Wisconsin Rail Enthusiasts, Advocates Keep Pursuing East-West Regional Train

Feb 13, 2019

The Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, a railroad passengers group with nearly 700 members, is trying to steer the idea of a second daily Amtrak train across Wisconsin into reality. Town hall meetings will be held Wednesday and Thursday evenings on the possibility of a shorter, more reliable, Empire Builder. 

Amtrak's current Empire Builder train runs from Chicago, through Milwaukee, to the Twin Cities, all the way to the West Coast.  

Usually the westbound train is right on time when it rolls into the Milwaukee station. However, the return Empire Builder from the West Coast that is occasionally behind schedule by the time it reaches Wisconsin - even hours behind, as it was last Saturday. 

Terry Brown of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers says the delays make it hard for people in the central and western parts of the state who want to take the train east.

The proposed route map of the regional train.
Credit Minnesota Department of Transportation

"Its schedule has become crazy. It is unreliable, it is chronically late.  But it's not late in a predictable pattern," says Brown.

The passengers group (also known as WisARP) remains in favor of an idea that surfaced a few years ago:  have a second daily Empire Builder just from Chicago to Saint Paul and back to avoid delays that often occur in the Western U.S.

The train might roll through Milwaukee in mid-morning going west and head east in the evening.   The states of Minnesota and Wisconsin would provide much of the funding for what would be a regional train.

Brown says his group's town hall meetings Wednesday night in Tomah and Thursday night in Portage are attempts to show new Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers that people want the second Empire Builder.

"We need the support for the Governor, we need support from the Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. We need all the support we can get," he says.

The states have done some preliminary work on the second daily Empire Builder. It isn't clear yet whether Democrat governor Evers and the Republican-led state legislature can agree to keep things going. Wisconsin Passenger Rail Manager Arun Rao says the project remains up for discussion.

The Empire Builder leaves Milwaukee, heading west.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Does that mean rail passengers should be optimistic?

"There's room for optimism in that we've really sort of come a long way in the planning process, and we know what the next steps are, and we're in the process of evaluating," says Rao.

If Wisconsin and Minnesota agree to take on the project, the next steps might be completing an environmental assessment, then applying for a federal grant for final design and construction according to Rao.  Even if work does move forward, he notes train service may not start for another four or five years.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is helping to celebrate the renovation of the depot in Tomah, Wis., one of the Empire Builder stops, Wednesday night.

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