Railroad won’t support more Hiawatha trains without Illinois track improvements

$200 million expansion would allow passenger service to add daily trips

The Amtrak Hiawatha train at Milwaukee Intermodal Station. (Courtesy: WisDOT)

Last updated on July 30th, 2019 at 11:09 am

The owner of part of the railroad Amtrak’s Hiawatha Milwaukee-to-Chicago line uses say they will not support any expansion of the passenger service unless all necessary improvements are made, both in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation and other stakeholders are seeking to expand the Hiawatha from seven to 10 daily round trips by making about $200 million worth of rail improvements. Officials have had to take certain aspects of that expansion back to the drawing board after Illinois said it no longer supported certain aspects of the project.

At a recent news conference, WisDOT leaders said they believe they can still add at least one daily trip to the Hiawatha by making all necessary improvements on the Wisconsin side.

“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,” WisDOT Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said at the conference.

But a letter from Canadian Pacific, which owns the set of tracks the Hiawatha uses between Milwaukee and the Roundout junction in Illinois, makes clear the company will not allow any additional trips until all necessary improvements are completed.

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

The letter from Canadian Pacific states WisDOT is doing so “at its sole risk that there will be no additional Hiawatha train starts.” The company further adds that absent completion of all infrastructure projects, it cannot support the additional Hiawatha trains, nor can it support “incremental additions of Hiawatha train starts.”

Canadian Pacific says it cannot support any additional roundtrips because the Hiawatha service would unreasonably interfere with the safety and efficiency of existing operations without the completion of all the infrastructure projects.

BizTimes obtained a copy of the letter from Canadian Pacific this week. A company spokesperson declined further comment.

In an email statement forwarded by a WisDOT spokesperson, the department said it is aware of and respects the railroad owner’s concerns.

“We fully expect that we will come to an agreement with the host railroads for the Amtrak Hiawatha service expansion,” said WisDOT.

Further, WisDOT said the Hiawatha is “too important to the business community and regional economy not to proceed.”

“This is a multi-year process. As we’ve stated, additional analysis is underway to identify alternatives to the Illinois projects that were removed from the plan,” WisDOT said.

At issue with the project is the proposed construction of two new sidings, or “holding tracks,” in Illinois: One in Glenview and one in Lake Forest. Residents and leaders in those communities argued the new sidings would result in train cars sitting in their communities for long periods of time, which would impact their overall quality of life.

WisDOT said it is working with its counterpart in Illinois and other stakeholders on alternatives to still allow the expansion to occur. In the meantime, the department is still moving forward with a number of improvement projects in the state, which officials said would be enough to bring the Hiawatha to eight trips.

The planned expansion received $35 million in the state’s new two-year budget plan, which was signed earlier this month by Gov. Tony Evers. This funding also opened the door for matching grants from the federal government, according to WisDOT.

One project the state is pursuing  is the addition of a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station near Mitchell International Airport. This project was recently awarded a $5.05 million grant by the Federal Railroad Administration. Construction work related to this project is expected to finish in 2022.

Another project is the Muskego Yard bypass. The proposed improvements to the Muskego Yard, a rail yard located in the Menomonee Valley, would allow freight trains to bypass the downtown Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

WisDOT said that because there is currently no federal funding program large enough to fund the entire $200 million of improvements altogether, the plan is to continue to complete the work project by project through several grant awards.

A representative of Metra, the company that owns the other portion of track that the Hiawatha uses, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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