Milwaukee Bypassed In Effort to Link Chicago & Madison Via Passenger Rail

Jun 13, 2014

An advocacy group wants to bring passenger rail service to Madison from Chicago.
Credit Thinkstock

There is again chatter in Wisconsin about expanding passenger rail.

An advocacy group has invited stakeholders to discuss the idea on a train trip next weekend.

It’s been nearly four years since Gov. Scott Walker rejected 800 million federal dollars to add rail service between Milwaukee and Madison. Walker said he was concerned that taxpayers would end up footing the service.

The latest talk is about connecting Madison and Chicago – but not via Milwaukee; rather, by way of existing freight lines to the south. Conversations about adding passenger rail here are even taking place within state government.

A group called All Aboard Wisconsin formed more than a year ago. It’s held community meetings across the state, and according to spokesman Gary Goyke, it’s discovered a great deal of interest in expanding passenger rail.

“We believe firmly that passenger rail in Wisconsin will be of great benefit economically to the state, that it will be a great benefit to our educational institutions and our businesses,” Goyke says.

Goyke says the group wants to explore the feasibility of offering passenger service from Chicago to Madison with a stop in Janesville. The ultimate destination would be Minneapolis.

All Aboard Wisconsin has invited local politicians and business leaders to discuss the idea on a train trip next weekend. One person who’s received an invitation is Dan Cunningham. He works for the economic development group Forward Janesville and is pleased his city is being considered as a possible stop.

“From a quality of life perspective, I think it would be an attractive benefit for Rock County," Cunningham says. "The drive down to Chicago is notoriously nasty, particularly in the summer months and I think to be able to alleviate congestion by just hopping on a train and having a nice worry-free trip down to Chicago would be a great thing."

Yet, Cunningham says advocates for the rail line face major challenges. For instance, funding – there may still be a lack of appetite for using public dollars. Then, the group would have to convince one of the major rail companies in the region, to provide an existing line.

Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale says the state would also have to sign off on any plan, because it owns the land under the rails.

“Anything that occurs over the state corridors, which is where Wisconsin & Southern runs, that would need state approval. That would need an awful lot of involvement with the Department of Transportation and I’m sure that political figures would weigh in as well,” Plale says.

Yet, Plale says the idea of expanding passenger rail service in Wisconsin has not gone away, even after Gov. Walker returned the federal money.

“Passenger rail is alive and well in Wisconsin, contrary to what some may think," Plale says. "It doesn’t go far enough for some, will it come to Madison at some point, that’s anybody’s guess, but there’s no proposal out there now."

Plale says Wisconsin and Minnesota are currently studying whether to build a second Amtrak train that would run from Chicago to Minneapolis. In addition, he says Illinois and Wisconsin are still considering whether to increase the frequency or speed on the Hiawatha line between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Recently, Talgo, the company that came to Milwaukee years ago and built new high-speed train cars for the Hiawatha, closed shop here and is seeking another buyer.