Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 October, 2006

Madrail Part 4 - Passenger Rail to Return?

(To Part 1.)

Passenger rail in general declined after World War II due to many factors including the rise of commercial aviation and the car along with the new interstate highways. In 1970, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation with the Rail Passenger Service Act. Amtrak started services on 1 May 1971. It's Empire Builder was chosen to serve Wisconsin. The original Empire Builder was run by the Great Northern railroad company starting in 1929. Amtrak modified the route so that it passed through Milwaukee. Unfortunately, Madison is not served by the Empire Builder. I presume that Amtrak wasn't able to get right of way on the tracks into Madison and was able to get them for the route is currently has. This makes Columbus, about 28 miles northwest of Madison, our nearest stop.

In 1996, the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative was born. The idea is to establish a high-speed rail network connecting the states of the Midwest with its hub in Chicago. Travel times between destinations would be reduced, cars would be taken off the roads, and Amtrak subsidies would be reduced. Unlike the current state of affairs, Madison would be included as a passenger rail destination. From Madison, the route goes east to Milwaukee and northwest to La Crosse. In addition there is the Transport 2020 plan which is a look ahead to Madison/Dane County's transportation issues. It too favors intercity passenger rail for Madison.

In 2001, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation, Amtrak, and the Federal Railroad Administration consulted with the Canadian Pacific Railway and Wisconsin & Southern Railroad and formulated a proposal for the return of passenger rail to Madison. From the plan's Executive Summary:

The provision of passenger rail service has been recommended in planning studies conducted by regional, state, and local groups and agencies. Madison's numerous government, business, and university destinations make it one of the most rapidly growing cities in the state, and a logical rail destination in the region.

Take a look at the route.

It would originate at the Amtrak station in downtown Milwaukee and stop at Brookfield, Oconomowoc, & Watertown before arriving in Madison. The route would use existing track used mostly by freight trains with the stretch between Milwaukee and Watertown being owned by Canadian Pacific and the rest by Wisconsin & Southern. The historic train stations in Brookfield and Oconomowoc would return to their original use while Watertown and Madison would need stations built. Three sites for a passenger depot have been proposed for Madison:

1) Dane County Airport
2) Pennsylvania Avenue near the current Wisconsin & Southern rail yards.
3) One West Wilson Street Office Building next to Monona Terrace. (My former place of employment and home to the state's Department of Health and Family Services.)

Were the plan to go forward, a lot of work would need to be done. New locomotives and passenger cars would be purchased; the tracks would need upgrading; areas near the tracks need landscaping (e.g. - diverting gulches); pedestrian crossing or two would be built above the tracks; and so on. The study estimated the cost of the project at $316 million and of course the cost has gone up in the past 5 years.

At the time the study was drafted, total annual ridership was forecasted to be 872,000 riders in 2010. This included everyone riding a train between Milwaukee and Madison, including those taking a train between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago. It was also estimated that 67% of the total ridership would be diverted from automobiles. There would be six daily round-trips to start which would become ten when the line would be connected to St. Paul. A trip would probably take a little more than an hour with speeds ranging from 20-110 mph.

So where are we? As this article in The Business Journal of Milwaukee states, we are back to 1850 – no cash.

A bill pending in the U.S. Senate would provide up to 80 percent of the cost of establishing high-speed rail. Under an ideal timeline, the bill would pass in late 2006 and work on the corridor would begin in 2007 and finish in 2012.

Throughout the Midwest, the federal government is pointing to states to pay for the cost of rail service, while the states are pointing to the federal government for help.

I've hitherto been unable to find information on just who exactly would be riding between Madison and Milwaukee. Milwaukee is certainly a regional attraction with its ethnic & music festivals, museums, and professional sports teams. Would folks in Milwaukee take the train to take in a Badger game in Madison? Certainly the idea of living in Milwaukee or its burbs and working in Madison or vice versa is given a boost by this plan. Taking the train to Summerfest instead of driving is certainly a tantalizing proposition.

A problem I run into prognosticating is that I can see the situation as it stands now but am unable to say what changes would be wrought if Madison got passenger rail service. People against the idea now might warm up to it once the service is running. Some folks might be more inclined to travel to either city if they didn't have to deal with parking and navigating unfamiliar streets in a car. Another element that I haven't been able to find information about is the economic impact. How would businesses benefit? Would there be savings on maintaining I94 between Madison and Milwaukee?

Even if the money was handed down from the Federal government, rail service would still be 5+ years off as preparing the rails, building or renovating stations, etc. would take time. With a war on, such a large expenditure seems highly unlikely in these times. We here in Madison are a decade or more out from passenger rail service, in my opinion. But I think my fellow Madisonians ought to consider passenger rail as we contemplate light and/or commuter rail for our community. This is because there is now an effort to strengthen ties between Madison and Milwaukee. Here are links to a trio of articles which can give you an idea of what our political and business leaders are looking to do:

" A (modern) Tale of Two Cities: Milwaukee and Madison inch together" – Wisconsin Technology Network
"Madison and Milwaukee: So close, yet so far" - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Extending a hand" - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

They are looking to make southern Wisconsin a regional economic unit and that's going to affect everyone.

Railroads of Southern & Southwestern Wisconsin: Development to Decline by Daniel J. Lanz
The Milwaukee Railroader (Second Quarter 1996)
Wisconsin Department of Transportation: Milwaukee to Madison High Speed Rail
|| Palmer, 5:21 PM


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