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Posted on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 12:50 p.m.

Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail: SEMCOG says demonstration trains could start next year

By Ryan J. Stanton

Six newly refurbished, bi-level commuter rail cars made their first test run from Pontiac to Jackson and back Tuesday night, passing through Ann Arbor.

Officials involved in the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail initiative are hoping to hear back sometime next week whether the cars passed the test, which is required to be cleared for service. And if that happens, the public could be invited to ride demonstration trains starting next year.


Steve Sobel of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers captured this shot of the newly refurbished rail cars during this week's testing.

Photo by Steve Sobel

"Things seemed to go well," said Carmine Palombo, director of transportation programs for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

Tuesday's train, led by an Amtrak locomotive, made stops in Birmingham, Royal Oak, Detroit's New Center, Dearborn, the sites of planned commuter rail stations at Henry Ruff and Michigan Avenue near Detroit Metro Airpot and at Depot Town in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Dexter and Chelsea before arriving in Jackson. The cars were tested at normal operating speeds of up to 79 mph.

The Michigan Department of Transportation and SEMCOG were testing the cars in anticipation of using them for two future commuter rail service programs. That includes the east-west Ann Arbor-to-Detroit line and the north-south WALLY line linking Ann Arbor and Howell.

Local officials and many residents in Southeast Michigan have been waiting for years for commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Palombo said the service won't begin anytime soon, but he's hopeful demonstration trains could run during special events next year — not this year as previously hoped.

"We don't have dedicated funding for the project yet, but this testing is the next step in the process," he said. "When the testing is completed, and hopefully we pass, the next step is to hold these event trains sometime next year, hopefully several of them."

Palombo said the idea is the event trains will provide the public with an opportunity to ride the trains and generate some excitement, hopefully leading to long-term funding to institute daily service.

He said he's hoping Congress or the Michigan Legislature will step up to the plate and see Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail as a pilot project worth funding.

MDOT officials directed questions about funding to SEMCOG. Palombo said SEMCOG didn't have a good estimate of what it would cost to fund such a service for a full year, as it depends on ridership and the cost of services purchased from Amtrak. But he said he's hoping to learn a lot more about the potential costs from running demonstration trains next year.

The six rail cars, which MDOT owns, were refurbished by the Great Lakes Central Railroad. The train was expected to be transferred back to GLC at Durand on Wednesday.

The cars first arrived in Pontiac on Sunday and underwent static testing by Amtrak and GLC on Monday before making the run to Jackson and back Tuesday night.

Amtrak, GLC, MDOT consultants, and the Federal Railroad Administration conducted the testing, which was coordinated to avoid passenger and freight movements. Because it was strictly a test of the equipment, the public was not invited to board the train at this time.

MDOT said the cost to refurbish each car was about $310,000, with funding provided by state and federal sources.

The rail cars were purchased from the Metra commuter rail system in northeast Illinois before being refurbished. The new seating inside was done by American Seating in Grand Rapids.

The promise of commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, as well as high-speed passenger rail from Detroit to Chicago, are reasons why Ann Arbor officials have been working over the last several years toward the goal of building a new Amtrak station on Fuller Road.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Wed, Jan 2, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

COMMUTER RAIL TRANSPORTATION IS IMPRACTICAL AND FINANCIALLY WASTEFUL Everyone should imagine their own trip from Ann Arbor to Detroit and from Detroit to Ann Arbor. First, how will you get to your closest train station? Will that trip take 20 minutes by itself? How much will daily parking cost at the train station? What time schedules will be used by the commuter trains? Will trains be available for 6 AM departures, 7 AM departures, 8 AM departures, etc.? How many separate trains will be operating? And will the return departure times be convenient for those leaving work at 3 PM, 5 PM, 6 PM and 11 PM? How much time will an actual trip from Detroit to Ann Arbor consume? I count seven intermediary stops between Pontiac and Ann Arbor. Therefore, the commuter train will not average 79 miles per hour during the entire trip. Each train has to slow on approaching a railway station, then stop to pickup and let off passengers before re-accelerating again. The trip most likely will take an hour going each way. Add to that time the minutes needed to travel from home to a train station and then from a train station to your work location. Arel we now talking about an hour-and-twenty minutes to get to and from work when using the commuter train? What amount of cost savings, if there will be any, will be enough to attract riders? And by the way, cities like New York, Chicago and Boston have successful rail commuter transit systems because they move people from one dense area to another. Furthermore, their rail systems have many branches extending into a number of populous areas and are not dependent on a rail system traveling a single route east and west.

Casey P

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 9:27 p.m.

