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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

Hiawatha Ridership Numbers Grow Despite Lack Of Speedy Service Improvements

Chuck Quirmbach
A southbound Hiawatha train approaches the Milwaukee airport station Wednesday afternoon. An additional platform is scheduled to be built next year on the west side of the tracks (to the left of the photo.)

Amtrak is projecting a new record for ridership on its Hiawatha trains between Milwaukee and Chicago. Looking ahead, some modest changes to the service are expected in the next few years, but it isn't clear exactly when.

Amtrak operates seven round trips a day from downtown Milwaukee to downtown Chicago. Each way, the train stops at a station near the Milwaukee airport, where Amtrak held a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Amtrak says Hiawatha ridership went up nearly 5% for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, to more than 882,000 — a record. Based on that figure and ridership over the last two months, Amtrak Spokesperson Marc Magliari is also projecting a record for the 2019 calendar year. He credits more people seeking options to driving the 90-mile stretch, some of which is under construction.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
Passengers board the Hiawatha at the Milwaukee Airport station.

"Driving down I-94 with an 18-wheeler to your left, with someone shaving or putting on lipstick to your right, and somebody in a big truck right behind you. All of the things that make driving so much less pleasant, make us more attractive," Magliari said.

Magliari also says taking the train can be a money-saver if you factor in: gas, car wear and tear, tolls, and parking costs. For example, adults under age 65 can get a roundtrip ticket for starting at about $50. 

Magliari also says some business relocations in the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor are, or may, help Hiawatha. He says some S.C. Johnson employees who used to work in Racine now ride Amtrak to Chicago. And, with more MillerCoors, or now MolsonCoors, workers transferring from Denver to Milwaukee, some may take the train to the beermaker's office near Chicago's Union Station. 

Amtrak and its partners of the states of Wisconsin and Illinois say they're still working on improving Hiawatha. And $5 million in federal money will go next year toward a new platform on the west side of the tracks at the Milwaukee airport station. That will allow Amtrak to run trains on both of the double-tracks and potentially fit in an eighth roundtrip train in the next three years. 

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
The Amtrak station near Milwaukee's airport.

Amtrak has already won over Appleton-resident Debra Harless, who was taking Hiawatha to visit her sister in Chicago. But she would like more trains because some are packed with people.

"Yes, please, yes, because I've had to stand many times on the weekends, and that's a long time to stand," Harless told WUWM.

Harless says she'd even like Amtrak to extend Hiawatha to Appleton or Green Bay. That's been discussed off and on over the years, but doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon.

Amtrak spokesperson Magliari overheard Harless talking about driving to Milwaukee before hopping the train, and told her Amtrak launched a Green Bay to Milwaukee twice-daily bus service earlier this year. Harless said she'd consider it. 

Support for Innovation reporting is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman.

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