But the second train, possibly continuing to St. Cloud or Fargo or Grand Forks, is an idea that will not go away.
Encouraged by ridership that has doubled over the past decade and standing-room-only conditions on some trains, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying a plan to add three express trains on its Hiawatha route between Milwaukee and Chicago, boosting the number of round trips a day from seven to 10.I'm still waiting for those additional Hiawatha schedules and the 60 minute train between the airport and Chicago Union Station. It's the additional service beyond that generates the buzz.
The express trains would skip two local stops, serving only Union Station in Chicago, Mitchell International Airport on Milwaukee’s south side, and downtown Milwaukee. Train speeds would also be increased to 90 mph.
“The department really feels that people are becoming aware of the Hiawatha service and its convenience, and are looking for alternative modes of transportation,” WisDOT spokesman Brock Bergey tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The Hiawatha service continues to grow, and the department is very interested in making sure we can meet the needs and desires of the traveling public,” he says.
After Wisconsin DOT completes a draft of it study in a few months, two public hearings will be scheduled in Wisconsin and Illinois, after which a final plan will be submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration. If approved, the proposal will move to design and construction phases.
Also being studied is a second daily train on the Empire Builder’s Chicago-Twin Cities route. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells the Journal Sentinel ridership grew by 16 percent from 2011 to 2012. “A second round-trip is a significant improvement for passengers by providing more same-day trips without overnight stays and by making it more likely our scheduled arrivals and departure times meet their travel needs,” Magliari says.
A draft of a feasibility study by Amtrak should be available in December. The second train would terminate in St. Cloud, Minn., a crew change point for Amtrak about 70 miles west of Minneapolis.
Ridership on a second Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago could exceed 150,000 passengers a year, but Minnesota and Wisconsin would have to pay for operating shortfalls, a new rail study concluded.Frequency and connectivity matter. Plus amenities. The wish-list adds more amenities to a corridor train than the Europeans generally offer.
The study, commissioned by Amtrak at the request of Minnesota and Wisconsin state transportation agencies and the city of La Crosse, comes in the midst of metro-area rancor over transit funding. It projects $46.4 million in equipment purchases, as much as $175 million in railroad improvements and about $6.6 million a year in state-financed subsidies to cover the difference between ticket revenue and the costs of operating a second train.
The current, once-a-day Amtrak train that crosses Minnesota “provides little schedule flexibility to travelers in the corridor,” the study concluded.
“Obviously anything we can do to expand service to our residents will help with economic development,” said Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham, who has taken a lead on east metro transportation issues. “Businesses really do want additional options to have multimodal transportation to move their services and goods.”
If money is found to finance a second line, the train most likely would run from Union Depot in St. Paul to Chicago, although future extensions to Minneapolis and St. Cloud would also be considered. The proposal is independent of discussions about starting high-speed rail service to Chicago.
Under that scenario, trains would leave St. Paul daily and would consist of two diesel locomotives, four bi-level coaches, two bi-level snack coaches and two bi-level “cab coaches,” accommodating as many as 270 passengers, the study said.Forgive me the impertinence, but that sounds a lot like a Chicago and North Western Bi-Level 400 Streamliner, Two diesels and two cab coaches suggest a rake of diesel - two coaches - snack coach - cab coach, and that ought to have seats for nearly 400 pasengers.
And a Thomas Lifson tribute to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Sauk Centre, Minnesota, mentions the rail corridor that used to go there.
Call the roll: Empire Builder and Western Star for and from Seattle, Winnipeg Limited for and from Winnipeg, Red River and Dakotan for and from eastern North Dakota points.
We're going to have to wait.
The study concluded that the route between St. Paul and Chicago is the most feasible for initial service with potential extensions to Minneapolis and St. Cloud. It recommends an environmental review of the project, which would have a robust public involvement component and provide eligibility for federal funding. MnDOT, WisDOT and LaCrosse County are determining how to fund this step.Contributing to the cost: the railroads might be using public money as a way of restoring capacity they once destroyed.
The study includes an assessment of schedules, ridership, revenue, infrastructure investments, operating costs, and equipment needs associated with adding a second daily train between Minnesota and Chicago. It assumes the second round trip train would use the same route the Empire Builder.
Annual ridership on the additional daily train, with a morning departure from Chicago and a mid-day departure from St. Paul, is estimated at about 155,000 passengers. This is an increase from the current Empire Builder ridership of about 104,000 between St. Paul and Chicago, with departures from St. Paul in the morning and Chicago in the afternoon.
There are anticipated capital investment costs for infrastructure capacity improvements, with a planning level cost estimate of about $95 million for the Chicago to St. Paul scenario. The St. Cloud and Minneapolis scenarios had higher infrastructure costs. If new equipment is used, there would be an additional $46.4 million cost.
The study estimates annual state operating support for the Chicago to St. Paul initial service would be approximately $6.6 million. The cost share among the funding parities for the service would be determined at a later date.
I’m all for railroads, in this instance mainly Canadian Pacific, being adequately compensated for running passenger trains on their lines. And if this route had no existing service, the $95 to $175 million might make more sense. But seriously, that kind of money to add two four-car, one diesel trains on an existing Amtrak route? Granted, the railroad is different from the 1970s and early 1980s when there were two Amtrak trains on the route: the Milwaukee Road was double track from Chicago to the Twin Cities. CP reduced it to single track CTC from just west of Milwaukee to Hastings, Minn., in the 1990s. Still, it’s not exactly a route that can’t handle two more Amtrak trains a day. So while railroads should certainly be paid to make some upgrades for more sidings and lengthening existing ones, the millions the study says will be needed seem way out of whack.Particularly when the rent-seekers in the highway lobby start griping about subsidized competition for the trucks and intercity busses that are pounding the roads. Thus we wait and wait for the improved rail service.
But those high prices are not really the railroads fault. One railroad manager told me because of provisions in the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, that when railroads contemplate additional passenger service today they must consider how they are going to keep those trains on time, all the time. To do so, they “gold plate” any study on rail passenger service, including everything but the kitchen sink to make sure they can run those trains on time without interfering with freight service. The result is a huge run up in infrastructure cost estimates as compared to the past.
There is another factor at play, and probably the biggest one of all: politics. Love it or hate it, conservative politicians largely control the U.S. today. Some see the need for rail passenger service, but most don’t because of the cost of what they see as an expensive government program, and a belief that if passenger trains can’t make money so the private sector can run them, they are not needed.