2TC project. The Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority will work in partnership with Groundwork and a team of partners to complete the planning study.

Tim Hoeffner, unplugged: What’s the future for passenger rail service in Michigan?

Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Michigan Talking Transportation Podcast I'm your host Jeff Cranson. Today I'm going to be talking about passenger rail in Michigan. There are some exciting things going on and recently, as you may have heard or read, the groundwork Center for resilient communities and Traverse City has taken some steps forward in their long-sought dream of establishing a passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and Traverse City. It's been discussed for some time, but it's taking on new residence since there was money in the state budget about $1,000,000 and a federal raise grant to help supplement that with about $1.3 million. So, in a segment I'm calling Tim Hoeffner Unplugged, I'm going to be talking with the very Tim Hoeffner, who is a former director of the Office of Rail at MDOT, he now works as a consultant for Quandell and Associates. And he has both a historic and very present and future perspective on everything that's going on, where we've been, where we're going as passenger rail in Michigan continues to gain popularity. As mentioned, I'm with Tim Heffner, who was a former director of the Office of Rail and MDOT. I thought he retired a couple years ago, but he's indeed working for Quandell and associates as a consultant on issues related to rail and passenger rail specifically. He has a lot of background in this and a lot of expertise and certainly an interesting perspective. So, Tim, thanks for taking time to talk. 

Tim Hoeffner: Thanks, Jeff. It's always great to talk with you. 

Cranson: As we know, the legislature in Michigan in July included $1,000,000 to advance long discussed Northern Michigan passenger rail phase two planning study in the Michigan 2023 Labor and Economic Opportunity budget. And then in August the US DOT supported the phase two study. They're providing the remaining 1.3 million through the rebuilding American infrastructure with sustainability and equity grant program, what we call RAISE. So, this is part of you know, larger things that are going on in the vast passenger rail space. Tell me, I guess give me your assessment with both your knowledge of history and where we've been and where we are and where we're going of where passenger rail stands in the state of Michigan. 

Hoeffner: That's an interesting question, Jeff. Because coming out of the pandemic, it's probably a little bit different then what I would have said pre-pandemic. So right now, you know, I think that the Amtrak services, the three Amtrak services in Michigan between Grand Rapids, Holland, Chicago, Port Huron. Battle Creek, Chicago, Pontiac, Detroit, Chicago are kind of in the in the recovery mode from the pandemic. But I think that from everything I hear they're recovering, recovering well and they're set up to be successful, particularly with the new locomotives and the coaches that should be out there running sooner rather than later, you know. So, I think the existing services are on a firm sounding with all the work that MDOT, Amtrak and the FRA have done to improve the services on the infrastructure on the particularly the Detroit-Chicago Corridor on Amtrak's ownership from Kalamazoo to Porter IN and the states ownership from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, you know it is the only place not connected with Amtrak Northeast Corridor, where trains are going 110 miles an hour today. So, with new equipment, hopefully more reliable, getting over some issues from an event that happened a couple of weeks ago and they will get over that they will correct things and you know the ridership will grow. Personally, I think new equipment is the single best improvement that can be made on the service. I’ve previously said, when you fly any airline, where does your trip on the airline actually start? When you park your car. When you get to the gate. I always look at it, it starts when you get on the plane. That's really what I feel like I'm the customer of the airline, not when I'm sitting out waiting to get on new equipment, getting on the train, seeing, smelling that beautiful new pristine equipment, large windows. I think that's it for me. With that there’s a lot of work still to be done. But the foundation is laid for the success of the existing service.

Cranson: You're fairly bullish where things are going with passenger rail and the recovery post pandemic and you referenced that instance with some equipment failure that Amtrak experienced a couple weeks ago on the line between Detroit and Chicago and, you know, unusually long, brutal delay for the passengers. And you think that despite that, and I and I certainly don't want to get into second guessing what happened or criticizing Amtrak, but despite that, you know, you don't see that being a setback that a lot of people either experienced it or read about it and said, you know, that's it I'm not taking passenger trains anymore. 

Hoeffner: Oh, clearly it is a setback and Amtrak has got got to have to pull the recovery plan into it. And all indications are that they are doing that at the Michigan Association Rail passengers meeting this past Saturday, an Amtrak official, Derek James, was there. Wanted to apologize to Mark and the public, but two also to talk a little bit about the, the, the process improvements that they're going through to prevent that from happening again. So, I think the most important part are there is that Amtrak understands the gravity of the situation and the potential impacts and they're working to improve that. And I hope that they're successful. 

Cranson: You think that was, I mean not that there could be good timing for something like that, but it was that particularly bad timing just as we're, you know, authorizing money for a study for yet another passenger line in the state. 

