Improving the connection: Work ongoing to enhance Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Chicago

Improving the connection: Work ongoing to enhance rail service from Milwaukee to Chicago
An Amtrak Hiawatha train traveling over the Menomonee River railroad bridge in Milwaukee. Credit: WIS DOJ

Last updated on August 5th, 2019 at 02:03 pm

Joe Daufenbach was sitting in the Milwaukee Intermodal Station on a sunny and humid Monday morning, waiting for the Amtrak Hiawatha train to arrive.

He, like many of the passengers there that morning and every weekday morning, relies on the rail service to commute to and from work in Chicago.

Daufenbach, a Bayside resident who works at real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield’s Chicago office, said he mostly works remotely, but he does take the Hiawatha to Chicago about once a month for face-to-face meetings. He chooses to take the train because he doesn’t have to sit in traffic and he can work during the commute.

Daufenbach is among a growing number of people who are choosing the train to get to and from Chicago. State and business leaders point out that the Hiawatha creates an important economic link between the two metro areas.

“We’re part of the Chicago megaregion, which is one of the 10 largest economic regions in the country,” Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said at a recent news conference. “And to put it simply, commerce is about connections, and this train helps us connect to Chicago in a more frequent, more effective way.”

Joel Brennan, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, said that more than 40% of trips on the Hiawatha are business related, and 60% of those people taking the Hiawatha for business are making daily round trips.

“Businesses in this corridor clearly recognize the importance of this because 37% of the travelers indicated their business employer had paid for their ticket for these trips,” he said.

The Hiawatha service is Amtrak’s busiest line in the Midwest.

But Daufenbach also pointed out its shortcomings – chiefly, the lack of trips during peak travel hours.

“It leaves (Chicago) at 5:08 or 8:05 (p.m.),” he said. “There’s no meeting that ever gets done at that point in the day. Either you’re going to have to duck out of your meeting at 4:30 and run to the train station, or your meeting is done at 5 or 6 and you’ve got to sit there until 8 o’clock; then you don’t get home until 9:30.”

It is these kinds of limitations that lead some people to choose their cars over the train.

Sarah Chow, a Whitefish Bay resident who works in advertising for Crain’s Chicago Business, splits her twice-weekly commute between driving and catching the train.

“The train is way more (pleasant) in some respects usually, unless there’s a problem with the train,” she said. “I can work on the train, I can read, or I can do whatever I want.”

But the days she has meetings, Chow said she finds it’s more convenient to drive so she doesn’t have to choose between leaving work too early or too late.

And Jason Liu, a Naperville, Illinois, resident and chief executive officer of Wauwatosa-based Zywave Inc., makes the commute to and from work by car every day, with the only exceptions being the occasional overnight stay or if he’s already traveling elsewhere for work.

“Zywave is a special company and worth the commute,” Liu said of his nearly two-hour drive to and from the office.

He said that since he lives in a western suburb of Chicago, the Hiawatha’s route isn’t really practical for him. What he would like to see is an option where commuters like him could park somewhere like Schaumburg or Northbrook, Illinois, and at least make two-thirds of the trip by rail.

However, track is being laid (figuratively and literally) for projects aiming to improve the existing connections between Milwaukee and Chicago.

These plans range in scope from practical, incremental changes to big ideas and futuristic technologies that are found more often in science fiction than in governments’ capital budgets.

Riding the rails

The popularity of the Hiawatha service is clearly rising.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation data shows the service set an all-time record in 2018 of more than 858,000 passengers, a 3.6% increase over 2017 and more than double since 2003, when the service began providing seven roundtrips daily.

The numbers for 2019 are looking even more promising.

According to WisDOT, more than 417,000 passengers rode the Hiawatha line in the first six months of this year, a 5.6% uptick from 2018.

“We’re looking to break another record here this year,” said Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT. “Almost every month, except for January when we had some cancellations due to severe weather, there was a very large growth rate.”

And why not ride the train when there’s so much congestion clogging the freeway in to Chicago?

“Even if every orange barrel and barricade was removed, it is still luck on how long it’s going to take you to drive (to and from Chicago),” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Even Chow, who elects to drive once a week, noted its risks. This is especially true given the massive reconstruction of the I-94 freeway going on south of Milwaukee County.

“It’s really scary, to be honest, and dangerous. Some of those areas, there’s no shoulder room,” she said.

