WisDOT awarded $25.7 million grant to buy new Hiawatha passenger cars

New cars to be delivered beginning late 2020

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

Last updated on August 27th, 2019 at 04:11 pm

The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded the Wisconsin Department of Transportation a $25.7 million federal grant, which the department will use to acquire new passenger rail cars for use on the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Amtrak Hiawatha service.

The new cars will add seats to the Hiawatha service and cut costs related to its operation.

According to a news release, WisDOT will use the money to purchase three cab-coach cars and six coach cars. The federal award comes from the Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair, or SOGR, program.

The cars will replace equipment that is nearing the end of its useful life and is costly to maintain. Further, the new passenger cars will expand the train’s seating capacity, reduce fuel consumption and overhaul costs, increase equipment reliability and make the service more accessible for passengers with disabilities.

WisDOT plans to add the new equipment to the Midwest Rail equipment pool, a fleet of equipment that’s already being manufactured for use on eight Amtrak Midwest routes. The Hiawatha line is part of Amtrak Midwest, a network of regional trains that run to Detroit, St. Louis and elsewhere.

Prior to the grant being awarded, only about half the cars were slated to be replaced on the Hiawatha through an existing order. The new federal money will instead allow all cars to replaced with new ones, said Mae Knowles, a WisDOT spokeswoman.

“The public will get their first glimpse of the new cars beginning late 2020,” WisDOT secretary-designee Craig Thompson said in the release, referring to the existing order.

WisDOT has yet to select a manufacturer for the latest order or set a timeline for the cars to go into service, according to Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT.

The Hiawatha is Amtrak’s busiest train in the Midwest and ninth-busiest in the nation, according to the release.

It is also growing in popularity. The department announced earlier this year that, in the first six months of 2019, more than 417,000 passengers rode the Hiawatha line. This is a 5.6% uptick from the same period in 2018, which was a record year for the passenger service.

In all of 2018, more than 858,000 passengers rode the Hiawatha, a 3.6% increase over 2017 and more than double since 2003, when the service began providing seven roundtrips daily.

“This rail equipment supports planned increases in service frequency in the fast-growing Milwaukee-Chicago corridor and would substantially improve intercity passenger rail service,” Ray Lang, Amtrak senior director, said in the release. “This advances the Amtrak goal of expanding and improving corridor services and setting more ridership records.”

This is the second announced FRA grant this week supporting the Amtrak Midwest corridor. Another $17.8 million, which was granted to Chicago commuter-rail system Metra, will support the construction of a new grade-separated, double-tracked rail bridge over Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.

The Hiawatha is supported by both WisDOT and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Officials are working on plans to expand the passenger service from seven to 10 daily round trips. The necessary rail-improvement work required is estimated to cost around $200 million. Those improvement projects include the addition of a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station and the Muskego Yard bypass project, which would upgrade track and signaling at the rail yard in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Those expansion plans hit a road block earlier this year when IDOT announced it no longer supported two projects: The installation of new railroad sidings in the Illinois communities of Glenview and Lake Forest. Officials are working on alternatives to those projects, while WisDOT says it could possibly add another round-trip in the meantime by completing the rail improvements on its side of the border.

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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.