Home > Editorial, Parks and Recreation > The City Train Ride Remains a Hot Topic

The City Train Ride Remains a Hot Topic

October 12, 2011

As I mentioned, the train ride on the bayfront issue did come up last night. Candidates were asked if they supported keeping the train ride on the bayfront or not. The responses were  mixed–there were solid “the train has had its time” (Werner, Estes) as well as “the train must stay” (Sofferdine, Donick, Carruthers). Incumbent Jim Carruthers was invigorated enough in support of the train to claim, “the train is the thing that makes the City unique.

Industry Recognition in 1982

I’m certainly entrenched in this issue, so it was difficult to sit on my hands last night and keep quiet. I’m not bringing it up now to re-hash the history or the details, but judging from the comments last night, a clarification is needed.

Last week, parks and recreation commission did indeed recommend a plan dubbed the “short loop.” The word compromise was raised, but I don’t believe it is a compromise.  That wasn’t our role. Parks and recreation was tasked by the City Commission to reconsider plans that came out of the 2010 process without a train ride and to fit the train back in. The 2010 plans were approved by several boards and commissions, including the City Commission. They were then used to attract grants and donations. It is important for the City to honor that process. The Parks and Recreation Commission voted to reincorporate the train ride in such a way that did not compromise that original intent.

We made a sound recommendation that isn’t a compromise because we concluded, with the recommendation of the hired consultant, the short loop to be the most practical and appropriate out of the five, then two, choices in the latest round to re-incorporate the train. I completely understand that a contingent thinks we are idiots (Save the Spirit FB). They’ve made that abundantly clear online and in emails; that doesn’t change my evaluation.

Below is a follow-up email that I sent to the Planning Commission and the City Commission last Friday. Both groups will have an opportunity to provide their input and approval, with the City Commission obviously casting a deciding go ahead.


Planning Commissioners and City Commissioners,

Last night, Parks and Recreation recommended the “short loop” from the final two design options for the 2012 Clinch Park construction designed by Hamilton-Anderson (HA). The motion passed 6-0.

From my perspective, we made this vote because the other option, “the long-loop”, still poises too many conflicts for both safety as well as active and passive programmable space. This was the second round of designing Clinch Park, each with a different consultant, and each time the same concerns were revealed. The northeast corner of the park is the most coveted space down there and if we are to invest in a plan that draws a diverse mix of people and creates a space to spend an afternoon, this is the location they are going to gravitate towards. The public also recognizes this corner as the primary activity center of the park. It was our view that maintaining the longer route of the train would require a complete redesign and rethink of the project resulting in a considerable loss of time, resources and money to the City. Of major concern on the latter, is a completion date of May 1, 2013 to satisfy the Natural Trust Fund grant.

Although there is dissatisfaction by some in the community with the short loop, it was made known to us last night that if chosen it indeed could be made to work with modifications to the train ride. This was confirmed by the p&r’s superintendent and the City engineer. The commission expressed support for further improvements to the western section of Clinch Park to enhance the experience of a shorter route. For example, there is an excellent opportunity to create a point of interest around a dedicated depot.

Our decision was made in keeping with the spirit of what came out of the 2010 Bayfront Planning process. If you’d like to discuss this further, myself or other parks and recreation commissioners are available. The other P&R Commissioners may have other reasons for their vote.

We look forward to moving forward to construction in the fall of 2012.

Thank you,



EDITOR’S NOTE: Comments will remain open on this post, but please follow the Comments Policy. If you have questions about specific details to the process or the mechanics behind parks and recreation’s decision, I encourage you to attend one of the many meetings where this issue will be discussed. You are also encouraged to send letters of support or opposition to the appropriate commissions. 

  1. Paul
    October 12, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Dear Mr. Howe, can you please expand on this comment, “it indeed could be made to work with modifications to the train ride.”

    Will it work for the Spirit of Traverse City? What modifications will have to be done in order for it to work?

    With a tighter curve there is also added drag and wear which will mean more work and money to keep it operation.

    It may not be possible to modify the locomotive (due to time, money, design work needed to be done and physical limitations of the locomotive) so it could take a tighter curve. The possible modifying would include work to the axles, wheels, rods, journal boxes and would take a lot of time and money to redesign it for a tighter curve if it is even possible at all.