With 3.7 million inhabitants, SE Michigan is one of the only densely populated areas in the US to not have a commuter rail system. Urban regions of comparable size which benefit from commuter rail systems include Boston (MTBA), Connecticut (Shoreline East), and Philadelphia (SEPTA). SE Michigan is only served by Amtrak and Greyhound. While those services are valuable for long distance travellers, they were never intended as commuter systems and do not meet that need. This system could be beneficial to everyone living or working in SE Michigan. It could: -Increase the economies of every city with a stop, through increased exposure -Provide an inexpensive means of local transportation -Provide those who prefer to drive with reduced congestion on heavily travelled freeways -Reduce dependence on foreign oil used to produce gasoline for automobiles The money we spend on gasoline is used to build infrastructure in cities like Dubai, which is home to the world's longest fully automated metro network: Instead of continuing to support the improvement of foreign countries through the purchase of their oil, I would prefer that my money be used to fund such a system where I live instead. Furthermore, a commuter rail system would not detract from the existing auto industry in Michigan. Such systems have not deterred those in other heavily populated regions of the US from purchasing cars. It simply provides another option for local transportation. I drive an American car and will purchase another when the time comes. However, with the price of gasoline I would like to drive less, if more public transportation options were available.

Real Life

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:25 a.m.

I'll sit at the Sidetrack in Ypsi (usually on bike nights) and watch the Amtrak go by. Sometimes I actually see a person on board. I guess there might be a dozen people on the train. If I'm feeling generous, maybe 20. The cars certainly aren't crowded and there aren't that many cars - 2, sometimes 3. So where's the demand coming from for this expense? The service as it exists could go away and never be missed. So how is it that adding more capacity will attract more ridership? Besides, the "Ann Arbor to Detroit" commute is inaccurate. I travel to Dearborn every workday, and it's plain to see on I-94 that 2-3 times as many people are coming into Ann Arbor every rush hour than people heading east.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 7:04 p.m.

Nothing would make me happier than being able to take the train to Detroit on the weekends so I don't have to drive. I already do this once in a while on Amtrak but later trains would be even better.

Real Life

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:35 a.m.

Yes, let's have the whole of our taxation revolve around your schedule. *sigh* These schemes work when there's a high density of supply and demand on both sides of the equation. Not enough supply (people) and demand (employment and events) at both points "A" and "B" mean that it's a waste.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:30 p.m.

If Chrysler opens up new jobs the train is going to be a viable option.

Real Life

Sat, Nov 17, 2012 : 12:32 a.m.

The couple of hundred jobs that Sergio talked about would have little ripple effect this far west. From a practical standpoint, I could drive to the train station and then get off and wait for the train, go to Dearborn and then walk the mile to my job at Ford's PDC. OR I could spend the $3.75 for a gallon of gas and get there in 40 minutes. Unless the train actually goes from high density population centers to high density employment locations, it's a waste of money.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:24 p.m.

What concerns me is Ypsilanti Depot. Where do the passengers wait? That one that use to be used is falling apart and the one who owns it is not doing anything about it. Big concern about a passenger depot next year in Ypsilanti.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 7:03 p.m.

It was my understanding that the Freight House in Ypsilanti could be made available for people to wait. The parking is mostly across the tracks so part of the plan was for a pedestrian crossing with a gate. If this train ever gets up and running, it will be a major positive for the city of Ypsilanti


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

What are the plans for surface transport from the stations to surrounding points? Zipcars? Bike shares? Taxi stands? etc.. Are there any? Also, could you put up a map showing the location of the stations? That would be helpful for people who'd like to make plans to use it when it's up and running.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 1:56 p.m.

Im excited for this! My husband works in Dearborn and will definitely use this. And for the disparaging remarks about Detroit how about great attractions like Comerica Park, Ford Field, the DIA, WSU, Fisher Theatre, Hart Plaza, Slows Barbeque, DuMouchelles. Eastern Market, Greektown, MGM Grand, Hillberry Theatre, Detroit Opera House...not having a long drive to get to these great venues sounds fabulous and I can hardly wait.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:26 p.m.

I have to agree wit this one. There are buses that can take one out to Comerica park or other areas of Detroit. Especially the rail car that gets everyone to Greek Town and beyond. I just wish that a train stopped at Greenfield Village more often. Another great idea.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 1:44 p.m.

Hope they'll have Wi-fi.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.

Another fine example of " hope and change " hope they can dig deeper into your wallet to change something that doesn't need to be....


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 3:47 p.m.

Romney lost...get over it

Larry Krieg

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 12:25 p.m.