Hoeffner: Well, there's never a good time to have a catastrophic system failure, like it appears like that one was. I think that we're looking beyond the existing service and looking at new services is something that does warrant for a long time, everybody's been focused on those three current services rightfully so. But at some point, you kind of have to step away and step back and look at, you know, what are what are some of the next steps if you accomplish these? What are the next things that you should look at? So, you need to focus on the current operations with an eye towards the future. And one of the things that. Now, as a consultant, I've come grown better to understand is that the advocacy groups have the luxury of not being confined by the fiscal and other constraints of the moment. They can be the dreamers and they can be the ones that bring some of these other proposals out. Government can be constrained by its financial obligations and by other constraints doesn't have that luxury, so really, I think a good partnership between the advocacy group groups, the dreamers and the government and Amtrak entities that are more focused on the day-to-day operations, need to come together and can work well together on some of these things, and I think things like the Ann Arbor Traverse City Petoskey;  other commuter rail operations that have been mentioned over the years, those are all things that that should be explored at some level. That doesn't necessarily mean that state government has to lead those things. And I think like we're seeing with Traverse City passenger rail work there are rules for local end cities and communities and other groups to take and have a role on work and hand in glove with government agencies on these things 

Cranson: Well, so you make a very good point about the dreamers and why we need everybody can't be locked into their practicality box or anything, you know, nothing ever gets done. And I especially agree with you about the constraints on government because critics of government say, why don't you act like a business? Well, business takes risks, takes chances and knows that some things are going to fail. But you really don't have any margin to fail in government. That makes it very difficult. So, I think that's a really good point. But put this in the context of where we're at. We were very excited in 2011. I know I was. Um, when then Governor Snyder took the ARA money for high-speed rail that several other states, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, you know refused to take because they were thumbing their nose at ARA. And we thought, wow, this is great. We'll have higher speed service, you know, up to 110 mph between Chicago and Detroit now. You knew from experience. It wasn't going to be a straight line and there were going to be ups and downs along the way, but looking back now, did you know that it would take this long? 

Hoeffner: No. You know, the project schedules on things of this, this nature are always difficult. But one of the things I think I underestimated, was the length of time and the complexities associated with procuring new equipment commissioning it and getting it in, in operations. Michigan didn't have the lead on that. We worked in cooperation with our sister states in the Midwest of Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Michigan on this on an acquisition. And Illinois had the lead on the locomotives. California, Washington, and Oregon were also part of it, and they California had the lead on the on the coaches and, you know, it's not like when you buy a car or a truck that you look at a website, you pick out your options and they you know you can order it and it's on a schedule to keep get built real equipment procurements for passenger service. You’re in a sense, starting from whole cloth. And that includes the development building preparation of the factory and all of the components that go into it. You know when an auto manufacturer launches a new vehicle, many of those are parts that have been proven in other platforms. That isn't always the way with the rail equipment. 

Cranson: Yeah. No, that's that explains. I think a lot and some of the setbacks experienced on that line and some of it had to do with ongoing negotiations with Norfolk Southern, even buy the line. Even if we do get to the point where you know all those equipment obstacles are cleared and we're good to go with the Michigan portion. There's still going to be a bottleneck in Indiana, right? I mean, what's the long-term solution to that?

Hoeffner: The constraining factor on inner city passenger rail between Chicago and points in Michigan, is not in Michigan, it's between porter, Indiana. We refer to it the States and Amtrak had referred to it as the South of the lake. And that's really the conundrum. How do you get? Passenger trains through one of the most congested freight lines in the Midwest. Amtrak is making some moves working with Illinois on the piece in the state of Illinois, there's still a little bit of a vacuum in Indiana, and frankly, it's not Indiana's fault because they're not the benefactor of a lot of that service. There are only one or two stops in Indiana, so trying to figure it out. And Michigan can only do so much, you know, in conjunction with the sister states. So that's probably one of the bigger conundrums that need to be solved and I would suggest that there is an opportunity there. Because there is the 9th State Midwest Consortium, the Intercity Passenger Rail Commission network that is comprised of the of the nine States and you know, maybe to have an entity or under their auspices, look at something like that in conjunction with Michigan, Indiana, Illinois to take and solve that problem is the way to go. 

Cranson: We will continue the conversation right after a quick break. Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person, or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about this. You're uniquely qualified to talk about this. I think about, you know, where we've come and the history of passenger rail service in Michigan going back to the pre-Amtrak days, there were the pure Marquette ran trains, the Pennsylvania, New York Central ran Trains. Canadian National ran trains there were. There were all kinds of passenger service, and you know, this kind of went away starting before World War Two; but with the onset of the Interstate system and more of a focus on the individual automobile kind of led to the decline in the passenger rail service. These railroads were federally mandated to provide these services, and it wasn't money loser for them, so it was hard for the private sector to invest in them. The services declined. They ran the bare minimum. And then in the 70s the legislation was passed that created Amtrak that relieve the freight railroads of their obligation to provide passenger service and turn the services over to Amtrak with a couple of caveats. One being that Amtrak had access to the tracks owned by the freight railroads and 

Cranson: but not priority access. 