  2. Katie
    October 13, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Hello Gary, just a note of support for you & rest of the Parks & Rec Commission. Given the difficult position you were in, the recommendation for the short loop is the only realistic option. Personally, I think the park design shown by Hamilton Anderson was just spectacular–splash pad, beach house, tiered seating, and a stream all together by the water. It is absolutely first class and would be a real credit to the city for everyone to enjoy the water in a serene, safe, fashion. As outlined in your explanation, keeping the train to the short loop is the only real way to accomplish the larger goal of maintaining the plan of a gorgeous bayfront park to ‘celebrate the water’. That should be the real goal. If the train can fit in that goal, fine; if not, c’est la vie. The entire park should not be re-designed or significantly compromised. It’s a delightful design; stick with it. Thanks to you and all of P&R for your careful contemplation and efforts.

  3. Paul
    October 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    How will we keep the water park safe from potential drowings? A man drowned in the marina. It is very easy for kids (and adults) who are running around to slip and fall into the water and possible to be knocked out and drown. All it takes is enough water to cover the nose (maybe 1″ deep)

    What will also be done about the unslightly and slippery scum from the well water?

    The whole park idea is way more than just the water park and the train. It is about safety in the new attractions. It is about the annual cost. It is about what is pratical.

    How much will these new attractions cost the local taxpayers each year? It has been said that they attractions are free to the public, which means that the locals will pay for it.

  4. Greg
    October 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Leave the bayfront the way it is. Keep the train where it is and nix the waterpark. No need to spend 26 million on a problem that doesn’t exist. The kids can play in the bay.

  5. Paul
    October 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I was told the train is losing 5-7k each year. There has to be some easy way to help curb that. (I have made suggestions but have not heard back.) This means that local taxpayers are paying $5,000-7,000 a year for the train.

    A very low estimate for taking care of the new water park features would be around $10,000. This would include electric bill, water bill, cleanings, general repairs, getting it ready for winter, bringing it back to life in the spring, etc.

    Tearing down the old bath house and building a new one will cost more than renovating the old one. The new one is maybe 30 feet closer to the bay. If building a new one, why not put it right on the beech?

    Tearing down the old concession stand and building a new one will cost more than renovating the old one.

    Est. $5,000-7,000 per year for the train (over 30 years that is $150,000-210,000) local taxpayers pay this
    Est. $10,000 min per year for water park bills (over 30 years that is $300,000) local taxpayers pay this

    Cutback phase 1: $1,400,000 (new bathouse is about the same size as old) mostly grants pay this (taxpayers all over MI pay it)

    Full out phase 1: $2,600,000 mostly grants pay this (taxpayers all over MI pay it) as well as other donors

    Full project: $26,000,000 mostly grants pay this (taxpayers all over MI pay it) as well as other donors

    So in the grand scheme, just the cutback phase 1 will cost more than what these estimates for both the train AND the waterpark will cost over 30 years. Yet there is no officiall estimates for the annual cost for the water park,

    Doesn’t it make sense to spend the money wisely and know what things will costs the local taxpayers before they are built?

  6. Paul
    October 14, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Dear Mr. Howe,
    can you please answer my first post concerning your statement: “it was made known to us last night that if chosen it indeed could be made to work with modifications to the train ride. This was confirmed by the p&r’s superintendent and the City engineer.”

    What are the names of those said it could work with modifications? What modifications did they present? Did anyone who is knowledgable about the miniature steam train say this? If so who and if not who did say it?

    Clarity and specifics are very helpful in the process as well as being able to back up the claim.

    Thank you in advance for your response.

  7. October 15, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Paul, not sure what you don’t understand about “this was confirmed by the p&r’s superintendent and the City engineer.” As well, the details of which are yet to be determined and it’d be premature for me to assume the best solution to make the short loop viable.

    I do know, the long-loop is not something I can recommend. It may be the best thing for the train ride, but would be a shame and a waste of investment to place all that activity into one space. As I stated above, the NE corner of Clinch Park is the most desirable location for users and it appears that the entire Parks and Recreation Commission wasn’t willing to have it dominated by a 12,000-lb diesel run steam engine.

    I am one voice on an advisory board of 7, there is also a planning commission, the DDA and city commission that will weigh in on the design. I suggest, if you are so concerned, that you attend these upcoming meetings or volunteer your time. Parks and recreation recently had 3 vacancies…the city received 3 applications. They have since been appointed and it surprises me that I’m receiving such persistent messages from a handful of people concerning the train and none of them felt so strongly as to actually become involved at a deeper level and help contribute to a better community in a broader sense than a train ride.

    Your questions and concerns have been noted and have, or will be addressed in the planning process by staff, the consultants and when necessary the P&R Commission.

