Milwaukee-Chicago rail line set a record for ridership in 2010
By Larry Sandler of the Journal Sentinel Jan. 15, 2011
The train to Madison may be dead, but the train to Chicago is as alive as ever.
Ridership on Amtrak’s Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line has doubled in the past eight years, hitting a record 792,848 in 2010. And a new study rates the Hiawatha route as one of the nation’s most promising prospects for an upgrade to high-speed rail.
Gov. Scott Walker has said little about his plans for the Hiawatha. But the Milwaukee-area business community strongly supports the route. Just days before the federal government yanked nearly all of the $810 million allocated for a Milwaukee-to-Madison line, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce offered Walker a plan to shift most of the cash to the Hiawatha and other existing rail service.
MMAC President Tim Sheehy believes his group’s plan could lay the foundation for the future of high-speed rail in Wisconsin. He hopes the state will use the MMAC outline in another bid for federal high-speed rail money.
Walker campaigned on killing the train to Madison, which would have been a 110-mph extension of the 79-mph Hiawatha. Even if federal stimulus money would have covered all construction costs, Walker said he didn’t want state taxpayers to pick up some $7.5 million in annual operating costs, after fare revenue. Revised ridership estimates could have cut $2.8 million off the state share, and the state could have used existing federal aid to cover up to 90% of its costs.
Although Walker didn’t want the train, he argued for keeping the $810 million for highways, which would have required an act of Congress. But in a Nov. 14 television interview, Walker said he and his staff also had “looked at options relative to rail,” including upgrades to the Hiawatha and the long-distance Empire Builder.
Since then, Walker’s staff has not specifically answered repeated Journal Sentinel questions about what options they were exploring. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie has indicated, however, that the subject was still under discussion with federal officials after Dec. 9, when they canceled all but $2 million of the stimulus grant and redistributed the money to other states.
Sheehy and MMAC Vice President Pete Beitzel say their group gave Walker’s staff an outline of how to use $450 million to $500 million of the stimulus money for rail upgrades without adding Milwaukee-to-Madison service. Sheehy said Walker seemed interested in the ideas.
Part of the MMAC plan focused on Hiawatha improvements, including renovating the train shed at the downtown Milwaukee Amtrak-Greyhound station, a $19.4 million project that would have been funded by the stimulus grant; and buying three new locomotives and a new set of passenger cars to supplement the two train sets already ordered from Talgo Inc., Beitzel said.
More frequent trips
A separate $12 million federal grant, unaffected by the Milwaukee-to-Madison controversy, is already paying for upgrades to the platform at the Mitchell International Airport station and to the Hiawatha tracks, and the state can use the remaining $2 million from the larger grant for Hiawatha upgrades.
With a third train, the Hiawatha could add an eighth, and perhaps even a ninth, daily round trip, Beitzel said. Hiawatha ridership has grown more than 99% since Amtrak and the state added a seventh round trip in late 2002.
Jay Sorensen, a Shorewood-based transportation consultant, said the Hiawatha attracts an even higher proportion of affluent business riders than his former employer, Midwest Airlines. He says authorities could double the Hiawatha’s frequency “and demand would rise to meet that. . . . They could make it so blindingly convenient, by having trains every half-hour, that people say, ‘Why am I driving?’ ”
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, a nine-state plan for fast, frequent trains, envisioned 17 daily round trips between Chicago and Milwaukee, with different trains continuing to Madison, the Twin Cities and Green Bay. That plan also projected increasing the top speed on the Milwaukee-to-Chicago leg to 110 mph, cutting the current 89-minute trip to 65 minutes.
With that increase, the Hiawatha’s average speed would rise from 58 mph to 79 mph, and riders would reach downtown Chicago some 40 minutes faster than if they were driving cars or riding Greyhound buses. By contrast, express trains to Madison would have averaged 78 mph, reaching downtown Madison 19 minutes faster than cars but 51 minutes faster than Badger Bus coaches.
Coalition sees potential
America 2050, a national coalition of urban planners, says a Milwaukee-to-Chicago high-speed rail line would be a good investment. In a study released last week, the group said that route has the greatest ridership potential in the Midwest, ranking in the top 1% of 7,870 possible routes nationwide, based on population, employment and connections to urban rail transit.
But to increase both the speed and frequency of Milwaukee-to-Chicago trains, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative’s planners found new tracks would be needed for freight traffic, reserving the existing line for Amtrak and Chicago’s Metra commuter trains. They decided to push first for extending service to Madison, which they expected would be a quicker and less expensive effort.
The MMAC plan also called for upgrading the Canadian Pacific freight rail tracks from Milwaukee to Watertown, which are used by the Empire Builder on its daily round trip linking Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities to the Pacific Northwest.
Those tracks remain under consideration for high-speed rail. The Empire Builder’s route, with some variations, is still part of a study of high-speed rail from Milwaukee to Minneapolis-St. Paul, even after ruling out options leading through Madison, said Dan Krom, Minnesota passenger rail director.
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