Hoeffner: Well, there, there was a mention of that passenger trains would have priority over freight trains, but it's really hard and I don't fault the freight railroads. Because they're not making it. They can make more money by running freight trains instead of passenger trains. So, we've never really been able to solve that issue. And Amtrak has their provisions on what Amtrak pays the freight repair roads and they end up in front of the Surface Transportation Board and all of these type things. So, it's not a cooperative operation right now, and somehow, I think we need to meet the goals to make the freight railroads reasonably whole and provide Amtrak with reasonable priorities. And I think it's the word reasonable that we need to focus on because Amtrak thinks it's one thing the freights think it's another. And I just think it, you know, needs to be more cooperative to work through that well. 

Cranson: And I think you would have put a focus on that and, you know, when you talked about investments in new equipment. You know, there's also investments in the stations which are, you know, very important to the face of the community at these major stops and certainly the economic development. And I think on your watch, didn't we see new stations in Pontiac and Troy and Dearborn, East Lansing, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, all of those?

Hoeffner:  I'm not going to take prevent it for the stations go out. The one thing that I will that I will say is that Michigan is very fortunate that in the quality of the stations that we have as, as you mentioned, Pontiac, Troy, Birmingham, Holland, Grand Rapids, East Lansing, New Buffalo, these beautiful, you know modest but nice facilities, there's still some room. Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint. But you know, I think you alluded to it; in my mind, stations are the gateway to and from the communities. That is the community's front door for intercity passenger rail, and I think that having the communities lead or definitely a significant role in that development is important. 

Cranson: Well and going to that point, do you see that happening in the communities between Ann Arbor and Traverse City? Is that study and hopefully, you know, I say hopefully because personally I'm a fan. You know, hopefully this this takes hold and eventually we have some tangible outcomes like a passenger rail line between those two places. 

Hoeffner: Yeah, that, you know, getting the communities on board is important. And I think really part of the work I would see in this next study, would be to define what are the communities that should most likely be served, what communities are going to generate the most ridership, and you know, one of the parts with this is how far do you space the stations out? Because every time you come in and out of the station, you've gotta you, you lose time. So, you need to keep the stations spaced out enough so that you can serve the population you don't want them too close, that they're on top of each other, but there's many opportunities along that corridor. You know Ann Arbor? I mean, you, you start there, and you go up through hull and up to an Owosso and you know on in the Mount Pleasant, right through Central Michigan's campus. And you know, on through Cadillac and, you know, on in the in the Traverse City and then you know up along into Petoskey and that too. So, one of the things is you do in the study, you look at where the best populations or the best deployment that stations can be that provides the road map for the communities to make the decision. If they want to be engaged, how they want to be engaged both financially and supportive. You mentioned the Federal RAISE grant for the project, but right now at the federal level, there is an unprecedented amount of money available for rail projects, passenger or freight and it's really unprecedented. Because right rail passenger rail, there isn't a long term dedicated stable funding like there is for public transportation like there is for aviation like there is for highway, road, and bridge and this is the closest thing that we've had with some of the IIJA funding that's out there. 

Cranson: Yeah, I mean, we've got Secretary of Transportation, who's a huge fan of this. But I mean, in fairness, Ray LaHood was too, you know, at that time there were a lot of different circumstances and. The timing is right in this case probably Jupiter is aligned with Mars to do a lot of these things but talk more about that issue with the stations because you raise a really good point, you've got experience with that. That's a really delicate balance because, the passengers that ride these is as much as they might be rail buffs and love it, they still, you know, want to schedule. They want to know that they're going to get to their destination a certain amount of time. And these cities, the mayors and other city leaders see it as a status thing to have a stop and to have a nice station. So how do you negotiate that? 

Hoeffner: One of the things when I was at MDOT I said was; I could have solved a lot of problems with communities, if we would have just said yes, we'll ask Amtrak to stop in your community, but that that isn't always the long-term best thing. So, we would have discussions with them and interact was a good partner in this they would do some ridership and revenue forecasting if we added a station stop, did it generate more revenue than what it cost? So, taking it back to the numbers, most people were not happy, but at least you could explain it to him. But then there's other times where you're going to have that certain population that doesn't care, they want to stop anyways, and you just have to work with them. And there are other places probably where they don't want to stop. They just don't see it as being a value to their community. 