    Thank you, GH

  8. Jeff
    October 15, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Dear Paul,
    The local train expert, Dr. Donald S. Frost, has always said that the short loop will NOT work for the Spirit of Traverse City due to the eastern curve being too tight. Both Dr. Frost and the City engineer, Tim Lodge, said that the track should have a minimum curve of 100′.

    The eastern curve has a measured radius of 85′ but is claimed (with moving parking spots and the Grandview Parkway) that it could have 95′ radius curves,

    Dr. Frost sent emails to the parks and rec commissioners and presented this information at the meeting on October 6. They all said that they understood that the Spirit of Traverse City will NOT be able to run on this track. They then voted for this plan as Gary said above.

    There are no modifications that can be done to the Spirit of Traverse City. Extra lateral could not be machined into the axles, rods, wheels, driving boxes, etc, as this will allow too much slop and things would wear themselves out a whole lot faster.

    The track can have a larger curve if they moved the parkings spots and Grandview parkway to allow a wider area to make the curve.

    The “solution” that was talked about was buying a brand new 3″ scale, 15″ gauge 2-6-0 that is listed to make a tighter curve. This will cost at least $97,500 and it is unsure A) if it is still avaliable and B) if it burns coal or oil or propane.

    There is another engine available that only costs around $75,000 that can take the tight corners. It is a replica of the engines that the Cagney brothers built between 1900-1930. However the engine is so small, it won’t be able to pull the cars up the grade and around the curve.

    This still leaves a tight curve which will add more drag to the train and wear out the outside rails and wheels and trucks and journal boxes faster. The tighter curve will mean more money will need to be spent on the train to keep it running.

  9. Paul
    October 16, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Dear Jeff,
    Thank you for the clarity and explaination of why the Spirit of TC can’t run on the short loop.

    Clearly the loop is not viable for the Spirit of Traverse City. I hope that the commissioners will decide to follow the recommendations/requirements of the City engineer and Dr. Frost.

    That makes more sense than spending $100,000 or so for a steam engine because the track was designed so it is not viable for the steam engine that they have.

  10. Citizen
    October 17, 2011 at 7:02 am

    The consultant worked closely with Don Frost on what would be viable for the Short Loop. Without significant other changes the only raduis that fit was a 95′ radius, at the time Don indicated that it would be possible to run the train on this radius but not desirable because of the stress to certain train parts. It was not until the Parks and Recreation commission decided that the Short Loop and the Leave the Train were the two viable options that Don came back with lengthy calculations and emails stating that the short loop would not work. Essentially trying to force the P&R commission into choosing the option that Don and other train supporters have always wanted. Just leaving the train where it is. There has been no compromise and train supporters have made it clear that they do not want to create a park that is viable for all types of users but just one with a train the way it has always been.

    It has been indicated to those closely working with this project that the consultant is working on a design that would include the short loop with a 100′ radius, now that that option has been choosen by P & R commission. Up until now the City has not been clear on what they wanted designed. With the reccommendation we can move forward and design a park that meets all the criteria.

    Just to get this out there, even if the Long Loop is choosen for some reason the train portions through the east end of the park will still have to be removed and reset as the grades are changing during construction.

  11. Greg
    October 17, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Mr. Howe, people are too busy to attend all these meetings at strange times. Most people are working trying to pay the taxes that will go into these pipe dream projects. The egos of our appointed officials seem to be clouding their judgment of what the people want. Leave the train as is and put a splash pad on the corner of 11th and Division (some would call it highway), makes no sense to put a water park play area next to the biggest fresh water splash pad in the Country.

  12. Jeff
    October 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Dear Citizen,
    Are you on the Parks and rec commission, City commission or work with the City manager? Dr. Frost sent these radius calculations and measurements only to them. And only they (mainly the P&R) would know that “The consultant worked closely with Don Frost”

    However, “The consultant worked closely with Don Frost on what would be viable for the Short Loop.” Is false.

    Those who also want the water park also do not want to compromise. In fact several people on the Parks and Rec commission do NOT want the train at all.

    Don Frost came up with all of these measurements to show A) that a “large curve” around 90-95′ radius can be felt and there is extra drag and B) to show that there is NOT room in the current design for a 95′ radius curve. The parks and rec received emails concerning this, said they read it, said they understood it and had no questions and understood that the Spirit of TC CANNOT run on it.

