All aboard! Wisconsin and Minnesota on track for improved passenger rail

By: - February 11, 2020 9:48 am
AMTRAK OPEN HOUSE ON PHILADELPHIA 30TH STREET STATION CSX, Capital Limited, Garret Park, Maryland, New Burnswich Line Southern Division, P42, Supperliner, train 29 The assignment was shooting a slow shutter shot of Amtrak passenger service speeding through

Amtrak Capital Limited, Garret Park, Maryland, New Burnswich Line (Courtesy of Amtrak)

A variety of railroad projects are coming together to greatly improve passenger service in Wisconsin, including “higher speed” rail.

They include: doubling daily service between St. Paul and Chicago; increasing the number of round-trip Milwaukee to Chicago trains from seven to 10; express service between Minneapolis and Duluth-Superior; and, already underway, more than $5 million in improvements to the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station at General Mitchell International Airport, with completion expected in 2023.

Funding for several of the projects is included in Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’ Building One Minnesota plan, announced Jan. 15. Walz proposes $2.6 billion in bonding to invest in education, environment, public safety and infrastructure.

Amtrak train in Chicago (photo by Marc Glucksman)
Amtrak train in Chicago (photo by Marc Glucksman)

He sets aside $10 million for his state’s share of design and environmental work “for a second daily Amtrak train between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago [TCMC].” Walz proposes another $5 million for Minnesota’s Rail Service Improvement program, to increase rail shipping, improve rail facilities and encourage related economic development.

A separate proposal to his legislature calls for $30 million to fund “higher-speed” rail between St. Paul, Duluth and Superior. The Northern Lights Express would travel at speeds as high as 90 mph on existing track, after improvements. The line’s 152 miles would include Wisconsin’s Douglas County.

Of all the projects, TCMC may have the greatest economic impact to Wisconsin. Amtrak’s round-trip Empire Builder service crosses from Minnesota to Wisconsin at La Crosse, continuing southeast to Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Columbus, Milwaukee and, finally Chicago. Top standard speed is 79 mph.

“In the past few months, we have heard from all of the station communities, counties, and members of the business community of their desire and support for the TCMC second daily round-trip, stating that it would improve their travel options and the ability to use the service as a tool to attract and retain businesses, jobs, employees, and residents to their communities,” says Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation [DOT].

For example, officials in Winona, Minn., a city of 28,000, 28 miles north of La Crosse, anticipate as many as 16,000 additional visitors a year.

“The project is operationally feasible and would improve the utility of an existing intercity passenger rail corridor for [Wisconsin],” says Rao. The soonest a second train could be added is 2023. “We’re already working on environmental clearance and a proposed service plan for the TCMC, which will be complete this year.”

Walz hopes for financial commitments from Wisconsin and Illinois, to leverage federal funding. Service to Madison may be extended, but not by rail. 

“The TCMC service would use the existing Amtrak Empire Builder route to minimize costs and optimize travel times,” says Rao. “It would stop at the existing Columbus Amtrak station, which on Amtrak’s system is considered a Madison area stop. With the additional service, improved multimodal connections are generally more feasible, with the opportunity for a potential shuttle connection to Columbus to meet trains if demand warrants.”

Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin in 2010 rejected  $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed line between Madison and Milwaukee. Despite cancellation, Wisconsin taxpayers still had to spend $59 million to get out of commitments including the cost of two full sets of locomotives and cars.

Planners envision several paths for TCMC to advance. Cost estimates vary widely because, depending on route scheduling, it may or may not require a second train set.

Besides locomotives and cars, politics continue to ride rails between Wisconsin and Minnesota. But there’s a perceived change.

“It was quite difficult before, under Scott Walker,” says Kevin Roggenbuck, senior transportation planner for public works in Minnesota’s Ramsey County, and a member of the state’s Great River Rail Commission (previously the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission).

Roggenbuck notes a new spirit of cooperation from Wisconsin, influencing decisions at the St. Paul capitol.

“It’s great to be working with your DOT staff again,” he says. “It’s good to be working with good people just across the [Mississippi] River. It’s very important for our legislature to know that.”

“We’re very enthusiastic,” he adds. So are Wisconsinites who dream of train service with connections in the Twin Cities and Chicago.

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Jay Rath
Jay Rath

Besides The Wisconsin Examiner, writer-cartoonist Jay Rath has contributed to Animato!, Cartoonist PROfiles and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library magazines. An early and longtime contributor to The Onion, for more than 20 years he taught cartooning and animation to young people through the University of Wisconsin School of Education-Extension.