Jeramey Jannene

State Wins Grant for Twin Cities Train

Federal grant will add second daily roundtrip on Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to St. Paul.

By - May 6th, 2020 03:56 pm
Passengers on the Amtrak Empire Builder in January 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Passengers on the Amtrak Empire Builder in January 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Doubling train service between Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul took a step forward Tuesday with the announcement of a $12.5 million federal grant to support a second daily roundtrip.

The plan, known as the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) passenger train service, would add a second daily Amtrak Empire Builder train with 12 stops.

The Empire Builder currently provides service from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, but east-bound trains are frequently delayed before arriving in St. Paul and the once-a-day departures limit the desirability of the service. The TCMC plan calls for a second train that doesn’t go west of St. Paul, reducing delays and providing enhanced connectivity between the communities along the route.

“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,” said Arun Rao, passenger rail implementation manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, in February.

A 2015 study says TCMC service is projected to provide between 117,800 and 155,500 additional annual rides based on the selected schedule, more than doubling the number of trips in the corridor.

While the long-distance Empire Builder is federally funded, the TCMC would need state support. The study says the service would cost approximately $12 million per year to operate, with approximately half the funding coming from fares and an operating subsidy from Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The states may also need to pay for new trainsets, with an estimated cost of $1 million per year.

Total capital costs for the project are estimated at $72 million in Wisconsin and Minnesota, in addition to improvements already underway between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The $12.5 million Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) grant will help pay for operating the line over its first three years of operation.

WisDOT told Urban Milwaukee via email that it intends to also apply for a FRA grant for capital support to construct necessary infrastructure improvements for the service. Minnesota also recently budgeted $10 million to support the effort as part of a bigger infrastructure spending package.

The train would stop in Chicago, Glenview, IL, Sturtevant, Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomas, La Crosse, Winona, MN, Red Wing, MN and St. Paul. A light rail line operates out of St. Paul Union Station with service to downtown Minneapolis.

The train currently takes approximately six hours in each direction between Milwaukee and St. Paul.

Between Milwaukee and Chicago the Empire Builder currently overlaps with the Amtrak Hiawatha Service and would continue to do so. Passengers going between the two cities are not currently able to ride the Empire Builder and must use the Hiawatha.

Wisconsin has been working on expanding the Hiawatha from seven to 10 daily round-trips as part of a $195 million project. WisDOT received a $26.6 million federal grant to pay for a freight yard bypass in the Menomonee Valley in March, $2.7 million to fund a signalization project to speed up trains through downtown Milwaukee in June 2019 and a $5 million award to build a second platform at the Milwaukee Airport Rail Station in March 2019. All three grants required a state match. The Illinois-portion of the project remains on hold.

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Categories: Transportation

3 thoughts on “Transportation: State Wins Grant for Twin Cities Train”

  1. Thomas Williams says:

    Ah too bad Scottie boy isn’t around to veto this idea!! OOPS Sorry! Even in a time of social distancing, this is a wonderful announcement and an opportunity to offer residents of smaller communities as well as the big cities an alternative transportation system to and from their respective homes.

  2. Mingus says:

    Tommy Thompson was a big supporter of rail transportation. Not having good light rail is a job killer but Republicans don’t seem to get it. Their conservative canon that they all swear to is opposition to rail transportation. The Twin Cities area is already planning their third line of light rail to go along with the Airport-Downtown and University Avenue lines.

  3. TransitRider says:

    Amtrak will cut Empire Builder service to just 3 trains/week starting in October. All daily long-distance trains (except “Auto Train” on the East Coast) will operate only 3 times a week. Additional cutbacks on state-funded trains are also coming at the same time (but no details yet). The Hiawatha is a state-funded train.

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