    Tim Lodge, the City engineer, said that during the 1981 planning for the track that they said 100′ minimum radius curve with 120′ being better. This is not 95′ radius. So even before Don Frost was working on the train the City already had come up with the minimum radius of 100′

    It has yet to be shown that a 95′ radius curve is possible. 95′ radius curve may be able to work IF it is a smooth curve without any kinks, dips or humps in the track, the proper super-elevation, is measured to the inside rail and the grade is no more than 2%. However to have all of these will basically be impossible,

    To have a 95′ radius curve (190′ diameter over the inside rail) you would need at least 200′ diameter to the outside edge of the tie plus extra space between the track and the parkway and the track and the parking lot.

    There is NOT this kind of room at the park. Dr. Frost measured a consistant 177′ width in the park where the eastern loop is and east of there. This means that there is room for about an 85′ radius curve, not 95′ radius curve.

    Citizen, this means that the Spirit of TC CANNOT run on this loop and it has not been shown how a 95′ radius curve will even fit.

    The Parks and Rec ignored Tim Lodges statements from the original 1981 planning and Dr. Frost statements from the 2011 planning.


  13. Jeff
    October 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

    “The consultant worked closely with Don Frost on what would be viable for the Short Loop.” Is 100% false. Dr. Frost NEVEFR said the short loop would work. There is not enough room in the plan to allow for a 95′ radius curve as detailed below.

    Citizen, please get your facts straight. Another parks and rec commisioner also made this false claim to which Dr. Frost responded in an email at 5:42 PM on Sunday, October 02, 2011 and said in an email to the City Commission, Parks and Rec commission, the City manager, Mr. Cole and Mr. Vaughn:

    “First, I want to put to rest a rumor. It has been stated that I have said that the “small loop” would work for the train, “The Spirit of Traverse City.” That is untrue. The small loop WILL NOT WORK for the following reasons:

    •Curve minimum radius of 100’ (that is of the inside rail)
    •Transition from straight to curve at least 20’ both ends of curve
    •Maximum grade of 2% (2’ change in elevation per 100’ of track)
    •Transition from level to grade of 20-30’ at each end”

    These are the facts.

  14. Jeff
    October 17, 2011 at 8:50 am

    While I understand that not everyone likes the beech or going into the bay/open water and that this water park idea can enhance the park (when done properly and not all crammed together) and more people can enjoy the water, I don’t understand why the whole park needs to be changed and spend $1,400,000-$2,600,000 just on phase 1.

    The bay front planning comittee decided to remove the train and the rest of the park was designed w/o the train. I don’t understand why they are trying to design the track back into a plan that was designed w/o the train. How can you make it fit and work? By the plan that the parks and rec choose, they did not get it to fit and work.

    Mr. Howe has said before he wants to see all the planning prior to this year still be valid. However what about the planning the City engineers did in 1981 for the track where they said 100′ radius curves min with 120′ radius being better? That prior planning was ignored

  15. October 17, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Cry me a river, Greg. Your charge that this is an ego driven project shows a lack of knowledge of the Bayrfront Plans and how they have progressed with wide-community input.

    As well, I sacrifice my own time and have sacrificed business opportunities volunteering for the City. Yes, meetings are boring, held under fluorescent lights and often take place during beautiful evenings or major sporting events. Still, I volunteer, in part, because I want to help see a return on my investment that I pay through my taxes and I’m willing to stand for something rather than constantly complaining about and reacting to what has happened-I can do that as well, but I’m not happy about it. I fear for the future of Traverse City with attitudes that reject any notion that we may choose as a community to come together to improve the quality of life here.

  16. Paul
    October 17, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Dear Mr. Howe,
    While I know that this is your own personal blog and comments from others, such as Greg, can hit a nerve, I believe it would be professional if you would refrain from making comments such as “Cry me a river, Greg.” We are all adults and if something hits a nerve, the better course would be to let it slide by and not stoop down to a lower level but to remain professional.
    Thank you,

  17. Greg
    October 17, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Exactly the attitudes I have described, the DDA and P&R commissions seem to have trouble dealing with opposition. What is wrong with the Bayfront now? I haven’t seen one complaint. This is what happens when people try to force what they think is a “better quality of life issue” on the rest of us, $$$$$$ we do not have. Why would someone in Port Huron want to have their Tax Dollars go toward Traverse City’s Bayfront. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  18. Jason
    October 17, 2011 at 10:50 am

    When I inquired about the Short loop and the radius of the curves, Dr. Frost replied,

    “The curves got reduced to 95′ radius without my knowledge and somehow that became the “doable” radius. I have always said 100′; others, who do not operate the train, have said the smaller diameters.”

