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Milwaukee-Chicago Amtrak Service Partly Resumes, With COVID-19 Precautions

Chuck Quirmbach
Amtrak's Hiawatha train leaves the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

Amtrak has started once-a-day roundtrip service on its Hiawatha passenger trains from Milwaukee to Chicago. It says precautions have been taken against the spread of COVID-19. But whether Hiawatha will ever resume its full schedule is unclear.

The Hiawatha line provided seven roundtrips every weekday, until Amtrak suspended the service in April due to COVID-19 concerns, and instead offered a bus between Milwaukee and Chicago. The rail service also added stops between the two cities on its daily long-distance Empire Builder train.

This week Amtrak ended the bus and Hiawatha began a limited return, with a train that leaves Milwaukee at 8 a.m., and departs Chicago at 5 p.m.

Outside the Milwaukee Intermodal station, Chicago resident Benny Williams said he was glad to be able to take the train back home. 

"It's the only way I travel," Williams said. "I like the leg room. I can sit on the quiet car, and there ain't no noise."

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
The Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

Another southbound traveler, who gave his name as Enrique, said Amtrak is his best travel option.

"Well, if you don't have a car, right?” Enrique said, laughing. “It's easy. Simple. Lay back, relax. I like it."

But traveling on a train with others potentially increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Enrique was wearing a mask, but hoped Amtrak would require social distancing, as well. 

"I hope so, at least something--enforcing six feet away from people, at least,” Enrique said.

Benny Williams says he wouldn't mind some distancing, but says he's less concerned about a COVID-19 infection. "If you gonna catch it, you'll catch it. If you ain't, you ain't,” Williams said.

A few minutes later, the men boarded Hiawatha and the train glided across South 2nd Street on its way to Chicago.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
The Hiawatha train heads south towards Chicago.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says Hiawatha riders will find a set of policies developed by the rail service's medical director, in consultation with the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other transportation providers.

For one thing, Magliari says facial covering, for the most part, is required.

"And that includes when they're in the station itself, when they are boarding the train, when they are interacting with our conductors aboard the train. And even while they're riding," Magliari said. "Now, if you're operating in a way where you're by yourself, or with family, you're going to stay in your seat, and not moving around, we certainly don't expect customers to wear the mask every second they're sitting on the train."

As for physical distancing, Magliari says Amtrak initially expects so few riders on Hiawatha that there should be plenty of distance between them. But he says the new policy requires reservations, except for those with monthly or ten-ride ticket packages.

"As we see ridership build, we'll be ready to take further action to keep people further apart, whether it's adding trains or making these trains somewhat larger," Magliari said. "We're not really facing that question right now, but we're watching it."

Amtrak plans to add a few more Hiawatha roundtrips by June 29, and end the Empire Builder stops between Milwaukee and Chicago. But Magliari says Hiawatha, which is funded by the states of Illinois and Wisconsin, and set passenger records of 860,000 riders last year, won't be setting records this year.

He says Amtrak overall has taken a COVID hit. "We don't have any confidence we're going to get back to the pre-COVID customer levels anytime soon, including in 2021 and perhaps into 2022."

Amtrak has received additional federal support. But Magliari says the service is evaluating the number of employees it needs, and is offering voluntary separation packages to both management and union-represented workers.

A lot, it seems, is riding on the public's willingness to resume travel, including some Amtrak jobs.

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Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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