The Little Railroad that Could
Ingenious though it was, Ashley's land-and-water system rarely made money, and as freight traffic dwindled operators went bust in both the 1970s and 1980s. But after the last bankruptcy the line emerged shorn of the costly ferries. The state now owns what's left of Ashley's northern track, contracting with the Great Lakes Central Railroad to operate it. The Ann Arbor Acquisition Corporation (AAAC) kept only the fifty miles linking Ann Arbor and Toledo.
The downsized Ann Arbor Railroad hauls freight, sells track rights to intersecting rail lines, runs a sizeable switching operation in Toledo, and even leases billboard space beside the tracks. I asked Ed McKechnie, executive vice president of Watco, which of those was most alluring. "It's the entire package," he said. "The location serves access to Jeep and other auto industry suppliers."
Since he mentioned Jeep twice in our conversation, I decided to check, and found that indeed it's quite an advantage to operate a rail switching yard that backs snugly up to the 312-acre, 2,700-worker Toledo North Jeep assembly plant. Watco started out running switchyards, and it's likely that the Jeep facility added greatly to the Annie's appeal. Watco's press release also noted that the Ann Arbor connects to half a dozen other railroads.