Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

09 October, 2014

Passenger Rail Returns to Madison (Temporarily)

Prior to a few days ago, the last time Madison had passenger rail service was back in 1976 when trains ran between Madison and Milwaukee for Badger football games. The last time Madison enjoyed regular passenger rail service was on 30 April 1971 when the Sioux and Varsity lines ran their last trips before Amtrak took over and abandoned Madison completely.

Last month Pullman Rail Journeys announced passenger rail service between Madison and Chicago on a couple weekends in October that would coincide with Badger football games against Northwestern and Illinois. The trips would be in old cars that had been refurbished with $99 buying you a Standard Class seat and for $100 more you could go Diamond Class which got you a seat in a domed car and a meal. The newly revitalized Varsity made its first trip last Saturday bringing people to Madison from Chicago and the Wisconsin State Journal was aboard.

(Photo by Brian Allen.)

The article interviews various passengers. An 82-year old gentleman seems to have taken advantage of the opportunity to revel in nostalgia while younger people enjoyed not being behind the wheel and the space and comfort that trains provide. Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific, Pullman's parent company, is quoted as saying, "Being able to get on the train in Madison and just not worry about (traffic) and have something to eat and drink and look out the window is a pretty pleasant alternative. People obviously picked up on that because we sold more tickets than we thought we were going to."

I have to wonder if these weekend rail excursions came about because of talks at the meeting which may not have been a meeting back on 21 June. Recall that All Aboard Wisconsin, a rail advocacy group, was trying to get stakeholders aboard a Pullman train headed from Chicago to Prairie du Chien to discuss rail service between Madison and Chicago. When word of this meeting got out, it turned out that this was apparently more of an attempt at a very informal get-together. Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, which owns track between Madison and Chicago, had "no immediate interest" in letting anyone use its track for passenger service. Indeed, they were unaware of any such meeting. Similarly, Ed Ellis of Iowa Pacific was surprised to hear of anything akin to a formal meeting.

The message suggested representatives from a number of rail companies, including Metra, Iowa Pacific and Wisconsin & Southern would be participating, but the president of Iowa Pacific, Ed Ellis, claimed that wasn't true.

Iowa Pacific, he said, is doing little more than providing the passenger cars that High Iron Travel will be using to transport passengers on a $2800-per-person weekend trip from Chicago to Prairie du Chien.

"My understanding is that they wanted to put some people on in Madison who are interested in passenger train," he said.

The companies, however, are not participating in any type of talks about future rail service, he insisted.

Perhaps Pullman had been planning these Madison trips for months prior to the June soiree but nothing seems to have been mentioned about them until last month. And so it seems a bit more than coincidental that three months after an effort to get stakeholders together to talk about Madison-Chicago rail service, we get a couple weekends of passenger trains running between the two cities. I don't mean to imply that these are test runs and that any formal plans emerged from the June "meeting" - heck, Ellis may just be following through on promises he made after a few cocktails. But that the runs did better business than expected can only help those looking to establish passenger rail service here in Madison.

For a bit on the history of passenger rail in Madison, see my Madrail posts.

Tangentially, 10 miles of disused track between Fitchburg and Oregon recently returned to service. Trains will be hauling what I presume is rock from McCoy Road to the Lycon concrete factory in Oregon.

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|| Palmer, 1:44 PM


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