After a difficult year for rail travel in Wisconsin, passenger groups and government officials are hoping for a better 2021. One bright spot is that the newest COVID-19 relief bill President Donald Trump has signed includes aid that Amtrak hopes will carry them through the end of March.
And, despite the pandemic, work continues on some rail projects not due to be completed for several years.
Who’s still riding?
Outside the Milwaukee Intermodal Station in December, senior citizen Dennis Murphy wore a mask and explained why he chose Amtrak's Empire Builder to visit relatives in a small town in Minnesota.
"I get to relax the whole time, and there's food on the train," he explained.
Nick Palmer, a younger traveler, also wearing a mask and taking the train from Milwaukee to Minnesota, said he doesn't own a car.
"Getting on the train means I don't have to drive. I'm not very good at driving and it's boring. I can sit and read a book, which you shouldn't do while you're driving,” he said.
Soon, Palmer, Murphy and other travelers were on the train, which roared as it crossed 13th Street, west of the station.
That sound is less common in Milwaukee the last couple months. In October, Amtrak halted daily Empire Builder departures and arrivals, and switched to service just three days a week for the entire route from Chicago to the West Coast.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said it was part of nationwide belt-tightening, as the COVID-19 pandemic cut ridership on many routes.
"We at Amtrak furloughed and laid off more than 2,000 people in the last three months,” he said.
Congress partly rode to the rescue with the COVID-19 relief bill it passed, and Trump hopped on, signing the legislation on Dec. 27. In it, there's $1 billion in emergency funding for Amtrak.
Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn called it a temporary Band-aid that will help the national service and its state and commuter partners, between now and the end of March.
Flynn said he'll work with the next Congress and the Biden administration on getting more money so Amtrak can restore service and bring back furloughed employees.
Restoring daily trains can’t come too soon for Terry Brown of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers. He said the Empire Builder is at about 40% of pre-COVID-19 bookings, a bit short of the 50% Amtrak said it needed to see in order to consider restoring daily service. Brown said COVID-19 isn't over, but the Empire Builder remains vital.
"People in Wisconsin, people across Montana and North Dakota, for many people, this is the only alternative to driving by car. And, I think some of these Amtrak passengers are very hardy travelers. They're agreeable to wearing a mask while and taking other precautions like that,” he said.
Brown added that more riders are even paying much higher prices to take a private sleeping room on the long-distance trains.
There have also been pandemic-related cutbacks on the Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago. Currently there are only four daily roundtrips instead of the usual seven.
Amtrak spokesperson Magliari said restoring full service depends on two key factors: "We'll look at how the bookings are going, how the pandemic is doing come February or March. It's possible. We'd very much like to restore more service by next summer. But, a lot of that is out of our hands."
Due to COVID-19 and the service cutbacks, Hiawatha ridership is well down from 2019, which was a record high year. The rail passengers group said it hopes Wisconsin and Illinois — the two states that fund most of the service — don't trim support during upcoming budget negotiations.
In Wisconsin, that'll be up to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.
Arun Rao, passenger rail program manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said he continues to work on an ongoing effort to eventually add at least an eighth daily roundtrip Hiawatha run and maybe a ninth and tenth.
"We see long-term, travel demand, transportation demand for all forms of transportation in this corridor continuing into the future. Right now, we're still working with the railroad stakeholders to determine some alternative infrastructure improvements in Illinois, working with Illinois DOT,” he said.
Concerns in Glenview and Lake Forest, Illinois, last year delayed some of that Hiawatha expansion work.
Likewise, Rao said Wisconsin and Minnesota continue preliminary work on adding a second daily train between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities — a project known as the TCMC. About $44 million in federal money has been approved for final design and construction, as well as to help the two states cover operating expenses for three years.
"We are just about done with the environmental clearance for the infrastructure improvements. We're working on agreements and finalizing the service plan,” he said.
Rao hopes the TCMC can start rolling by 2024.
That sort of long-term planning and effort may seem, to some, a stretch. Given the current pandemic and the possibility of future ones, and the predictions that more people will be permanently working from home.
But Amtrak just received that $1 billion in emergency funding, and about to take over the White House is Joe Biden, who commuted to Washington many years on a train. Biden has already nominated a transportation secretary — Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg was regarded as rail-friendly when he was mayor of South Bend, Indiana.