Michigan rail leaders get on track at annual conference

Published: Aug. 17, 2016 at 4:44 PM EDT
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More than 100 people from a variety of different backgrounds in the railroad industry got on track together Wednesday at the Michigan Rail Conference at Northern Michigan University.

Michigan Technological University and the Michigan Department of Transportation have organized the Rail Conference for four years and this was the first time the conference has been held in the Upper Peninsula. They bring together everyone with a role within the industry to learn from each other.

"This is the one opportunity where we get folks together from throughout the state to talk about railroads,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of rail for the Michigan Department of Transportation. “What rail means to the businesses and industries and also for the people that are served by railroads to get a better understanding of them."

Once together they discuss every side of the business and what works or needs work. Wednesday, panelists and guests discussed how they could take better advantage of the rail from using them more efficiently, to preserving what we have and about potentially expanding in the future.

"We need to have the rail to develop all the industries that we have,” said State Rep. Scott Dianda 110th District. “This rail system is what it takes to get industry back into Michigan and the U.P."

"We are a little bit remote from the rest of the market,” explained Pasi Lautala, assistant professor at Michigan Technological University in the department of environmental engineering and director of the rail transportation program. “We need to have very efficient and cost effective transportation modes, especially when you consider that a lot of the Upper Peninsula depends on natural resources and other commodities that are heavy weight and sometimes fairly low values."

Michigan has approximately 3,600 miles of rail and 335 of those are run by the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad Company. They attended the conference to share their story and learn from others.

"It's primarily the networking for us,” said Tom Klimek, vice president of marketing for the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad. “We're a small business, number one, and it's always a challenge to get our message out to a larger audience."

On Thursday, conference attendees will tour a few Upper Peninsula Railways to better understand how the address the issue into the future.