Amtrak service could be expanded in Wisconsin

In the end, Wisconsin may get higher-speed passenger rail after all.

Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail service between Milwaukee and Madison in 2010.
However, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is involved in a pair of studies examining the feasibility of expanding existing Amtrak service in the state. The plans are in response to record Amtrak ridership in the state.

One study being done by the Wisconsin DOT, Illinois DOT, the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak is examining plans to increase service on the Amtrak Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago from seven daily round trips (Monday through Saturday) to 10 daily roundtrips.

Annual ridership on the Hiawatha route has grown from 397,500 in 2002 to 832,500 in 2012 (a 109-percent increase), according to WisDOT spokesman Brock Bergey. The Hiawatha line is Amtrak’s busiest Midwest line, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari

“Anyone who has had to drive I-94 between Chicago and Milwaukee knows that between congestion and construction, there’s a better way to go,” Magliari said. “(The Amtrak train) is more reliable, more convenient, more comfortable and it can be less expensive when you consider the true cost of driving that includes gas, parking and tolls.”

The study also will examine if the speed of the service between Milwaukee and Chicago can be increased from the current top speed of 79 mph to 90 mph.

The study will determine the costs to expand the Hiawatha service. The operational costs of the line are shared by Wisconsin, which pays for 75 percent ($5.37 million in 2013), and Illinois, which pays for 25 percent ($1.79 million in 2013).

In addition, Amtrak is conducting a study for the Minnesota and Wisconsin DOTs to determine the feasibility of adding an additional route on the Empire Builder line from Chicago to the Twin Cities. The Empire Builder is funded by Amtrak, not the states.

One additional train set would be needed to add three daily routes to the Hiawatha line, Bergey said. The addition of another route on the Empire Builder “might” require an additional train set, said MinnDOT spokeswoman Praveena Pidaparthi.

Two new train sets were built for the state of Wisconsin by Talgo Inc. in a deal cut by former Gov. Jim Doyle. The trains were built in Milwaukee but remain in storage as Talgo after the state reneged on the deal, which remains the focus of a lawsuit. Talgo spokeswoman Nora Friend said the state only paid about $37 million of the $47.5 million purchase agreement for the trains and has refused to pay for a 20-year maintenance agreement, costing about $4 million a year, and costs for a maintenance facility and equipment.

“They stopped paying for everything,” she said. “They don’t want the train sets.”

However, if the state could settle its dispute with Talgo, those trains could be used for the expansion of service on the Hiawatha and Empire Builder lines.

“It would seem like that would be a reasonable plan that somebody might hammer an agreement out of,” said state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), a member of the state Assembly’s Transportation Committee. “That might be a reasonable deal to work out. It usually doesn’t do anybody any good to end up in court. I think the idea of expanding the Hiawatha service seems to make a lot of sense. It’s something that there’s a demand for.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said, “Racine area businesses have seen a big increase in demand, and that is part of the reason for exploring the expansion. I will take a close look at the results of the study once it’s completed.”

Andrew Weiland is managing editor at BizTimes Milwaukee

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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