The Rhythm of the Rails

Rebirthing train travel to Northern Michigan

By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

The lanky, loquacious locomotive conductor with his throwback uniform and shiny brimmed hat calls out to everyone in the Amtrak waiting lounge in Chicago’s Union Station: “The choo-choo train is ready for boarding, everybody! If you have your ticket ready to ride the Empire Builder, follow me through that door to track number 1!” It could be a taping for the Choo-Choo Bob TV show in St. Paul, but no, I’ll really be riding that train. Because of the notoriously fickle finger of fate at O’Hare Airport, Spirit Air has cancelled both flights to St. Paul. My travel-savvy daughter fetched me a refund, and my thumb-quick son promptly iPhoned her a link she translated into a ticket on today’s afternoon Amtrak to the Twin Cities in a sleeper car. When I get off somebody from St. Paul will get on and truly use it for sleeping. Woot woot!

The carpeted lounge at Union Station is full of big soft chairs and relaxed folks. A few grandparents follow around toddlers who are harnessed to long red leashes so they won’t disappear into the crowd. The vibe is warmer and less frenetic than an airport boarding gate, even though the lounge is full. Many passengers will be sleeping in a berth all night as the tall silver Empire Builder slithers across the northern Great Plains to Seattle. It is going to take some time, so both patience and anticipation are palpable.

Having crisscrossed Europe on passenger trains in the 1970s, this is my first ride through my homeland. Room 3 has soft facing chairs that can slide together into a berth, and a pull down bed is braced to the ceiling above. The brick neighborhoods of Chicago slide backward past the window, and the subtle metronome of steel wheels on rails creates a click track that taps a pulse for the rest of the day. Arlo Guthrie’s version of “City of New Orleans” (written by Chicagoan Steve Goodman) earworms gently through my head. “The rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”

The changing landscape is everything. You see both the automobile congested present and the last century’s pastoral past scroll by. The train parallels the super highway up to Milwaukee, the lumbering semis and swarming SUVs busier and faster than you are, the strip malls hurrying to hurl us all more stuff. But entering the bratwurst capitol through its older neighborhoods, you see boarded up old brick breweries, hundred-year-old grain silos, the pocked cement of crumbling bridges, and painted signs from other times. Stopping at the terminal in Milwaukee, you can look out at the clapboard garages and parking lots behind the buildings lining some unseen street to see a back wall black sign saying “Shoe Polish.”

The old tracks that wind through Wisconsin are festooned with abandoned phone lines. Countless tar-stained poles hold 3 or 4 cross trees each. On each horizontal brace are rows of old green glass insulators shaped like chess board pawns. Hundreds of miles of wire still droop and dangle from those poles, some now buried in the thickets of trees that have grown up around and through them. At the newer crossroads the cut wires hang their heads only to climb back onto the poles on the other side. Aren’t those wires copper? There must be a fortune there if you could just untangle everything and then sell it to China!

You notice how rough the graffiti stamped bridges are under the roads beside the tracks, and you see back lots behind steel-sided pole barn factories and warehouses with their huge spools of thick wire, scaffolds with racks of lumber and re-rod, or rows of yellow earthmovers on gigantic black tires.

By the Wisconsin Dells there are great hills of yellow sand with conveyors snaking along above them. This harvest feeds the oil industry’s extraction needs in North Dakota, my supper mate tells me in the animated dining car. He is going back to work there after an unwanted six-month vacation since the Saudis lowered the price of oil, glutted the market, and interrupted the U.S. production pace. These rails still nourish the domestic Gross National Product as long trains of enormous freight cars suddenly whoosh by the window on a scale that dwarfs the quaint boxcars of Woody Guthrie and the hoboes.

We eat pretty good food in shifts in the Dining Car, and the Lounge Car is full of folks facing the windows to see the shiny wide ribbon of the Mississippi River pass under the skinny bridge and then glitter alongside as the silver train slides through the Minnesota twilight. As we pull into St. Paul’s stunning Union Depot, folks gather at the doors to disembark with me, or to get one more leg stretch or hit of tobacco before the Empire Builder tucks into its long sleeping ride through the western night.

To ride the cross-country train is to experience a more civilized, relaxed, less herd-like mode of travel. You can move around, the combination of proximity and long space encourages you to meet and talk with your fellow travellers, and the land you pass through is like a movie of incomparable beauty and infinite variety. You may hear the song in your head morph into, “This land is your land, this land is my land.”

We need to rebirth train travel here in Michigan. The rails and the back lots are still here. And the will to do so is emerging thanks to the leadership of the local Groundwork Center (formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute). They have a plan to connect Traverse City to Ann Arbor, with stops in Cadillac, Mt. Pleasant, Alma, Owosso, and Howell. This is a great idea. Let’s all spread the re-appearing railroad news. Here are some details from the Groundwork Center:

Re-establishing passenger rail service between two of Michigan’s most vibrant cities — Ann Arbor and Traverse City — will link the resource-rich tourist destinations in the northwest and the economic and population centers in the southeast. This investment will solidify Michigan as a leader in a new era of modern train travel while boosting economic development along the corridor. The Groundwork Center believes that bringing passenger rail service back to northern Michigan is possible in less than a decade with a focused campaign of public engagement, technical analysis, and adequate support from a cross section of community, state, and federal agencies.

Why TC to Ann Arbor?

• The tracks are still in place and they’re still owned by the state. Often the most expensive part of a transportation project is the cost of buying land and laying new tracks.

• The tracks are in pretty good shape. 90 percent of the tracks are ready for passenger service, and more than half allow passenger trains to travel nearly 60 miles per hour. Only small sections require investment.

• There’s overwhelming enthusiasm and support from the public for this idea. The number one priority that came out of a statewide rail planning process in 2011 was a passenger connection to Traverse City. In fact, more people attended the Traverse City forum than anywhere else in the state.