Jeramey Jannene

Wisconsin Planning Passenger Trains To Green Bay, Madison

Startup could be funded by $44 billion from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

By - May 26th, 2023 11:27 am
An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train crosses N. Plankinton Ave. near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

An Amtrak Hiawatha Service train crosses N. Plankinton Ave. near the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Passenger rail ridership in Wisconsin could triple under a proposal from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT).

The proposed Wisconsin Rail Plan 2050 includes conceptual plans to add two passenger rail lines in Wisconsin, bolstering the Amtrak Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee and the Amtrak Empire Builder between Milwaukee, La Crosse and St. Paul.

Identified as “medium time horizon” projects, an extension of the Hiawatha would run to north Green Bay with stops on the northwest side of Milwaukee, West Bend, Fond du Lac and Appleton. An additional Hiawatha extension would run northwest to the Twin Cities from Milwaukee via Madison, with stops in Waukesha County, Watertown, Eau Claire, Menomonie and Hudson. The 2050 planning document estimates service could start in 2032.

The new trains, similar to the aborted 2010 high-speed rail plan, would function as extensions of the Hiawatha, allowing riders to also access the existing stations in Milwaukee, Sturevant, Glenview and Chicago without changing trains.

The route extensions build on existing plans to add new roundtrips on the Hiawatha in the coming years, going from seven roundtrips to 10, and a second daily train, the TCMC, between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee starting in 2024. The train through Madison would operate on a different route than the existing Empire Builder and TCMC.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), with $44 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will ultimately award grants via its Corridor Identification and Development Program. The FRA intends to award $500,000 for further study of each selected corridor, including development of a scope, schedule and cost development plan. Awards are expected to be announced this summer. That would put the selected corridors on a pathway to securing more grants.

Wisconsin submitted four applications, one for each route extension, an application for increasing the Hiawatha frequency and an application for expanding the TCMC to three daily round trips. The corridors are also identified in Amtrak’s Connects US, which aims to add 39 new routes by 2035. Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy wants to shave 10 years off that timeline. He suggested this year that the Packers are pursuing special trains to Green Bay for the 2025 NFL Draft and discussion are underway with Amtrak.

Efforts are already underway to increase capacity on the Wisconsin side of the existing Hiawatha route.

State officials are pursuing an additional grant to fund the long-awaited Muskego Yard Bypass project. The proposal would route more freight trains through new mainline tracks in the Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) yard in the Menomonee Valley, which would avoid freight trains rolling through the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. The state first received a $26.6 million grant to pay for much of the work in 2020, but the construction start was pushed back for further design and a need for more funding was identified.

A second platform is also being constructed at the Milwaukee Airport station to expand capacity, allowing passenger trains to stop on both tracks. Construction is to begin this year. The platform’s completion and securing funding for the Muskego Yard project will allow one additional Hiawatha Service round-trip per day as part of an agreement between CPKC and Amtrak.

“The infrastructure is really meant for future [CPKC] growth,” said Lisa Stern, chief of railroads and harbors for WisDOT, on March 1 to the City of Milwaukee Public Transportation, Utilities and Waterways Review Board.

WisDOT and Amtrak are still pursuing a plan to get to 10 round trips per day. The 2050 plan says the increased frequency is necessary not only to accommodate growing ridership, but avoid schedule disruption when the route is extended.

“Next steps will be coming together on improvements needed in Illinois,” said Arun Rao, director of network development for Amtrak. Rao previously led WisDOT’s passenger rail efforts during a period when Illinois axed its proposed improvements.

The 2050 plan also calls for developing a “sealed corridor” along the existing Hiawatha route. The proposal calls for reducing the number of road crossings or implementing more substantial barriers with the goal of allowing train speed to increase to 90 miles per hour from a current cap of 79 mph. WisDOT would need to apply for additional grants to advance that effort.

There is one thing that won’t be moving forward in the foreseeable future: commuter rail in Milwaukee. “We actually did submit to the [Federal Transit Administration] to get into the New Starts program on behalf of [Wisconsin Transit & Realty Group],” said Stern. “We had developed an agreement with them so there would be no costs to the state.”

The for-profit company, said Stern, is working off of 2009 Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission plans for a Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) system with several stops in smaller suburban communities. It would connect with the Chicago-centric Metra system in Kenosha.

“We actually were accepted into the program, but there wasn’t sufficient funding on the private side to move forward,” said Stern. The application was withdrawn last fall and could be resubmitted.

A separate company, Transit Innovations, is pursuing a different plan to connect the western suburbs. It involves substantial real estate development near the stations.

The 2050 plan calls for support of a commuter rail operator, should one emerge.

Members of the public are invited to share their thoughts on the proposed plan, which also includes strategic goals of improving the freight rail network. WisDOT is accepting comments on the new 469-page plan through June 10.

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Categories: Transportation

3 thoughts on “Wisconsin Planning Passenger Trains To Green Bay, Madison”

  1. RetiredResident says:

    Took the g-kids on a day trip to Chicago over spring break. Had to drive as the morning trains on Tuesday and Wednesday were booked solid, so maybe add a car or two instead of an additional train?

  2. ringo muldano says:

    The Wisco rCons killed the mke-madison train out of sheer piety to not take the fed money for high-speed rail when all the engineering was DONE! How fckin stupid. The base is likewise ignorant and dissuades investment into mass transit of it’s not frickin cars. Thirsty? Need a koch, brother?

  3. TransitRider says:

    It may be that they can’t add more cars to the Hiawatha without adding an additional locomotive. I’m not sure how many cars they carry these days, but in the NYC area (Metro-North Commuter Railroad) ALL the diesel trains are exactly 7 cars plus one locomotive. This is true at busy times (rush hour) and slow times, too (like 1 am). Apparently 7 cars is what that particular locomotive can haul and still maintain its schedule. Adding a second locomotive nearly doubles fuel costs while reducing cars (from 7 in this case) doesn’t save much fuel because you still have one locomotive.

    This inflexibility is one reason passenger railroads should be electric using either 3rd rail or overhead wire. Many modern electric trains don’t need locomotives as each car has its own electric motors. Adding extra cars automatically adds extra motors.

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