Leatz your ‘host’ at Dowagiac depotPublished 7:17pm Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Ron Leatz has been the red-vested Dowagiac depot host for the past four years, since 2009. The city owns the station where Amtrak trains stop. The spring issue of The Michigan Passenger pictures Ron and Rosemary Horvath, east/central region chair and former editor of the Cassopolis Vigilant, staffing a MARP table at a February train show in Middlebury, Ind. Ron, a St. Joseph native formerly of California, has lived in Dowagiac, his wife Ann’s hometown, for eight years. A retired fire chief, he spent 27 years battling blazes. Ron, who owns a Checker cab, raised $8,000 to light the depot during the holidays.
Q. Your background is in fire service. How did you end up with trains?
Ron belongs to the Michigan Association of Rail Passengers Inc. (MARP), a consumer advocacy group established in 1973 to improve intercity rail and bus service, improve local transit and encourage preservation of historic railroad stations. MARP is a non-profit organization not affiliated with Amtrak, the railroads, governments or any political party.
“I like trains,” Ron said. “I’ve been to the West Coast nine times. My wife and I a year ago February took the train to New Orleans to go on a cruise for our 50th anniversary, then took the train back. My daughter, out of South Bend, has gone to Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., on the train. In St. Joseph, I liked watching the trains from the bluff down by Silver Beach. I had an uncle in Toledo who was an engineer.”
Q. What are your duties? Who decides what you do?
“I kind of decide what I do with guidance from (at-large executive) John Langdon in Holland. I order everything we receive. The old telephone booth is my little area.”
He shares the depot with the Greater Dowagiac Area Chamber of Commerce and Dial-A-Ride dispatch. MARP “wants hosts to write a report every Friday, which I did for about a year. I have keys, so I check the station. I open up the station because in December it’s kind of cold. In June, hot. We have air-conditioning and restrooms (which his daughter from Kalamazoo painted). Niles, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson and Ann Arbor have fulltime employees. Our problem is our traffic count is way down. Who we compete with, whether we know it or not, is Bangor, which is going to beat us the next three months because everybody’s going to the beach in South Haven. A railroad buff owns the café inside the train station.”
As a rail travel advocate, Ron periodically pesters City Council about using the train station or losing it. “I was in Toledo, where my Amtrak boss is, and he said they’re looking at it again because we only get about 3,800 people on and off the train in a 12-month period. I’ve probably gone to Southwestern Michigan College six to eight times. Foreign students fly to O’Hare, take the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) to Union Station, get on the train to Dowagiac” and arrive at times Dial-A-Ride buses are idle.
Q. What motivates you to do this?
“What I’ve tried to do for four years is to get people in Dowagiac to know trains stop four times a day. Four don’t stop, but four do — two Blue Waters and two Wolverines. The Blue Water goes to Lansing, then on over to Flint and Port Huron. In the winter, a lot of college kids ride to Western, Eastern, U of M and Michigan State.”
June 10 he apprised City Council that Michigan Department of Transportation, Norfolk and Southern and Amtrak purchased the line from Kalamazoo to Dearborn. “June 1 Amtrak started replacing the rails with the goal of having them all replaced to Battle Creek by the end of the year, which will allow the Blue Water to drop down from Lansing to Battle Creek, then be high-speed rail all the way to Porter, Ind. Friday night I met the train and 15 people got off, all from Illinois, to go to Eagle Lake in Paw Paw, Diamond Lake in Cassopolis, Sister Lakes and Indian Lake.”