Hiawatha service a tie that binds

Journal Sentinel Opinion page article by David D Haynes.

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Press Release – Second Twin Cities – Chicago Train Study

Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP)

PRESS RELEASE
For Immediate Release

WisARP President John Parkyn comments about the second Twin Cities- Chicago train study.

July 9, 2015- Milwaukee, Wis. – Can History repeat itself? Can everything old become new again?
A feasibility report released on July 1, 2015 by several transportation departments allows the notion of two passenger trains running between Chicago, Ill and the Minnesota Twin Cities as very possible.
The study completed by Amtrak in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and LaCrosse County, Wisconsin sheds a positive light on the advent of a second train serving two large metropolitan areas in the Midwest. “This study shows having a second train travel between the Twin Cities and Chicago is a doable thing,” said John Parkyn, president of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP).

It’s been one week since the initial release of the Amtrak study, and many nay-sayers have promptly spoken. Of the four route-ending station options explored in Minnesota, Parkyn pointed directly to the St. Paul, Min to Chicago scenario. The estimated cost for railroad infrastructure improvements at 95 million dollars did not cross a significant line. “The startup costs noted in this study have come down to a fraction of the initial costs. As long as (infrastructure improvements) stays under 100 million dollars, I think this project is definitely possible,” remarked the President. Parkyn is quick to add considerable federal funding may be available, driving down the state’s share of this funding to a small and manageable amount.

If you turn back the clock 60 years to 1955 you would find five trains traveling daily between Chicago and the Minnesota Twin Cities. The Milwaukee Road was famous for the Hiawatha, and the Twin Cities Hiawatha ran twice a day, morning and afternoon departures each direction. The Burlington copied the twice daily schedule with the Twin Cities Zephyr. The Chicago and Northwestern ran the Twin Cities 400 once a day each direction. The Twin Cities Zephyr did not stop in Milwaukee. The Twin Cities 400 did not stop in LaCrosse. None of these trains stopped in Madison.
In Amtrak’s early years, 1971 through 1979 a second train did run between Chicago and St. Paul. The North Coast Hiawatha created this opportunity. But its similar route to the Empire Builder made it a budget cutting target.
The 21st century Amtrak offering utilizes the Empire Builder train for the current single train connection in this populated corridor. But its eastbound train frequently runs into freight train congestion and is unpredictably late traveling through the Twin Cities. A second train originating in the Twin Cities area would provide a reliable departure time for the eastbound train.

Many train ridership estimate studies have been railed by opponents. This one is no different. Amtrak states the rider estimate was modeled by an outside source, but its survey uses other regional corridor service with one train daily each way for reference. The study estimates initial ridership at 155,000. Parkyn doesn’t seem concerned about this estimate.
“I don’t think it’s excessively high. When you connect two business centers and you charge reasonable rates, it’s bound to be a popular route.” Other surveys have also noted the popularity of regional train travel when the travel times remain close to the driving option.
“It’s still going to be a long process,” is probably the saddest comment made by the Association President. “The environmental review process can be lengthy,” noted Parkyn. Amtrak notes additional study is necessary to operationally integrate this second train with the Hiawatha Service between Milwaukee and Chicago.
Even with gasoline prices under $3.00 per gallon at most pumps in the Midwest this summer, a second train between the Twin Cities and Chicago with all of the intermediate stops contained in the Empire Builder would surely be a well-used passenger train.

A copy of the feasibility study released by Amtrak can be found on the WisARP website or here. Wisconsin Public Radio also posted a review of it.

The Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WisARP) has since 1977 been involved in planning, advocating and educating the public on the need for more passenger trains.
WisARP, an association with more than 600 members, exists to promote passenger trains as a part of a balanced national transportation system. It is made up of people who enjoy traveling by train, find it a practical way to travel, and are dedicated to preserving and improving the quality and quantity of passenger trains in Wisconsin and the nation. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our funding comes entirely from dues.

press release prepared by Terry Brown (wisarp@hotmail.com)