Rail boosters Talk Up Need for Passenger Service

From Mass Transit Magazine
Eric Lindquist
Source: The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
Created: October 24, 2012

Representatives of All Aboard Wisconsin painted a picture of a future combining the expansive rail network of the past with gleaming new high-speed trains that efficiently zip passengers from place to place as they access the Internet on their wireless…

Oct. 24 — The vision a newly formed passenger rail advocacy group shared Tuesday in Eau Claire could be summed up in four words: Back to the future.

Representatives of All Aboard Wisconsin painted a picture of a future combining the expansive rail network of the past with gleaming new high-speed trains that efficiently zip passengers from place to place as they access the Internet on their wireless devices.

“I think it’s going to have to happen,” said Mike McCoy, president of All Aboard Wisconsin, an alliance of state rail advocacy groups that launched early this year. “The need’s been there for a long time. It’s only grown greater and greater.”

McCoy was one of several people who spoke passionately about the need for more passenger rail service in Wisconsin at a forum attended by about 30 people Tuesday night at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

Scott Rogers of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, said his organization believes demographic, economic, environmental and safety issues eventually will force the return of passenger rail service to Eau Claire, where the last passenger trains stopped running in 1963.

“It’s not just a bunch of rail buffs wishing for the steam engine to return,” said Rogers, whose goal is to be ready “when Wisconsin wises up” and resumes investing in passenger rail.
Service Touted

While McCoy, who has been promoting passenger rail for 25 years, acknowledged being frustrated at the slow pace of progress for the movement, he insisted he hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for the cause.

“We have better service today than we ever have, although it’s not nearly as good as we ought to have,” McCoy said, noting that Amtrak’s Empire Builder route from Chicago to Seattle has nearly a million passenger boardings a year at just its top five Wisconsin stations.

Demand would rise exponentially, he insisted, if the number of trains rose because more people would begin to think of rail as a viable form of transportation.

The Way to Travel

McCoy remains confident his vision of a vast and popular network of passenger trains will become a reality, in part because of all the problems associated with air, car and bus travel.

McCoy contrasted the rising cost and discomfort of air travel with the comfort and convenience of traveling by train, which offers the ability for passengers to get up and walk around and the opportunity to view the landscape, access wireless networks, partake in meal service and even get a bed on a long-distance trip. And after logging about 200,000 miles on Amtrak, McCoy knows something about hitting the rails.

Rail advocates hope last week’s 111 mph test run of a train on part of the route between Chicago and St. Louis, by providing a preview of the travel-time reductions that potentially ride along with high-speed rail, could help people get over the psychological hurdle of thinking of trains as key component of future transportation.

CVTC student Sara Chase of Eau Claire offered a personal illustration of how passenger rail could affect the economy and the next generation.

After graduation, the marketing management student would like to stay in Eau Claire where her family lives but expects to have to move to find the kind of job opportunities she is seeking.

“I would commute to the Twin Cities by train if I could, but since that’s not possible I’ll probably have to move,” Chase said, noting that she could be productive while riding a train versus “wasting” 90 minutes twice a day if she had to drive.

Painful Past

Though rail advocates were crushed two years ago when Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in stimulus money the federal government had pledged to build a Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line intended to be the first leg of a high-speed route from Milwaukee to the Twin Cities, they’re intent on steering the train away from a political controversy.

“We’re talking fundamentally about the freedom to have travel options,” McCoy said, “and that’s not a partisan issue.”

Eric Lindquist · 715-833-9209 · 800-236-7077 · eric.lindquist@ecpc.com

Copyright 2012 · The Leader-Telegram · Eau Claire, Wis.

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