Cities across Wisconsin—including Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Madison—are already pushing for new or upgraded Amtrak lines to their communities. They have good reason to do this: we see strong and proven demand for it.
Wisconsin already has one of the nation’s most successful passenger-rail lines: the Amtrak Hiawatha, with service throughout the day between Milwaukee and Chicago. Residents are also already using the Amtrak Empire Builder to move around within the state, even though it offers just one round trip per day. The Empire Builder travels between Chicago and Seattle, but for more than 70 percent of passengers exiting or boarding at Wisconsin stations, their origin or destination is within the line’s Chicago to Minneapolis segment.
This demand has already led to plans for increased Hiawatha service, a second daily train between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and potential new service in Wisconsin via the Amtrak Connects US proposal.
But imagine if we went even further, developing a comprehensive, statewide network of fast, frequent and reliable trains serving Wisconsin, with high-speed rail at its core. What if Wisconsin businesses could send employees to Chicago, the Twin Cities, or other communities in the region faster by rail than by driving or flying?
Imagine less traffic—both travelers and freight—on congested highways. And think of the difference it would make if travelers to and from Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Green Bay, and elsewhere throughout Wisconsin could access the Midwest’s gateway to the world, O’Hare Airport, more easily.
The foundation for a statewide network is upgrading Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago.
In 2014, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) set a goal of increasing the Hiawatha’s daily round trips from 7 to 10, with eventual expansion to 17.
That goal should be reaffirmed and prioritized.
The Hiawatha is ideal for high-speed rail (i.e., trains running at 200 mph). But even at slower speeds, hourly round trips that run most of the day would make the Hiawatha the backbone of a vibrant statewide transportation network.
By vastly increasing its use.
The evidence is strong and clear: When frequent, reliable trains are an option, people use them. From 2000 to 2018, ridership on the Hiawatha nearly doubled—from about 427,000 passengers to more than 850,000.
The most popular segment is Chicago to Milwaukee. As with the Empire Builder, though, many people also use the Hiawatha to move around within Wisconsin.
Milwaukee to Sturtevant, for example, is one of the most popular segments on the line. So is the segment from the Milwaukee Airport to downtown.
Evidence from around the globe shows that the number of riders increases exponentially when the frequency of train service increases. The train becomes the first choice for travelers, not a second option or an afterthought.
A WisDOT survey found that 55 percent of respondents named the lack of departure times as a moderate or major barrier to their use of trains.
And make no mistake: Shifting travelers from roads to railroads has big environmental, public safety, and budgetary benefits for Wisconsin. More trips on the Hiawatha means fewer cars on the road—a lot fewer.
WisDOT found that avoiding traffic was a key reason for taking the Hiawatha for more than 80 percent of riders. About 70 percent said they would drive if the train weren’t available.
This vision isn’t just about giving people fast and reliable ways to travel around the state.
It’s about revitalizing Wisconsin’s cities by connecting the state’s political, economic, academic, and entertainment hubs to each other—and to Chicago—by a short train ride.
Connecting Milwaukee and Green Bay by train, for example, will have effects that ripple out widely beyond those two cities. When residents of Green Bay can easily take the train, they’ll take more trips to not only Milwaukee but Madison, La Crosse, Eau Claire, and other cities. The same is true in reverse—the flow of people coming to Green Bay from around the region will increase.
But to get the full benefits of a network, we need a big-picture view and a plan that takes into account how each piece fits into the broader whole.
California is has already taken a lead, in building the first true high-speed rail system in the United States.
A new 160-mile segment of 220-mph high-speed line in the Central Valley has gained most of the attention. But there are ongoing projects to upgrade Amtrak service and local transit throughout the state. An integrated network plan will ensure that the pieces are coordinated to create statewide impacts.
For example: the Bay Area’s equivalent of Metra, CalTrain, is being upgraded between San Francisco, San Jose and Gilroy. Electrified trains will mean faster trips and more frequent departures. Similar commuter upgrades are planned for Los Angeles. (And should be done between Milwaukee and Chicago.)
In other words, pieces are being added and upgraded across the state’s entire transportation network. In the process, the network will become more useful and more integrated into the life of communities. That will make it more politically popular and give a big boost to local economies.
Wisconsin could and should have these benefits too. Plans such as the Wisconsin Rail Plan 2030—developed by the state in 2014—already call for expanded rail service in Wisconsin, to cities including Green Bay, Madison, and Eau Claire, and work on an updated plan for 2050 has already begun. More transit options means more jobs, higher wages, and greater productivity.
More communities in Wisconsin need fast, frequent trains to Milwaukee and Chicago. Why? Restoring rail service between Green Bay and Chicago serves as an example.
An upgraded passenger rail line will increase flows of trade and innovation between economies that are vital to Wisconsin’s health.
It will be dramatically safer, since intercity passenger rail results in far fewer fatalities than automobile travel, per passenger mile. That’s especially relevant during football season, when alcohol-impaired driving is a problem.
In football, not capitalizing on opportunities is called leaving points on the field.
Wisconsin is leaving a lot of points on the field right now. But we can change that.
In 2014, WisDOT created its own vision of a statewide passenger train network: the Wisconsin Rail Plan 2030. Although there hasn’t been the political will to move it all from vision to reality yet, this plan provides a solid foundation for setting in motion steps like these:
Step 1: Add Connecting Buses and Expand the Hiawatha Service
A realistic near-term goal for the Green Bay to Milwaukee line would be to run five round-trip busses per day, instead of the initial two. This service can serve as a trial run for eventually adding several daily round-trip runs by train, which Amtrak has already proposed.
For the Hiawatha line, the near-term goal should be 10 daily round-trips that are coordinated with bus service to Green Bay in terms of scheduling and ticketing.
Step 2: Approach Canadian National as a Valued Partner
The Governor’s office should engage the owner of the tracks, Canadian National Railway, as a true partner in creating high-frequency train service between Green Bay and Milwaukee. What’s the benefit to them? Upgraded tracks for the passenger line could also improve freight access to northeastern Wisconsin, reducing semi traffic on already congested highways.
The state should request a proposal from Canadian National for operating at least five daily round trips at 79 mph and 90 mph, with flexibility regarding the operator (i.e., Amtrak or a private company).
Wisconsin’s governor can play a key role in facilitating this partnership and maximizing the mutual benefits.
Step 3: Create a Long-Term Network Plan
The state should also finalize its Wisconsin Rail Plan 2050 by incorporating a big-picture vision for its railroad network. As the Federal Railroad Administration recommended in its Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study, released in 2020, Wisconsin’s railroad network should have service running at least 125 mph at its core.
The current Wisconsin Rail Plan is a great foundation. Now it’s vital to add a section that is strategic, savvy, and forward-thinking about how each element will improve the whole network. In California’s transportation plan, this section is called the “network integration vision.” An integrated and well-coordinated network delivers tangible benefits to both long-distance riders and local transit systems. In the process, it builds momentum and creates a virtuous cycle. The more it expands, the more useful it becomes. The denser and more useful it is, the more support there is for train service and local transit.
Taking these steps will take political will, no doubt. But they’re very doable.
The strong grassroots demand for more trains in Wisconsin, as well as possibilities for increased federal support, means that the wind is at our back on this. We need to recognize this moment for what it is: an opportunity to build on our past, invest in our future, capitalize on our strengths—and stop leaving points on the field.