Lapeer’s little rail line
LAPEER — More than 20 freight trains pass through the heart of Lapeer County on the Canadian National Railroad line that bisects the county every day, transporting everything from grain, bulk cargo, automobiles, lumber, chemicals and semi-trailer containers destined for distant overseas ports.
In Lapeer, it’s the job of a two-man locomotive team that operates a small green and yellow-colored engine to move the rail cars about to several area businesses that depend on the railroad to move their products.
The 65-ton General Electric Center Cab locomotive is operated by the Lapeer Industrial Railroad, a subsidiary of the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad Co.
Train buffs and regular commuters who drive along Saginaw and Court streets in Lapeer have likely seen the little engine in operation, particularly in the current fall harvest period when soybean, corn and wheat are being hauled out of the Lapeer Grain terminal.
In Lapeer, the CN railroad has a side track where passing trains can uncouple cars for area businesses like Lapeer Grain, Masco Corp. (American Bath and Shower) and Lapeer Industries on McCormick Drive, to name a few.
Engine No. 5 and the Lapeer Industrial Railroad are operated by engineer Robert Michalka of Lapeer and conductor Bruce Haddow of Mayfield Township. They move and stage the railroad cars along the side tracks and lines in Lapeer.
On Wednesday The County Press caught up with Michalka, Haddow and railroad general manager Gary Jones for a first-hand demonstration of the workings of the little engine. The crew was moving empty grain cars for loading at Lapeer Grain.
“I’ve always enjoyed the railroad. Every day is different out here. It never gets boring,” said Michalka as he powered up the locomotive that operates on twin diesel engines that generate electricity to propel the engine.
His partner, Haddow, in constant two-way radio contact, was outside “working the ground” preparing to hook up brake lines to several cars that were connected to the engine. The small diesel locomotive was built in 1950 and had served in numerous capacities elsewhere before coming to Lapeer.
“I enjoy the job. I have liked trains, and so this is great to work right here in Lapeer on a railroad,” said Haddow, also a model train enthusiast.
The Lapeer Industrial Railroad is considered a short-line railroad. In Lapeer, the railroad operates on approximately 1.5 miles of track, running southerly from CN’s main line. When not in operation Lapeer’s “little engine that could” can be seen parked on a side track located east of the Lapeer Grain terminal and across from the City of Lapeer’s train depot.
The Lapeer Industrial Railroad is one of four short-line railroads operated in Michigan by the Adrian and Blissfield Railroad. The others include the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad near the Ohio border, where it operates a dinner train (The Old Road Dinner Train) on approximately 20 miles of track; the Charlotte Southern Railroad, where it operates a second dinner train by the same name, and the Detroit Connecting Railroad on around three miles of track in Detroit.
The railroad operates three engines in Detroit, six in Adrian, one in Lapeer and one in Charlotte. In total, the small railroad employs about 30 people.
Haddow expressed his continued amazement at the impatience of local motorists who frequently drive over warning flares he has placed on Saginaw Street to close a travel lane to traffic while he works in the street with a train car that he is helping to move in or out of the Lapeer Grain facility.
“People have to realize that trains can’t stop on a dime. They need to pay attention to us working out there and to give us the space we need and pay attention to the railroad signal lights,” said Haddow, who noted that five loaded cars pack the equivalent of 1 million pounds of weight behind a moving train.
Jones, who has more than 30 years in the railroad industry, added that area motorists should abide by the “Stop, Listen and Live” rule put out by the railroad industry. “When you’re at a railroad crossing, turn down the radio to listen for an approaching train. If it has crossing gates, stay behind them, and otherwise look both ways before crossing,” said Jones.
While the tonnage being moved on railroads across Michigan is down because of the soft economy, the rail industry is critical to the state’s economy, particularly to transport new vehicles and auto parts.
In 2007, state railroad companies led all national rail systems in moving transportation materials such as cars and auto parts, accounting for 17.7 percent of the national total, according to the Association of American Railroads. The AAR said there were 24 rail companies in the state in 2007, the latest figures available, employing 3,617 and traveling on 3,699 miles of track.
“For a train guy, this is the best kind of job, and it makes me feel good, too, because it’s real important to the Lapeer companies that rely on us to move these cars around and get their products to them and their customers,” said Michalka.