I'll pass this little piece of information along from Clark Charnetski, who doesn't stoop to making comments on discussions like this ;-) "The parking structure that the University of Michigan will soon be constructing is above ground with 530 parking spaces. It will cost $34 million, not including the cost of the property. "That is $64,151 per space. "So, the refurbished Metra rail cars cost $310,000 apiece to extensively rebuild with new seats. "That is equal to 5 spaces in the new parking structure. "Keep things in perspective." Thanks for your perspective, Clark!


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 10:24 a.m.

The mechanism ISN'T working too well. Look around. Every new development in the past 50 years (except for the new student storage facilities) around Ann Arbor was built with cars in mind. Both commercial and residential.

Vivienne Armentrout

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 3:58 a.m.

I understand your point on a global basis, but unfortunately that's not the way the mechanism works. I used to be a train commuter and love mass transit, FYI. It's just that the money gets in the way of all these glorious concepts.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:33 p.m.

And I apologize for assigning that point of view on you. But, when you point out this: "In the budgets provided for planning the countywide transit (Washtenaw Ride), the consultants had the following figures: Capital expenditures after 30 years: $99 million. Operating expense in the 30th year: $7.6 million. Apparently it is hoped that somehow money can be found for this. How's that for a perspective?" These figures are dwarfed by the cost of all the people who could be served by public transport spending their money, instead, on cars, trucks, gas, road upkeep, parking structures, air pollution, groundwater contamination, noise, loss of fertile farmland for roads and parking, etc. Nobody has bothered to tally all of that to compare.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:27 p.m.

What I mean by "we" is the same group of people who are now commuting (and literally every other jaunt out of the house that is more than one block) in their cars. Plus the people who have systematically ensconced car-dependence on the rest of us. THAT we. I, for one, would much rather contribute my heard-earned money toward effective public transport than to give it to BP, Exxon, Shell, Halliburton, etc.

Vivienne Armentrout

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 5:20 p.m.

Hey, I'm not advocating for parking structures and I'm actually very concerned about peak oil and world-wide economy issues. But the equivalence that was stated here is making tennis balls-and-oranges comparisons. I notice that when people say "we" should take on expensive new ventures, they actually mean "someone else should pay for this".


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 4:42 p.m.

"That is $64,151 per space." It's a good thing they choose to do that "where necessary" rather than incentivize public transport. At that price, it takes almost 25 years (at $10.00 per space, per workday) to recoup the cost. The coming (soon) end of oil subsidies, and the realization that peak oil already happened means that long before those 25 years are up, most people will have had to abandon car commuting and Ann Arbor will be stuck with another giant, brutalist concrete structure which is utterly non-salvageable. Take a drive to downtown Detroit to see what a parking structure looks like after it has been abandoned for 20 years.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 3:45 p.m.

Vivienne, We will get off the one man-one car mode of transport by choice or by necessity. Better to start laying the foundation for what is surely coming while we can choose it. If we wait until it is necessary, it will be impossible. There isn't going to be any hydrogen economy nor wide-spread implementation of electric (or any other) personal vehicles. Except bicycles. If the government released the actual figures of the wealth that was drained out of our treasury By Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, AIG, etc. in 2008, there would be panic in the streets (see TV news reports from all across Europe). Over $200 trillion in debt obligations were written- backed by, at most, $11 trillion worth of mortgages (And thanks to the end of Glass Steagall- the full faith and credit of the US). Most were good mortgages but that hardly matters. Some banks were leveraged 100:1. European governments realize this (too late) and that's why they continue on with their forced austerity measures in the face of mass public outrage. So lets build the railways while we can. We are already living on borrowed time.

Vivienne Armentrout

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 3:02 p.m.

Larry, we often hear this sort of argument in favor of the rail projects. They ignore several points of reality. (1) The UM CHOOSES to build parking structures where it deems necessary. They do not calculate whether to do that, or invest in a rail system to Detroit that would doubtless serve only a tiny fraction of their employees. (The rail line is best suited for long-distance travel between two points, not for gathering up people over a broad area.) (2) The money for refurbishing the rail cars comes out of our state transportation funds. These are monies that could be used on many other potential transportation needs, including existing rail. They would never, however, be spent on a UM parking structure (3) In all this, there appears to be an expectation that someone (the Feds?) will shower us with the truly large sums that it would take to operate an actual commuter rail service. Operation (which would not be done by Amtrak) would require establishing a new management organization, with many overhead costs and personnel. In the budgets provided for planning the countywide transit (Washtenaw Ride), the consultants had the following figures: Capital expenditures after 30 years: $99 million. Operating expense in the 30th year: $7.6 million. Apparently it is hoped that somehow money can be found for this. How's that for a perspective?