    Here are some of my questions and Dr. Frost’s answers. He emailed me on October 12, 2011 with the answers.

    “2) Does the parks and rec know the requirements?

    Yes the parks and rec commission knew the requirements before they voted. Before they had a chance to vote I specifically asked them if the understood the requirements that I had sent them in an email, and that the Spirit of Traverse City could not operate on the “short loop” because the curves were too tight. They said yes to both.

    3) Will the Spirit of TC be able to run on the shortened loop? Why or why not?

    Because the Spirit of Traverse City needs a 100′ radius minimum curve to operate (especially as the area is also going up hill) and the short loop has been claimed to only have a 95′ radius curve (although my measurements of the curve in that area would be in the 85′ range), the Spirit of Traverse City cannot operate on the short loop.

    4) When did this shortened plan come out? When was it said that it would/would not work?

    The short loop came up in a Hamilton-Anderson (the company hired to do the park planning) as an “shortened train loop” connected to a longer loop much like the present one. It was one of four plans presented that day. A thought was to have this short loop that could be used at busy times, and there would be switches (turnouts) at each end so the train operator could decide which loop to take. I measured the area that was being considered for the short loop, east curve and came up with maximum 183′ diameter (91.5 radius) so I could not see how it could be done. I said to the planner that if one could get 100′ curves in that short loop, it could work. There would be many problems for the operation of the train, but, at 100′ radius, it could work. The curves got reduced to 95′ radius without my knowledge and somehow that became the “doable” radius. I have always said 100′; others, who do not operate the train, have said the smaller diameters.”

  19. Citizen
    October 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Does it matter if I am on the Parks and rec commission, City commission or work with the City manager? If you think it does, maybe, as the number one vocal train supporter, you should mention that you are Don Frost’s son, and that you no longer live in Traverse City. So, I am fairly certian that your information has come second hand. Or have you attended a Parks and Recreation Comittee meeting? Have you spoken to the design engineer from the hired consulting firm?

    It is a well know fact that the preferred radius for the train is 100′ but there has been no confirmation from the designers that were hired that they cannot get a 100′ radius to work in Clinch Park with a short loop. Up until the last Parks and Recreation meeting the city had not even given clear direction for the consultants to design from, with the reccommendation of the short loop, design can proceed. If and when a time comes that it is confirmed that a 100′ radius will not work in Clinch park, only then, new decisions will have to be made.

  20. Margaret
    October 17, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Parks and Recreation Meetings are the first Thursday of the Month at 6:30pm.

  21. Jeff
    October 17, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Dear Citizen,
    Yes I am Dr. Frost’s son and I have operated, repaired, machined parts, designed parts, fabricated parts and have done track work for the train. I also have a good background and have been involved with steam engines for the last 22 years. I am employeed as a machinist, steam locomotive mechanic, steam locomotive engineer and fireman at the Strasburg, Railroad in PA

    This is something that none of the commissioners nor engineers have done. None of the commissioners and engineers have any of these skills, background knowledge or pratical skill/knowledge.

    Since none of the commissioners nor engineers have this knowledge and skill, they should rely on what the people who have the knowledge and skill say.

    Dr. Frost and I talked about the curves and came up with the 100′ radius. This past July when I was in TC I did a rough measurement of the open space diameter and got around 215-220′ (average radius is just over 100′). I measured in the center of the park and got a measurement around 175′ (going to and past the fence I got around 190-195′) and on the beech end it was greater than 270′ (average radius is around 120′)

    I also looked at maps and on google maps and verified my rough numbers.

    Dr. Frost did all of his own measurements and they correspond to my rough measurements. The radius Dr. Frost and I came up with also corresponds to what the City engineers decided in 1981( 100′ minimum radius, 120′ better)

    Others who say it will work with a radius smaller than 100′ are not only ignoring what was presented by Dr. Frost and the City enginneer


    they are making decisions when they have no knowledge and skill to make an informed decisions. That is not a smart idea. Claims then are also falsely being made. Again, not a smart idea.

    Until such a time that those making decisons can prove beyond a doubt that the train can run on the short loop, they should follow the recommendations of a 100′ minimum curve.


  22. October 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    I prefer not to have this single post turn into the venue for a cycle of rebuttals and reactions from a few people, so comments have been turned off for this post. There is a Save the Spirit FB page that provides plenty of opportunity for people to voice their perspectives on this issue, and as stated above the planning, city and parks and rec commissions will continue to hold public meetings on the matter. Thank you to those who have participated.


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