Wisconsin, Minnesota and Amtrak officials have started talks that could lead to expanding the current passenger train service between Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul.The current route remained profitable until Interstate 94 was finished in the late 1960s, while through service via Madison and Eau Claire ended in 1963, and the tracks have been removed on both sides of Madison. Some things don't change.
The two states are working with Amtrak to launch a feasibility study of adding a second daily round trip on the Chicago-to-Twin Cities leg of the national passenger railroad's long-distance Empire Builder line, officials say.
At the same time, a separate Minnesota-led study is advocating a more ambitious - and more controversial - long-range goal: upgrading the same segment to high-speed rail along the current route, bypassing Madison and Eau Claire, disappointing rail backers in both cities.
After comparing more than two dozen possible routes, it concluded the current route - through Columbus, Portage, Tomah and La Crosse - was the best choice, based on cost, geography, projected travel time and population served, [Minnesota passenger rail planning director Praveena] Pidaparthi said.Regular readers know about the limitations of geography in the Mississippi River valley, and in the driftless area of Wisconsin, as well as the speed potential through the Sand Country and south of Milwaukee.
With Congress balking at new high-speed rail appropriations, Minnesota officials thought it made more sense to improve the current route gradually instead of seeking a major investment in a new route, Pidaparthi said.
Just upgrading the current route would cost $2.4 billion, with track maintenance costs of $10.3 million a year, the study found. Those figures don't include the costs of buying and operating trains or of building or upgrading stations, issues that will be covered in a follow-up study, Pidaparthi said.
High-speed rail advocates disputed the findings.
"Major cities should be within three hours of each other," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association. On the selected route, it would take 4 hours 35 minutes to travel from Milwaukee to Minneapolis-St. Paul at 110 mph, and sharp curves on the Minnesota segment along the Mississippi River would prevent an eventual upgrade to 220-mph service, he said.
Faster running times are desirable. Frequency, however, is more desirable, in order that people have some flexibility in making their trips, and more short-distance trips by rail make sense. The article doesn't say anything about food service or proper first-class accommodation. I have some ideas, in case anyone asks.