The effort to establish a second daily passenger train connecting La Crosse with Chicago and the Twin Cities is rolling ahead.
Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation officials determined in 2015 that there is demand to support another train on the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul corridor, which is currently served by Amtrak’s Empire Builder with one train a day each way between Chicago, Seattle and Portland.
There are limited non-auto transportation options between Chicago and the Twin Cities, according to a study completed this summer, and projected population growth is expected to create additional congestion on highways and strain airline service.
The addition of a second round-trip service would effectively double the options for local passengers heading east or west, and would allow someone to travel to St. Paul for a meeting and return the next day. The existing Amtrak timetable would require a two-night layover.
“There’s such an incredible community of interest in the La Crosse area,” said Gary Goyke, legislative director for All Aboard Wisconsin, who notes the service would be a boon for the city’s medical centers, major employers and festivals.
Goyke said the the pro-train advocacy group considers the inter-city passenger service essential to Wisconsin’s economic development, likening it to Interstate 70 through Kansas.
“If your community was not on that highway, your community faded,” Goyke said. “Passenger and freight rail are those highways of the future. Want to see Wisconsin communities connected.”
Under a suggested timetable, passengers could leave La Crosse in the mid-afternoon and be in either the Twin Cities or Chicago in the evening. Returning trains would leave around noon and arrive by mid-afternoon.
With the current Empire Builder schedule, westbound trains leave La Crosse only in the evening, arriving in the Twin Cities after 10 p.m., while eastbound trains leave the Cities in the early morning and arrive around 10:45 a.m. — when they’re on time.
“This lays the foundation for additional service on the corridor,” said Praveena Pidaparthi, the MNDOT project manager for the first-phase study. “Once we get this started it will give us the opportunity.”
The release of a “purpose and need statement” last month for the second train marks the launch of the public involvement phase of the study, a joint effort of the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois departments of transportation, along with the Federal Railroad Administration, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Association and the La Crosse Area Planning Committee.
Public information sessions will be held next month in La Crosse and St. Paul.
Pidaparthi said the next planning phase will produce more detailed timetables as well as cost estimates and an assessment of environmental impacts.
The current Empire Builder carries more than 100,000 passengers a year between the Twin Cities and Chicago, about a quarter of its total ridership. About 12,000 passengers took the train from La Crosse to Chicago last year, according to the study.
Ridership on a second train would be about 155,500 per year, according to the feasibility study, which estimated the additional service would cost roughly $95 million to establish — more if additional train cars are needed — and would require about $6.6 million a year in state subsidies to operate.
Goyke notes that all modes of transportation are subsidized and said it’s more efficient to maintain rail than highways.
“It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “The economic benefit argument can be made about rail as strongly if not stronger than putting in a highway.”