Once down, trains and cars prove their staying power

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING – These have been hard times for train travel and the auto industry in Michigan, but there are signs of recovery.

Statewide ridership on Michigan’s three Amtrak routes – the Wolverine, Blue Water and Pere Marquette – hit 797,017 in 2011 and 782,286 in 2012, according to Michigan Department of Transportation statistics, up by more than 100,000 since 2009.

And work has started on track improvement projects that will enable passenger trains to travel as fast as 100 mph in mid-Michigan and eventually cut travel time between Chicago and Detroit/Pontiac from about 6½ to 4½ hours, officials said.

In a bid to lure more passengers, Amtrak has started to allow a limited number of bicycles aboard its Blue Water line running between Port Huron and Chicago, with stops in East Lansing, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. The railroad also announced plans to add cellular-connected Wi-Fi next year.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. has hired 1,400 more workers for its Flat Rock plant where it began manufacturing the popular Ford Fusion last month.

While those are promising developments, they also serve as reminders that Michigan is long past the glory days of both railroads and automaking.

The “explosive years” of railroading spanned 1875 to 1897, a gilded age when the state’s population grew, as did its rail network and the manufacture of freight and passenger cars in Detroit, according to Graydon Meints of Kalamazoo. He’s a past president of the Kalamazoo County Historical Association.

Then the “golden years” of 1897 through 1920 followed, Meints wrote in his new book, “Railroads for Michigan” (Michigan State University Press, $49.95). That era included – among other lines – a new Detroit, Bay City & Western Railroad to serve sugar beet farmers and the sugar refinery industry in the Thumb, the Western & Michigan to haul lumber in the western Upper Peninsula and the Detroit & Charlevoix to service the logging industry in the Northwest Lower Peninsula.

City streetcar routes expanded during that period. And vacationers could ride the rails from cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cincinnati to summer resort communities such as Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Mackinaw City, Alpena and Traverse City.

But the grim writing was on the wall as the “electric interurban and the private automobile brought new competition to the railroads,” Meints wrote. “The private car was such a convenience that the slow local passenger train could not compete against it.”

Even the growing popularity of the bicycle “sped up “the demise of the passenger train” by impelling governments to improve the roads, Meints said.

What followed – the Great Depression, World War II, Americans’ deepening love affair with cars and railroad company bankruptcies – were decades of despair for the industry.

Trains1

Credit: Wayne State University Press

Then came what he called “the return of the rails” starting in the 1970s and continuing until 2000 with the establishment of Amtrak for passenger service and Conrail for freight service.

Michigan’s auto industry also has hit its high points, as well as its decline. Historian Charles Hyde describes one of those high points in his new “Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II” (Wayne State University Press, $39.95).

Yet most of the industry’s importance during the Second World War didn’t come from manufacturing cars. Rather, it was producing aircraft, tanks, jeeps, weapons and ammunition, wrote Hyde, a retired Wayne State professor.

But it wasn’t a smooth transformation from peace to war production. “Prior to Pearl Harbor, the American automobile industry had little interest in making defense products” because the market for cars and trucks had improved significantly since the depths of the Depression,” he wrote. “The anti-war sentiments of key automotive leaders, along with their distrust of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration stemming from their conservative political beliefs, also hindered rearmament.”

Trains2

Credit: Michigan State University Press

Even so, the transformation occurred and brought with it a major impact on society at large because of the hiring of many African Americans and women as “new workers” in the plants.

The industry, according to Hyde, “served as a model for the rest of American wartime industries. Its mass production methods were the envy of other manufacturers, who tried to adopt them for their own war work.”

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