Improving these connections

State leaders contend adding more trips would make the Hiawatha service more convenient for commuters like Chow. WisDOT, the Illinois Department of Transportation and other stakeholders are working to increase the Hiawatha’s offerings from seven to 10 daily trips.

Wisconsin lawmakers earlier this summer approved a state budget that included $35 million to go toward this proposed expansion. The rail improvements necessary to make the 10 daily trips happen have an estimated price tag of roughly $200 million, according to WisDOT.

The rail improvements needed to increase capacity on the existing route are reliant on matching funds coming from federal grant programs.

However, this expansion project hit a roadblock in recent months when IDOT made known its opposition to certain parts of the plans. Specifically, IDOT opposes a proposed 2-mile siding, or “holding track,” next to the existing railroad tracks in Glenview, Illinois, as well as a 3-mile siding through Lake Forest, Illinois.

Residents and elected leaders from both communities voiced strong opposition to the sidings. They argued the new sidings would lead to freight trains sitting idle in the middle of their community, which would impact their overall health and safety.

Don Owen, Glenview deputy village manager, said the community was supportive when first hearing about the proposed Hiawatha expansion several years ago. Glenview has the only Illinois stop along the Hiawatha line outside of Union Station in downtown Chicago.

But Owen said the proposed siding would cause more congestion in the area, due to freight trains running at slower speeds as they pulled off the main railway to allow passenger trains to go by. The starting and stopping of the freight cars would also impact the quality of life for nearby neighborhoods, he said.

“Having this mini freight yard next to the neighborhoods was not something we were looking for,” Owen said.

He said the village has shared with WisDOT some alternative projects, including adding tracks and making signalization improvements on a separate railroad from the one the Hiawatha uses. This would mean the freight and passenger trains would never have to cross paths along this stretch in northern Illinois, he said.

According to WisDOT, the sidings were needed in order for other trains operating on the railroad to move out of the way of the extra Hiawatha trains.

Rao said WisDOT has met with IDOT and other stakeholders since the department announced its objections earlier this year. They are now looking for alternatives that would eliminate the sidings in those communities but still allow for the Hiawatha to be expanded.

“Those options will need to be modeled and thoroughly evaluated, and that process is going to take several months,” he said. “Following that process we’d have a clear direction for implementation and a better idea for a timetable.”

In the meantime, WisDOT said it is looking to make improvements and negotiate with the railroads to allow an interim increase to eight daily roundtrips on the Hiawatha. Department leaders said enough of the improvements can be made on the Wisconsin side so that the Hiawatha service can expand to eight daily round trips within the next three or four years.

One such project moving forward is the $56 million Muskego Yard bypass project, which would upgrade track and signaling at the Muskego (rail) Yard in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley. WisDOT applied for federal grant money on that project in mid-July. It would allow freight trains to bypass the Milwaukee Intermodal Station and downtown Milwaukee.

Another project Wisconsin is pursuing is the addition of a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station near Mitchell International Airport. This $10 million project was recently awarded a $5 million grant by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The third project in Wisconsin involves upgrading signals and providing Centralized Traffic Control between the Milwaukee Intermodal Station and a cutoff point 1.8 miles to the west, allowing trains to operate more efficiently and at higher speeds throughout the segment. The signal upgrades, estimated to cost $5 million, were recently awarded a $2.7 million federal grant.

Another option being explored is moving forward with a package of projects that would allow the Hiawatha to increase to nine trips more quickly than it would take to reach 10 trips. Rao stressed this is just an idea, and nothing has been made final. He also reiterated that the ultimate goal is to reach 10 daily trips.

“Getting to the 10th round trip daily is when we’re going to have to really work with them (Illinois) and figure out our options,” said Craig Thompson, secretary-designee of the WisDOT.

However, Canadian Pacific, which owns the railroad track that Hiawatha uses between Milwaukee and the Rondout railroad junction in Illinois, said it is opposed to adding any additional trips on the Hiawatha line until all rail improvements are made on both sides of the state line. This would need to include the proposed sidings in Glenview and Lake Forest or alternative work.

“We have supported this Hiawatha service and intend to continue to support it,” Canadian Pacific wrote in a letter to WisDOT, dated June 26. “Adding additional Hiawatha trains without adding all the necessary additional infrastructure is, however, not something we can agree to.”