Dog Guy

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 5:13 a.m.

Moving into the 20th Century on the Nostalgia Express!


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 6:27 p.m.

Better then nothing especially if gas keeps going up and up.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 3:03 a.m.

YAY!! Looking forward to this!

rusty shackelford

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 8:20 p.m.

Henry Ruff and Mich is still way too far from the airport to be practical. People would have to transfer to some kind of shuttle bus or something, so the time they'd need to get to the airport would be ridiculous. Cancel that stop and make things easier on everyone.

Casey P

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

At the Michigan Avenue station there would need to be a shuttle bus to DTW, similar to the AirRide between Ann Arbor/DTW. Then travellers from the east could use public transportation to reach the airport, as could those from the west (via AirRide). I fly out of DTW once a month and I would prefer to use public transportation to get there, rather than pay for gasoline and parking fees.


Fri, Nov 16, 2012 : 1:52 p.m.

Agree, look at AirRide now, it would be a better option if the train is not DIRECT to DTW.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 9:50 p.m.

Lots of people live in Canton that could work in Detroit...

Ron Granger

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 8:01 p.m.

Buses are faster, more reliable, cheaper, and can detrour around problems. Buses do not require specialized infrastructure. Additional buses can be deployed wherever demand is greatest. Buses do not enrich the railroad tycoons and barons.

Casey P

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 8:25 p.m.

Buses are great for intracity transportation, however, in response to your four points above: -Buses are not faster, more reliable, cheaper, or able to detour when stuck in a traffic jam. There are no traffic jams on well planned commuter rail lines. -Buses require roads. You don't consider roads specialized infrastructure? Road construction and maintenance is extremely expensive and slow. Have you never watched the progress of a road maintenance project in Michigan? They can take months and leave traffic backed up for miles. -Additional passenger cars can be added to commuter trains once ridership is known. -There are no railroad barons. That was during the Gilded Age. Now there are oil barons, and they use our money to build commuter rail systems in cities like Dubai, which is home to world's longest fully automated metro network: I would prefer to fund such a system where we live instead.

Phillip Farber

Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 11:14 p.m.

However, buses are subject to traffic backups due to accidents (daily), bad winter weather and annual construction.

Ron Granger

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 10:55 p.m.

@hockeymom: apparently you've never been on an electric or hybrid bus. They work great.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 9:26 p.m.

No they don't, just the oil tycoons.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:04 p.m.

Wooo hoo...more detroiters in ann arbor....JUST what this city needs.....


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 2 p.m.

Why would Detroiters want to come here anyway? Do you think AA hold exclusive rights to any place worth going to?


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 9:59 p.m.

Now Billy why wouldn't to connect the only semi-decent city in SE MI with the nations murder capitol?


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:59 p.m.

I remain living in Ann Arbor while working at a good job in downtown Detroit, I would absolutely use the rail service. And vice versa for people on that side of town. This is long overdue!

rusty shackelford

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 8:21 p.m.

I also know several people (homeowners) who live in D and work here. If Tom Whitaker wants to buy their house (since it's that easy, apparently), I'm sure they might consider trading with him.

Tom Whitaker

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

Whoops, I meant simone66 should trade with one of Fordie's Detroit friends...

Tom Whitaker

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:51 p.m.

Fordie: Maybe you should trade apartments with one of your five Detroit friends and eliminate two commutes--train, car or otherwise. Isn't that the greenest option?


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:46 p.m.

I can think of five off the top of my head, which is more than any other community 40 miles away.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:43 p.m.

yeah...just gonna call BS on you knowing a lot of people who live in detroit and work in A2....pure BS...


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:26 p.m.

Billy, I would live in a bigger city in a heartbeat if I didn't have to drive to AA everyday. And I know many people that do actually live in Detroit and drive here. Don't "lol" at the vice versa. You're wrong.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:06 p.m.

lol @ "vice versa" Lots of people who live in downtown detroit who work in A2....right?

Robert Minger

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:56 p.m.

Lets go to the Airpot!

Steve McKeen

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:32 p.m.

I don't know what the big deal is. This has taken so long to become a reality, I figure by the time the train *really* does stop, I'll have a flying car.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:30 p.m.

I could see A2 and GR/Chicago, but not A2 and Detroit. There is nothing to be gained by linking a prosperous city to a ghetto. Detroit is dead and the minuscule number of people who would ride this route is not enough for dedicated service.


