WisDOT leaders say Hiawatha service could add one daily round trip without Illinois’ assistance

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

Last updated on November 21st, 2019 at 02:36 pm

Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials said the state can make enough rail improvements on its own to allow the Amtrak Hiawatha passenger service between Milwaukee and Chicago to expand from its current seven daily round trips to eight daily round trips.

Even so, Secretary-designee Craig Thompson said the expectation remains that the Hiawatha to eventually expand to 10 round trips, plans for which hit a road block in recent months due to Illinois’ complaints over certain aspects of the proposed expansion.

Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT, said the department is moving forward with various rail-improvement projects and is in talks with the railroad owners to potentially expand the Hiawatha service to eight round trips. This could happen without any work happening across the border.

“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,” Thompson said.

One such project WisDOT is looking to move forward with 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.

Another project Wisconsin 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.

Rao said the Hiawatha service could reach eight round trips potentially within the next three or four years.

Although the details would need to be worked out with Amtrak, Thompson said the assumption is the additional round trips would be offered during peak hours, which is mornings in Milwaukee and afternoons in Chicago.

Expanding the Hiawatha is going to require about $200 million worth of rail improvements for nine projects overall between the two states. The money for this work would chiefly come from the states and matching federal grants.

The current hangup with Illinois is over two proposed rail projects in that state, one in Glenview and one in Lake Forest. Those communities opposed the construction of new sidings, or “holding tracks,” which they argued would result in train cars sitting in their communities for long periods of time. Residents and elected officials in those communities said this would in turn impact their overall quality of life.

During the news conference, Thompson noted officials with the Illinois Department of Administration remain “fully committed” to expanding the Hiawatha passenger rail service.

“I went down personally and met with (IDOT) Secretary (Omer) Osman recently on this issue, and they expressed to us that they remain committed to looking at alternatives to the two projects in Illinois,” he said.

WisDOT is also in discussions with Canadian Pacific Railway and Metra, whose railroads the Hiawatha uses, “to determine the path forward to adding more trains,” Thompson added.

The 2019-21 Wisconsin state budget passed recently by the state Legislature and signed earlier this month by Gov. Tony Evers, included $35 million toward making passenger rail service improvements. This money comes from $10 million in bonding and $25 million in segregated fees, Thompson said.

“This funding enables us at the department to qualify for federal funds to improve passenger rail service,” he said.

Hiawatha ridership set a new high in calendar year 2018, and the numbers from this year are trending even higher. In 2018, 858,000 passengers rode the passenger rail service, a 3.6% increase over 2017 and more than doubling since 2003 when the service began providing seven round trips each day.

Ridership for the first half of 2019 was 5.6% higher than the same six-month period from the record-setting 2018.

“Currently, the Hiawatha service is the sixth-busiest Amtrak route in the nation,” Thompson said. “It is the busiest train in the Midwest.”

He also noted the increased revenues from the Hiawatha’s growing popularity, coupled with decreasing operating costs from Amtrak, means the state has more money to reinvest in the rail improvements and extend service to other parts of the state.

This month, WisDOT and Amtrak introduced a new Amtrak Thruway intercity bus route that connects Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay. The new Thruway service offers two daily round trips, and has stops at both the Milwaukee Intermodal Station and Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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