IDOT referred questions regarding the Hiawatha expansion to WisDOT.

Thompson said he has spoken personally with IDOT’s secretary, Omer Osman, who told him IDOT officials “remain committed to looking at alternatives to the two (controversial) projects in Illinois.”

Projects in Illinois that are part of the overall expansion include:

Glenview Universal Crossover, which would add a control point in Glenview so Chicago commuter rail system Metra could perform maintenance work while allowing other trains to cross over to opposite tracks, avoiding maintenance crews;

Increasing the speed of freight trains from 40 mph to 50 mph through a 12-mile segment in Illinois, decreasing the speed differential of freight trains and passenger trains, which travel at 79 mph in that section;

Lake Forest Universal Crossover, which provides a benefit to Metra crews similar to the Glenview crossover project;

And adding a second track at the Metra Fox Lake subdivision, which would significantly improve delays by moving stopped trains off the mainline and increasing through-speeds of trains.

Rao cautioned that, since stakeholders are currently drawing up alternatives on how to get to 10 daily trips without the two controversial projects, the identified improvements could change once the new plans are made final.

What’s more, the Hiawatha train cars will also be replaced with new cars somewhere between 2020 and 2022. Rao said 88 cars are being built by Siemens Mobility in California to replace existing passenger cars on all state-supported Midwest routes originating in Chicago. This includes routes that run from Chicago to Milwaukee; Detroit; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Carbondale, Illinois, among others.

The new cars will put the Hiawatha trains on par with standards seen on Amtrak’s flagship Acela service, which runs from Washington, D.C. to Boston.

“New modern equipment, competitive average speeds and the high number of frequencies, I think those are the three ingredients to get to a level of service similar to the Acela and where we need to be,” Rao said.

One clear leg up for Acela over Hiawatha is the speed it travels. Its average speed between Washington and New York is 82 mph, and between New York and Boston is 66 mph. The Hiawatha travels between Chicago and Milwaukee at around 60 mph.

Rao said WisDOT is always considering ways to decrease travel times, and said the new cars could help a little on that front.

What’s more, the Acela reaches a maximum speed of 150 mph. Kevin Muhs, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said at that speed, federal regulations require all road railroad crossings to be eliminated.

“You can’t have any opportunities for automobiles to cross over the line for trains to run at those speeds,” he said.

Amtrak’s Magliari said even more important than speed for passengers is frequency and reliability.

“There’s steak and there’s sizzle,” he said. “Sizzle is speed; steak is reliability, safety and fares. And reliability speaks to schedule.”

Farther down the track

There is likely more to look forward to for passenger rail service. WisDOT’s long-range plan for passenger rail is based on recommendations made in the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plan. Those recommendations are also endorsed in SEWRPC’s VISION 2050 long-range land use and transportation plan, Muhs said.

The recommendations include two new intercity rail lines connecting Chicago to the Twin Cities via Milwaukee and Madison, and another connecting Chicago to Green Bay via Milwaukee and the Fox Valley. This would be done by way of extending the existing Hiawatha service, and all three lines would operate at speeds up to 110 miles per hour.

It also calls for an increase in the number of trains to allow for 17 round trips once the extension to Green Bay is added, Rao said.

“They’re really long-term plans, and right now it’s really hard to give a timeline,” he said. “It depends on when the decision would be made to move forward with any of that. I think increasing the Hiawatha service to 10 roundtrips is a key component to doing that; that makes extensions more feasible in the future.”

The state is also pursuing adding another round trip between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee via the existing Amtrak Empire Builder service, which runs all the way out to the Pacific Northwest. Rao said WisDOT is finishing up negotiations with the railroads on needed infrastructure improvements to accommodate the added trip.

Beyond the Hiawatha improvements, SEWRPC also makes recommendations for four proposed rail commuter lines in the metro Milwaukee area. All four routes would end at the Intermodal Station, with one heading north toward Century City on Milwaukee’s north side. Another line would head west to places like Brookfield, Pewaukee and Oconomowoc, and branching off from that line would be a separate destination to Waukesha. A fourth line would head south along the lakefront to serve communities like Milwaukee, Cudahy and Oak Creek, eventually reaching Kenosha. This would, in turn, provide a commuter rail connection with Metra’s Union Pacific North line, which ends in Kenosha.

