28.12.04

COST OVERRUNS? Projected cost of high-speed trains doubles.

The projected cost of a proposed Midwestern network of high-speed trains has more than doubled over the past six years, to $7.7 billion, including about $1.2 billion in Wisconsin alone, a new report shows.

But the federal government has yet to show any interest in putting up its $6.2 billion share of the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, and supporters agree the 110-mph train plan won't get out of the station without federal money.

On the other hand, federal money is available for rebuilding the Marquette interchange in central Milwaukee, and continuing to operate the St. Lawrence Seaway. The problem, I suspect, is that this Midwestern network would not offer sufficient pork for northern-border state Senators and Representatives to get on board. First some details.

Planners originally sought four round trips daily at 79 mph, with stops in Neenah, Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and either Allenton or West Bend. The revised plan seeks seven round trips daily at 110 mph.

Because the Milwaukee-to-Green Bay leg would be a continuation of the existing Chicago-to-Milwaukee route, service between Milwaukee and Chicago also would rise from the originally planned 14 round trips daily to 17.

The Chicago-Milwaukee frequency would still fall a bit short of the frequency once offered by the North Shore Line alone, but would exceed the frequency offered by either the Milwaukee Road, which Amtrak uses, or the Chicago and North Western during the 1930s and 1940s. There is one additional wrinkle: what happens if Wisconsin works with Chicago's Metra Rail to extend the local train service from Kenosha to Milwaukee, along the old Chicago and North Western 400 route.
Amtrak's Hiawatha line now runs seven daily round trips at 79 mph, covering the distance in about 11/2 hours, with stops in Sturtevant and Glenview, Ill. The boost to 110 mph would cut the trip by about 25 minutes, the report says.
That's a long-sought improvement over the best running time, which was 75 minutes until the late 1950s.

Of the 17 trains on the Chicago-to-Milwaukee route, 10 would continue to Madison, another destination not currently served by Amtrak. At 110 mph, the Milwaukee-to-Madison trip would take about an hour, with some trains stopping in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.

Plans have long called for the Milwaukee-to-Madison route to be one of the first in the Midwest network, because of its potential to attract new riders. In June, Amtrak urged Congress to jump-start the route, predicting that extending the Hiawatha to Madison and adding more trips would more than double ridership, to 1.09 million by 2008.

This Madison service would also be a significant boost in frequency compared to the 1930s and 1940s. Now comes the rub.
Of the 10 Milwaukee-to-Madison trains, six would continue to the Twin Cities. That service would replace Amtrak's once-a-day Empire Builder, which now links Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Pacific Northwest on a route that bypasses Madison.
And thus the problem. That northerly train does a little bit of ferrying college kids to St. Cloud or Fargo or Grand Forks, as well as hauling excursionists to Glacier Park. The second function might properly be farmed out to a Nostalgie Orient Express type operation, but that might spell finis to any votes for Amtrak from Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, or eastern Washington.

We are, incidentally, speaking of a Neubaustrecke for this service. There is a Milwaukee Road line leaving the current Empire Builder route (which was a 100 mph railroad until 1960) at Watertown and going to Madison, but to continue three trains from Madison to the Twin Cities involves either new construction or an upgrade of a line from Madison to Portage, where it rejoins the old 100 mph railroad. But either there will be a reversal of the train's direction in Madison or a new station somewhere on the east side of the city.

The shopping list for that 12" = 1 ft hobby store runs like this:

The plan now estimates track improvements would cost $227 million between Milwaukee and Madison; $285 million from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line; $243 million from Madison to La Crosse; and $311 million from Milwaukee to Green Bay, Wade said.

New trains for the Milwaukee-to-Madison route would add another $89 million, bringing the total cost of that route to $316 million, with $253 million from the federal government and $63 million from the state, Wade said. For the rest of the Wisconsin routes, trains would cost $152 million, but Illinois and Minnesota would share part of that cost, he said.

Probably a cheaper investment than some of the highway improvement projects in other transportation bills.
Although the overall plan hasn't been approved, more than $100 million has been spent on engineering and on facilities that could improve existing service even if the full network isn't built.
Additional economies could be achieved with a little understanding of history. Those 75 minute trains of years ago were pulled by steam locomotives -- not necessarily built especially for speed -- on jointed rail past semaphore signals that were not repeated in the cab. One does not require space-age electronics and global positioning systems to run fast trains.

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