Tue, Nov 20, 2012 : 10:18 a.m.

Westfringe, I've been working in Detroit for over 10 years myself and although there are parts of it that are unattractive, there is much it still has to offer. I like to attend the Fox Theater once in awhile for some outstanding performances of broadway shows and concerts. Detroit would be a much more vital city if there were a reliable rail services. Detroit is the ONLY large metropolitan area in the nation without such a service. So, don't even try to assume that you know better than anyone else and smugly talk about Ann Arborites in conjunction with 'rose colored glasses'. How much more arrogant can you get?


Tue, Nov 20, 2012 : 10:13 a.m.

Detroit isn't dead. One of the reason why it's in the predicament it IS in, is because of the lack of regular, reliable mass transit by rail. So your argument is circular and invalid. No rail to detroit, it's dead... the reason it's in trouble is no rail.... (shakes head)


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

To call Detroit a crime ridden ghetto is really cynical. Detroit has many fine cultural venues and some great restaurants and lots of fun things to do. Like any big city you have to know where you're going but we frequently go to Detroit when we're bored with Ann arbor and will definitely use this service.


Thu, Nov 15, 2012 : 9:02 a.m.

>> Detroit is a crime ridden failure. Yes it is, but many still have to go there. At least for now.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 9:54 p.m.

I spent 12 years in Detroit (recently) working and going to school. I think I have a better grasp on it than most from A2. Wake up and take off the rose colored glasses, Detroit is a crime ridden failure.

rusty shackelford

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 8:24 p.m.

Uh..both those routes already exist on Amtrak. Technically you can ride D to A2 on amtrak but it's pretty inconveniently timed.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 8:17 p.m.

If the timing of these trains ever corresponds with normal daily business hours and is somewhat economical, I'm all over this. Driving back and forth to Detroit every day is a pain. Curious to see what options there are from Detroit's New Center area to other downtown business districts. Extension of the People Mover would be ideal, but I don't see that happening.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:25 p.m.

So you think more people commute to Grand Rapids and Chicago than a major city of 750,000 that's only 40 miles away? Your comment borders on delusional.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7 p.m.

You obviously haven't been to Detroit recently, or downtown. It's unfortunate you think the way you do.

Top Cat

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:24 p.m.

The word hoping/hopeful/hopefully appears 7 times in this article. That tells us that these people have neither a plan nor a clue. Hope is not a strategy. Leave the trains for running around the Christmas tree rather than another taxpayer funded fiasco.


Tue, Nov 20, 2012 : 10:10 a.m.

No, it means that they have to get it through a bull-headed, regressive vocal group of citizens who stand ready to complain about any type of progress that could benefit this city, county and state. SE Michigan is the only area of it's type that doesn't have a reliable mass transit system. It's a shame!


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 9:23 p.m.

Much as I'd like to see rail come back, I'm afraid you're right, TC. "If you build it, they will come" seems to be a big part of the hoping strategy. I don't see any numbers that would justify this "plan", nobody seems to be able to tell how many commuters would actually use this service to get into Detroit. And three stops (Dearborn, New Center and Royal Oak) within the metro area wouldn't seem to support a large-scale conversion to commuter culture. Cities that do have large rail-commuter usage also have much better-developed mass transit to move commuters from train stations to destinations within the city. DOT and SEMTA buses wouldn't really support that kind of movement. Trains alone are not a solution; I don't believe there's anybody out there willing to invest sufficient public and/or private funds to develop a workable, comprehensive transit solution for Southeast Michigan.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:11 p.m.

Great to hear and see, notwithstanding all the naysayers. We need to lay more tracks, have double double decker cars and connect a speed train to Grand Rapids and up north. Expand the existing station and keep it where it is. Don't kowtow to U of M and their self interest. Fuller road idea was absurd and I am glad it is off the radar.

Ron Granger

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:56 p.m.

How much in additional taxes are you willing to pay for that?

Tom Whitaker

Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 7:48 p.m.

@Townspeak: The Fuller Park site is not off the radar at all. City Council just allocated hundreds of thousands of general fund reserves to be spent on it. And this time, they can't claim that this money could have gone toward police or fire protection. It is the same fund.


Wed, Nov 14, 2012 : 6:50 p.m.

I'd rather invest in the idea from the guy in Whitmore Lake - - Interstate Traveler. Leverage the existing RoW from MDOT and the freeway system, and use merge cars as exists. Costly, but it supports the hub spoke model that the freeways system did - but has less risk of sprawl and unattainability. travel from AA to GR or KZoo is great, but unless you can get people out from the stations - it will have a glass ceiling of success.