17.2.10

THE HIAWATHA, OR THE VIKING? The sparring between LaCrosse and Eau Claire over which route will be selected for the continuation of the Chicago to the Twin Cities high speed line beyond Madison makes the evening news. La Crosse already has the trains.
The [La Crosse] route follows Amtrak's Empire Builder route from Madison through Tomah. It runs into La Crosse and across the Mississippi River. The route heads north through Winona, Red Wing, and into St. Paul. It's known as the river route.

Supporters say it only makes sense that La Crosse be the choice since it already has the Amtrak service.

"It is the most successful long distance train service in the whole Amtrak system," says Jim Hill, coordinator of the Empire Builder High Speed Rail Coalition. "So you're building on success. All solid business models start with building on success."
Strictly speaking, the La Crosse route picks up the current Empire Builder route at Portage. But you have to like the name of the coalition's coordinator. The Mississippi River routing poses challenges to going fast, however.
High speed rail would require upgrades to existing tracks. They are currently designed to handle speeds of 80 miles an hour. A high speed line requires the capability to handle 110 miles an hour. Some analysts believe it may cost anywhere from $2-4 million per mile to replace the tracks.
There are a lot of curves on the River Division west of La Crosse, and the best a steam-powered Hiawatha could do there was short sprints in the low 80s with checks for the curves and the towns. East of La Crosse, the tracks were once capable of 110, although to provide more miles of that speed requires extensive earth moving through the ridge between Sparta and Tomah, and some line relocations near the Wisconsin Dells.

Eau Claire advocates base their case on congestion on nearby I-94.

"We see the bottlenecks on I-94 crossing the St. Croix River at Hudson, so we know the demand is there," says [high-speed rail advocate] Scott Rogers.

If the interstate is being over-used, Rogers says the current track is definitely underutilized. A hand full of freight trains come through Eau Claire on any given day. A high speed passenger rail line would mean 6-8 round trips daily.

Many years ago, a fairly high speed passenger and freight line ran through the area according to Rogers.

Fairly high speed is an understatement. The problem policymakers face is that one route cannot serve both cities, and a network of lines connecting in the Camp Douglas area would drive the highway lobby and their shills nuts, that despite Interstates 90 and 94 dividing not far from there.

Closer to home, there is a tussle over whether the Dubuque service should run via Genoa or via Belvidere, complicated by whether the goal should be more frequent commuter train service or the Amtrak service to the North West Frontier. What intrigues about the possibility of Metra operating commuter trains is that once DeKalb County becomes part of the Metra tax district (yes, the Passenger Rail authority collects taxes) the Overland Route through DeKalb becomes eligible for Metra trains.

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