Future of Travel

How Ford brought historic train station back to life with focus on mobility tech

“I wanted the future of transportation to be created right here in Detroit, where it was invented in the first place,” Ford’s executive chair said.
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Jason Keen/Michigan Central

5 min read

Joy was palpable in the 20,000-person crowd that turned out on a spring night to celebrate what for many years seemed impossible: the reopening of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a former train depot whose 111-year history is intertwined with the city’s.

Speaking from a stage that would later host some of Detroit’s most famous musicians—including Diana Ross, Jack White, and Eminem—William Clay Ford Jr., Ford’s executive chair and great-grandson of the company’s founder, reminisced on the long road to this moment, starting with Ford’s purchase of the property in 2018.

“Six years ago we gathered here and we dreamt of what was possible,” he said. “We dared to dream that this station, which had become a symbol of a broken city, could once again shine as the symbol of the Motor City.”

A historic "before" photo of Michigan Central Station's Grand Hall in the foreground of a view of the hall after restoration.

Jordyn Grzelewski

Mobility is the foundation underpinning Ford’s nearly $1 billion effort to restore the station and create a 30-acre tech campus. Michigan Central eventually will have space for up to 2,500 Ford employees. Thousands more workers from other companies are slated to join them—and hundreds are already working on everything from aerial mobility to supply-chain innovations to electrification solutions.

“I wanted to make Michigan Central a place where the best and the brightest could come together to solve our biggest challenges,” Ford added. “I wanted the future of transportation to be created right here in Detroit, where it was invented in the first place.”

Detroit’s Ellis Island

Michigan Central Station—a Beaux Arts-style building designed by the architects behind New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, featuring a three-story depot and 18-story office tower—first opened in 1913.

For the next 75 years, it served as a transportation hub, ushering in famous visitors like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, welcoming participants in the Great Migration as they arrived seeking opportunities in the automotive industry, and serving as a symbol of Detroit’s fortunes.

“This building was built to show the ambitions of the city on the rise,” Dan Austin, a Michigan Central spokesperson, told Tech Brew during a tour.

At its peak, the depot served roughly 4,000 passengers a day. But service declined as car and plane travel replaced trains as Americans’ dominant transportation modes, and in 1988, a Chicago-bound train became the last to depart Michigan Central.

For the next 30 years, the building sat vacant, its state of disrepair growing alongside the city’s decline.

More than 3,100 workers labored for a collective 1.7 million hours to transform the building over the last six years, and Ford put out a call to the public to return original elements of the building that had disappeared over the years, no questions asked. Anonymous respondents returned a missing, 750-pound carriage house clock, wrapped in a tarp and bubble wrap.

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And the restoration crew documented and preserved some graffiti in the building, a nod to the station’s 30 years as a site of street art, paintball games, urban exploration, and raves.

Graffiti inside of Michigan Central Station

Jordyn Grzelewski

“Everything Ford could save, we did, and other elements were recreated through technology and tenacity,” Melissa Dittmer, head of place at Michigan Central, said in a press release.

Looking to the future

The vision for the station is still taking shape, but one potential use is for startups to move in as they outgrow their space at NewLab at Michigan Central, an adjacent building that’s home to 102 startups that collectively employ about 650 people.

“You need all of those stakeholders to create a thriving ecosystem,” Carolina Pluszczynski, Michigan Central’s COO, told us. “You keep a little bit of arm’s length between the startups and the industry partners, but you find ways for them to work together. So I see our industry partners collaborating and convening at the station.”

Israeli startup Electreon has been using the campus as a testing site for wireless EV charging tech. And Michigan Central offers a workforce training program to help prepare Detroiters to work in the EV charging sector.

The work will go beyond traditional mobility; Pluszczynski noted, for example, a partnership with a Michigan port focused on autonomous shipping tech.

Michigan Central also is a talent retention and attraction play. Leaders hope the stunning setting, paired with opportunities to work on innovative projects, will entice employees away from tech hubs like Silicon Valley—or at the very least, convince local talent not to leave.

To that end, the State of Michigan is sponsoring an internship program where it pays startups to hire students. One of the major initiatives already underway is Google’s Code Next Detroit, a program that teaches kids how to code. Another helps high school students learn how to fly drones.

“We cannot cede the role that the city of Detroit and the role that the automotive companies have had in mobility to anybody else,” Pluszczynski said. “This is the anchor that helps us start looking at the future of the city of Detroit.”

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.