Cranson: Yeah, yeah, they will probably still exist. Well, I remember talking to you 8-10 years ago about studies between Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit. And at the time, you were thinking that, you know, the traffic on the I-96 corridor didn't necessarily justify a rail line, and then a few years later as traffic picked up just before the pandemic and really peaked. You know, you told me that, yeah, maybe there is some merit in rethinking that. So, what do you think now about that corridor?

Hoeffner: One of the things that if you look at most of these rail lines, we have major freeways, Interstate or US Highways, limited access roads that connect these, the major population centers in Michigan. Using Holland, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit as the example, if you look between Lansing and Detroit on 96, there are some very heavy traffic volumes. I wire the department looking at developing the additional from the Flex Lane project. 

Cranson: Right, right.

Hoeffner: Over there because the demand is out driving the current capacity, but when you look at the traffic volumes between Holland, Grand Rapids and Lansing. They drop off significantly if somebody asked me, should we run trains here or what's the, you know, I look at what are the existing traffic patterns using the highway system because most of the rail lines parallel interstates. And it's just not there. So, on the West side, Jeff, you probably know this, but I think you in our conversations have brought this up. There's not as great an affinity so, between Grand Rapids, Holland and Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan as there is between Central Michigan and SE Michigan and you know if that develops with many of the change in manufacturing and the, you know, the new economy. Where is that going to lead us? You just have to be open and look at these things on a periodic basis. You may not think they make sense to do a study, but if you do the study then you have the data. 


Cranson: How do you get the data- Like polling to an extent, isn't it? How do you get? I mean, you ask people a certain demographic. You know, hey, would you take a train if they offered it? They say, yeah. Then you say, well, would you really? I mean, how do you drill down and get an honest answer, an honest representation of what people's behavior, you know, how it will change if that's an option? 

Hoeffner: Well, this is an area that I am not an expert on. But I have spent a night in the holiday and so I have but no. I spent time talking with these with these people and it is a lot like polling. And if you ask everybody the question, would you like to have a train going between point A and point B? Many people will say yes. So, the trick is how do you gauge that support? And what a lot of the forecasters, modelers, transportation planners in this area. What they try to do is distill it down to money and you end up with the time value of money. So that you can do a model comparison between Highway, Road and bridge between cars, buses, planes, trains and yes, this is the population that will take it. But you know the value of time for business and leisure couple of different other ways you can refine as to what you think people are going to do. And one of the things in that is people know how much their bus ticket, they're train ticket, their plane ticket cost. But people really don't know how much their car travel costs, so you have to make some assumptions and all of this and you can bring it, bring it down and you know over time some of the projections that were done from the services in Michigan turned out to be fairly close to what the ridership ended up being. I'll give you generally do these. You know you can project your ridership and revenue 5-year basis better than you can on a 50-year basis. So, the five-year projections were close to some of the ridership and revenue numbers we had, I haven't had time to check the longer number or shape. 

Cranson: That's interesting, 

Hoeffner: A lot of it has to do with community. And political and just general support for a project, you get the good folks at groundworks as the example. I mean they they're the dreamers on this, but they're realistic dreamers and they try to drum up support and they go out and they talk to people and communities and get their buy in. And you know, we'll see how it goes for them on the study. 

Cranson: What's your take on Ann Arbor to Traverse City and how long it might be before we see something? 

Hoeffner: Yeah, that's pretty hard. because you know they've got to go through the bureaucratic processes of getting the state money and getting the federal money and contracts and agreeing on to the scope of the work and developing the RFP's and putting it out and select a consultant then you can put it out for study it's not going to be months, it going to be years.

Cranson: yeah, it takes a lot of patience I give a lot of credit to the people who do what you do and people in transportation. What I've learned is that it really is about you know, planting trees under which the shade that you might not ever get to enjoy, you know. And I see it with the trail folks, you know, in Traverse City this week they celebrated the Acme Connection. Eventually, you know, they want trails all the way from Traverse City to Charlevoix, which would connect them to the Charlevoix to the Petoskey trails and what a what a cool idea. But it takes it takes a lot of patience and somebody to just keep, you know, keep at it. Be diligent and keep at it and know that there's a prize at the end. But it's going to take some time to get there. So, I think it's the same with passenger rail and everything. Tim, thanks for taking time to talk about this. We'll have to do it again sometime; I think your perspective is fascinating and I appreciate that you're still in the game. 

Hoeffner: Well, thanks, Jeff. It's always been great to work with and talk with you and I appreciate the opportunity. 

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation Podcast to subscribe. Show notes and more. Go to Apple Podcasts and search. We're talking Michigan transportation. I also want to thank Randy Debler r for his work producing this week's podcast, Jesse Ball and Best Social media coordinator, who creates the show notes and helps with all kinds of things related to getting this done every week and Courtney Bates does a great job putting the podcast together and formats so it can be posted and Sara Koenigsknecht in our office who also helps with the production and the transcription of the podcast.