Robert Schneider, an associate professor with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s urban planning department, said he is favorable to the idea of a commuter line to Kenosha, which would mean another connection to Chicago via Metra. Plans for a 33-mile Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee Commuter Link were quashed in 2011. Even so, that doesn’t mean the idea should never be revisited, he said.

“Nothing will happen if we don’t have a vision for it or don’t start talking about it,” Schneider said.

Any extensions from Kenosha likely won’t be coming from Metra’s side, however.

Michael Gillis, a spokesman for Metra, said the Kenosha stop was actually grandfathered in from a private service operating before Metra was formed 35 years ago.

Gillis said Metra is more focused on maintaining and improving its existing system and has few resources for expanding. In Metra’s long-range capital plan, which includes a list of desired expansion projects, there is no mention of expanding farther into Wisconsin, he said.

Thinking bigger

Some are looking beyond existing commuter lines at new systems and technologies that promise even faster commutes and provide an even greater network of connections.

One such plan is being proposed by Milwaukee resident William Hume. The system would be built on a bridge over existing railroads and would provide lightning-fast travel times between Milwaukee and Chicago. The project would also require a remodel of both the Milwaukee Intermodal Station and Union Station in Chicago, as well as the installation of solar panels to power the train cars.

“The whole idea is that an individual could live in Milwaukee, have a job in downtown Chicago and get there in 15 minutes. It’s like a suburb,” said Hume, who is retired from a career in infrastructure land surveying.

He said he figures the entire system could be designed and built in about eight years, though not all players have signed on board that would make this possible. He also does not have investors lined up yet that would support the project, which he expects to cost at least $50 billion. Hume said the funding would come entirely from private money.

Another futuristic proposal is the Great Lakes Hyperloop. The transportation method uses a system of tubes at near-vacuum, pressurized capsules harnessing passive magnetic levitation, and electric propulsion, according to Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the California-based company behind the proposal.

The initial first phase of the Great Lakes Hyperloop promises a 28-minute trip between Cleveland and Chicago. Milwaukee is among the cities that could possibly be part of the system’s second phase.

Ben Cooke, a spokesman for HTT, said the company has no official agreements with Milwaukee or Wisconsin, though it is considering bringing the system this way.

Meanwhile, a feasibility study on the initial route is nearly finished, he said. The project will then need to undergo an environmental impact study.

“Assuming funding and regulatory requirements are met, our engineering teams are estimating 36 months of construction time from start to finish,” Cooke said in an email. “Keep in mind these are all estimates, but if everything moves forward timely, within five years or so there could be a working Hyperloop system.”

Muhs said ideas like the Hyperloop system are certainly interesting, but so far unproven.

“It could be useful in the future, but I would say we’re interested but pretty cautious on whether it’s going to happen,” he said.

All of these ideas to improve transit, from practical to aspirational, work toward the goal of better connecting the Milwaukee and Chicago metro areas. Businesses and political leaders alike stress the importance of those connections for Milwaukee’s economy.

“Investing in the passenger rail service is really an investment in Wisconsin, an investment in our citizens,” Brennan said.

Denise Thomas, president and owner of Milwaukee-based consultancy The Effective Communication Coach LLC, said at the recent news conference, that took place in the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, that her business has a “huge dependency” on the Hiawatha service. Among the service’s benefits is flexibility, especially when meeting with clients in Chicago.

“With the Hiawatha service line we are able to have that flexibility and continue to be collaborative in a larger market as Chicago, but be based in the great city here in Milwaukee,” Thomas said.

The need for strengthening passenger rail connections is clear, not just with Chicago but across southeastern Wisconsin – especially when thinking about how Milwaukee can compete with peer regions, Schneider said.

Muhs said the region has reasonably high ridership based on what is currently provided, and the service is cost-effective. However, the overall number of transit options provided is low compared to areas with similar levels of density to Milwaukee.

To better compete with places like Denver and Salt Lake City, he said more investment in regional transit is needed.

“Wisconsin is an outlier in how much local control there is over revenue sources,” Muhs said.

He noted the state prevents local governments from raising property taxes or enacting sales taxes to fund such endeavors.

Schneider said governments need to find a way to overcome these obstacles to strengthen regional transit.

“If we want to compete as a region, Milwaukee versus other peer regions, and regions on the coast and in the Midwest, we really need to have competitive transit,” he said.  n

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.