Two longs, one short, one long. That’s the drawn-out melancholy whistle you hear twice almost every night if you live near one of the eighteen places in town where the Ann Arbor Railroad crosses a city street. The whistle is trainmen’s code for “approaching a grade crossing.”

Pairs of locomotives haul dozens of freight cars north, then south, through the middle of Ann Arbor, yet the railroad’s presence is mostly unnoticed. During the day, nearly everyone who drives through town scoots across or beneath its tracks without a thought.

In my neighborhood near Pontiac Trail, within three square blocks the tracks cross five streets, and four of the crossings are unprotected by lights or bells. So I do check both directions, despite the fact that in twenty years in the neighborhood I’ve waited only four times for the train.

The “Annie,” as rail fans affectionately call the Ann Arbor Railroad, has a storied 135-year history. Yet, except for the 180 avid members of the Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association (AART&HA), most Ann Arbor residents know next to nothing about it.

Ever wondered why there’s no Second Avenue downtown? “Big Jim” Ashley was an Ohio congressman and charismatic abolitionist who helped Lincoln guide the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. In 1878 he built a railroad from Toledo to central Ann Arbor, then northwest to Lake Michigan, where freight was ferried to Wisconsin by boat. Second Avenue was renamed for him.

My neighbors and I have asked each other why the train travels at night, where it’s going, what it carries, and, most peculiar of all, why bright green grass appears between the tracks every spring. And then, in January, came the announcement that the Ann Arbor Railroad had been purchased by Watco Railroad Holding Companies of Pittsburg, Kansas. Founded in 1983, Watco already owned twenty-nine “short line” railroads; now it has thirty. The Ann Arbor, its press release declared, was “a true short line success story.”

That raised new questions. What does the sale mean for our little railroad? How did its most recent owners, who bought the line out of bankruptcy twenty-five years ago, manage not only to survive but prosper? Might the buyers be more receptive to the dream of a northbound commuter train, or a hoped-for “greenway” along its downtown tracks?

Don Maddock, who edits AART&HA’s magazine, The Double A, crisply explained the change of fortunes. “The issue with the company’s viability during the middle of the 20th century was the conundrum posed by its geography,” he emailed. “To support the railroad’s northern 120+ miles through sparsely populated country with insignificant local business, it needed through, line-haul traffic. To have such, the lake connection to Wisconsin was pivotal, and the ferries, with their inherent high operating costs and low efficiencies, could never be profitable.”

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.

The announcement of new management quickly revived talk of the Great Lakes Central’s hope to develop passenger service from Howell–a project stymied, among other things, by the AAAC’s lack of interest. But McKechnie provided little encouragement–he doubted Watco would want its tracks used for passenger service, even if “someone else provides it. But I’ll listen to what people have to say.”

Supporters of an Allen Creek Greenway have also eyed the railroad right-of-way as a potential pedestrian and bike path through town. McKechnie said flatly, “People and trains don’t mix. Safety is my primary concern.” But, again, he said he’d listen to proposals.

This “little railroad that could” has survived bankruptcy, derailments, and many changes of ownership. Big Jim Ashley, a man who loved recognition, would be gratified to know that after 135 years his railroad still contributes to the economy of Southeast Michigan and Ohio. By the way, if you’d like to meet him, he’s portrayed by actor David Costabile in the movie Lincoln as the congressman who introduces the Thirteenth Amendment for its suspenseful vote before the House

FAQs about the Annie:

Why does grass grow between the tracks every spring? Grain leaked from freight cars sprouts when it rains.

Why are the logos of different railroads on the freight cars of the train? Railroad companies rent cars to each other.

Why do the Annie’s trains travel at night? Rail companies rent freight cars by the day. Picking up a load at midnight allows time to deliver within twenty-four hours.

What do they carry? Major loads are coal, auto parts, grain, and plastics.

Where does it go? Only fifty miles, from Toledo to a siding just north of Ann Arbor, where it transfers cars to the Great Lakes Central and picks up southbound freight from them.

Any malfunctions? Rarely. Last year an embankment washout closed Plymouth Road; a derailment in 1972 at Liberty strewed coal from twenty-five cars onto the street; and in 1904 two spans of the Huron railroad bridge gave way and dumped thirteen freight cars into the river. Parts of them are still there.