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Smart trips in under three hours are the inevitable success stories of Amtrak across the country. Now of they could only convince the stonewalling Congressmen who insist on service to their out-of-the-way whistle stops.
Trains from Milwaukee to Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., may be faster and more frequent in the near future, as Amtrak and transportation departments in Wisconsin and neighboring states study the possibility of expanding service on regional routes.
Encouraged by ridership that has doubled over the past decade and standing-room-only conditions on some trains, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has plans to add three express trains to the Hiawatha route, boosting the number of trips a day from seven to 10.
The express trains would skip local stops, serving only Union Station in Chicago, Mitchell International Airport and downtown Milwaukee, and reach a maximum speed of 90 miles per hour, compared with 79 mph now, decreasing travel times by 11 minutes.
“The department really feels that people are becoming aware of the Hiawatha service and its convenience, and are looking for alternative modes of transportation,” said DOT spokesman Brock Bergey.
Bergey said the DOT expects demand to continue to increase.
“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 said.
In a 2011 survey by the Texas Transportation Institute, more than half of Hiawatha passengers on weekdays were commuting or making a business trip, while about three in four weekend passengers were visiting family or taking a trip for fun. A significant number of passengers, 14%, said that if the train weren’t available, they would not have made a trip. Avoiding highway congestion was the primary reason people took the train.
A recently completed project has paved the way for added trains by making it easier for passenger and freight trains to bypass one another on the tracks and stay on time, Bergey said. New crossovers, which allow trains to switch tracks, and other infrastructure went into operation in January, according to Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., a publicly traded freight company that owns the tracks.
The Hiawatha expansion project is in its early stages. A study developing a service plan and assessing environmental factors — such as noise, erosion and wildlife effect of added trains — is underway, Bergey said, and a draft could be ready in a few months. Cost estimates weren’t yet available.
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.
Ridership growth is also driving plans for a second daily train on the Empire Builder route, which grew by 16% from 2011 to 2012, that links Chicago, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and stops to the west, including Seattle, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. Amtrak is conducting the study.
“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 said.
A draft of a feasibility study should be available in December, and would focus on adding a second train at current speeds, 79 mph. It would terminate in St. Cloud, Minn., instead of continuing on to Seattle as the existing route does.
While stops east of St. Paul would be the same as the Empire Builder route, stops west of St. Paul could travel to St. Cloud via Fridley or Minneapolis, said Praveena Pidaparthi, Minnesota DOT’s passenger rail planning director. The study is analyzing schedules, infrastructure requirements and operating costs, and developing ridership and revenue forecasts.
“It’s the first baby step we’re taking on increasing service on this corridor,” Pidaparthi said.
If a second Empire Builder train is feasible, there will be a more detailed analysis, and representatives from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois would have to come to a cost-sharing agreement for capital and operation costs before the project could proceed, Pidaparthi said. States are responsible for portions of costs on routes less than 500 miles, she said.
The study on a second train is separate from Minnesota’s continued pursuit of a high-speed rail line from Chicago to the Twin Cities, a project that Gov. Scott Walker opted out of when he became governor, rejecting $800 million in federal money. Minnesota’s high-speed rail study is in the first phase of analyzing the environmental impact, with completion expected in 2015, and considers the existing Empire Builder route.
Several groups in favor of expanding the Hiawatha and Empire Builder routes say both lines have had proven success and would be a boon for the economy.
The added trips on the Hiawatha, in particular, would be positive for economic development, strengthening a vision of southeastern Wisconsin, Chicago and northwestern Indiana as one mega-metro area, said Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce spokeswoman Julie Granger.
“The stronger connections we have to what is a huge thriving city can only benefit the region,” Granger said.
All Aboard Wisconsin, a group that advocates for transit, is drafting a bill officials hope is offered in the Legislature this fall that would establish a rail plan asking for state financial support for expanding the Hiawatha and Empire Builder, said spokesman Gary Goyke, a former state senator. Goyke said rail expansion would help the economy and tourism as well.