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Wisconsin Amtrak Service at Risk in Trump Budget

NateBeal via Wiki Commons
The Amtrak Empire Builder train, traveling through Wisconsin.

There are two Amtrak routes that run through Wisconsin - the Hiawatha, which carries passengers between Milwaukee and Chicago; and the Empire Builder, which transects the state as it makes its way from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.  President Trump's proposed budget would eliminate the Empire Builder, and that - say rail advocates - would put the Hiawatha at risk, as well.

"It's kind of a back-door way of killing Amtrak, generally," says Jim Mathews, President and CEO of NARP, the National Association of Rail Passengers. "Because the remaining services [like the Hiawatha] - they wouldn't be able to survive the financial environment that would be created by the end of the long-distance service."

NARP is helping organize a series of rallies in support of long distance rail in places at risk for losing all or some of their passenger train service, including Wausau and Chicago. 

Mathews says even in a transportation environment that features a vast Interstate highway system, air and bus travel, long distance rail service plays a vital role for people and the communities in which they live.

He says around 30 percent of long-distance train passengers are tourists - riding Amtrak as part of their vacation. "There's nothing wrong with that," he stresses.  "Those tourists bring dollars with them and go to small businesses in hundreds of towns across America and spend their tourist dollars."

But the other 70 percent, he says, include people in small towns which owe much of their livelihood to regular train service, and people who have few other viable options to go long distances.  "A lot are older folks," he says, "who can't drive or see well-enough to drive.  There are a lot of folks who use the trains as a way to get from the small town to a large town for medical treatment - to reach a hospital that has more sophisticated treatment available."

And he points to the role that the Empire Builder in particular played in getting people to and from the natural gas fields in remote North Dakota during the gas boom there. 

But Mathews says even people who only use commuter routes like the Hiawatha and Northeast Corridor trains depend on the viability of long distance routes.  "The thing that makes a rail network efficient," he says, "is the fact that it's a network.  You have all these points that connect and all these trips that are possible using the same equipment and the same crew.

"Instead of thinking of trains as airplanes on rails," he says, "think of it as an elevator in an office building.  What they're proposing to do here is to make the elevator stop going to the top floor and only serving the fourth through the sixth floor.  What's the point of that? How does that make the elevator do any better?"