Opponents spew myths about high-speed rail

I speak as a former resident, of 23 years, of Waukesha County who has worked within the transportation field for some 40 years. I moved myself and my company out of the region 13 years ago when it became clear that the Milwaukee/Waukesha metropolitan region was going backward in solving the growing problem of mobility.

If there’s anything sadder than Scott Walker’s ongoing dialogue of misinformation about the rail passenger project – aided by Mark Belling – poised to begin, it’s that so many citizens believed it all. Here are some facts; they can be verified by Amtrak, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the cities mentioned.

1. The construction poised to begin on the revival of rail passenger service to Madison has NOTHING to do with high-speed rail other than it MAY, years from now, pave the way to a true high-speed (speeds in excess of 150 m.p.h. or so) rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities via Milwaukee and Madison. The work that was slated to begin soon before being recently suspended is for the EXTENSION to Madison of an existing, popular, and growing train service – the Hiawatha Service – between Chicago and Milwaukee. Conventional trains speeds (79 m.p.h.) are the goal initially, with an increase to 90-110 m.p.h. The Hiawatha trains of the 1930s–1960s saw these speeds.

2. Information dispersed by anti-rail concerns has implied that the impending work is for a brand-new, newfangled, orphan "high-speed" rail line linking only Milwaukee and Madison. The reality? This is an extension of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service that is to use track and right-of-way that already has Amtrak service (the Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities-Seattle "Empire Builder") as far west as Watertown and earlier, under Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, had hosted rail passenger service from the late 1800s to the late 1950s. The trains that are to ply the revamped line to Madison are the very same trains that currently run between Chicago and Milwaukee; their runs simply are to be extended to Madison, providing through service to and from Chicago via Milwaukee.

3. A commonly heard statement is "Nobody wants to ride a train between Milwaukee and Chicago." Rail ridership statistics from around the U.S. and an overcrowded I-94 suggest otherwise, but the point that is being missed by residents of southeastern Wisconsin is that the extension isn’t simply to serve the Milwaukee-Madison market. The extension creates a matrix of sub-corridors aside from just Milwaukee-Madison. Madison, Watertown, and (if they got a station) Oconomowoc residents will be able to take the train to the Milwaukee County Airport Amtrak station to catch a flight. (This station is currently the most popular between Chicago and Milwaukee, with the exception of Chicago). Waukesha County residents could catch their trains at a Brookfield station and ride through to Chicago instead of driving to the Milwaukee Airport Amtrak station (which is what many west suburban residents do now to catch a train to Chicago; the airport Amtrak station is easier to deal with than downtown Milwaukee).

4. "Nobody rides trains; they’re empty." Blogger statements like this only underscore how little Americans understand transportation issues in general and rail transportation in particular. The fact is, fiscal year 2010 just saw Amtrak achieve its highest ridership ever, at nearly 29 million. (It was less than half that when Amtrak started in 1971). One blogger on BizTimes stated that he never rode the trains that served Seattle, Washington, and that they were always empty. Not so. Amtrak’s Vancouver, B.C.-Seattle-Portland "Cascade Corridor" began with fewer than 100,000 riders annually; presently the route is carrying some 800,000 riders annually and the State has had to add more trains. Overall, Amtrak’s numerous state-supported and other short-distance corridors throughout the country grew overall by nearly 8 percent during July/August/September 2010 despite the recent recession.

5. "Wisconsin will have to pay millions to operate the service." Probably, but did anyone think to mention that the operating costs will be offset by REVENUE? In the fall of 2009, the State of Virginia embarked on its first state-supported intercity passenger train by doing something very similar to what Wisconsin had been planning: Virginia extended an existing New York-Washington, D.C., train 173 miles on to Lynchburg, a city about half the size of Madison. There was much gnashing of teeth that no one would ride the train, etc., but that’s not what happened. The extended train is running at near capacity and is now making a profit for the State of Virginia. A similar situation exists between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine–a route that had been devoid of rail passenger service since about 1960. The route was revived early in the 2000s as Amtrak’s Downeaster service despite much angst by pro-highway types and other prophets of doom. The initial four round trips eventually proved inadequate to accommodate demand, and more trains were added; now the popular service is being extended beyond Portland to Freeport and Brunswick, Maine. With forward-thinking leadership, Wisconsin can achieve results like this, too.

6. A couple of bloggers have stated that they’ve never seen economic growth around the Milwaukee train station and other passenger train stations and thus they’ve generalized that this is always the case for every station. Again, reality shows a different picture. Here are just a few communities where improved rail passenger service has ushered in economic growth around the station and elsewhere: Glenview, Illinois; Oakland/Jack London Square, California; Tinley Park, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; Stamford, Connecticut; Washington, D.C. (Washington Union Station is now the Number One tourist destination in the U.S. capital); Normal, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Anaheim, California; and so on.

7A. "Subsidized rail service competes with private operators such as Badger Bus." Do you really think that Badger Bus antied up any capital to build its "tracks" (I-94 and U.S. 18, both of which are funded by the state and not the feds) between Milwaukee and Madison? No, the taxpayers provided the capital for Badger’s (and Greyhounds) tracks.

7B. "Badger Bus is all we need for public transport between Milwaukee and Madison." Transportation planning agencies have indicated that rail is preferred over bus in a given short- or medium-distance corridor but that in the absence of rail service, people tend not to revert to the bus, but drive instead. That said, buses can and do perform important functions in various travel markets, and they work particularly well in providing coordinated connecting service with train routes. Amtrak’s network of "Thruway" buses in California has been enormously successful. If Badger is as progressive as it says it is, it would do well to provide both complementary and connecting services to Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison passenger trains. For example, Badger could serve less heavily traveled time slots between Milwaukee and Madison while also serving towns not slated to be rail passenger station stops. Tickets could be honored or interchangeable on either Amtrak or Badger. Further, Badger could obtain franchises to provide connecting service to Amtrak trains, such as Dubuque-Madison or Prairie du Chien-Madison.

8. "High-speed rail only works in Europe and Asia because of population density." The population density of southern Wisconsin and Illinois is about the same as France, which has arguably the world’s finest high-speed rail network.

If Walker goes through with this rejection, it will be yet another backward step for southern Wisconsin and Milwaukee – and costly, too. The state may end up paying back more money to the feds than it would spend on operating the extension service.

Mike Schafer, a resident of Lee, Ill., formerly resided in Waukesha.

I speak as a former resident, of 23 years, of Waukesha County who has worked within the transportation field for some 40 years. I moved myself and my company out of the region 13 years ago when it became clear that the Milwaukee/Waukesha metropolitan region was going backward in solving the growing problem of mobility.

If there’s anything sadder than Scott Walker’s ongoing dialogue of misinformation about the rail passenger project – aided by Mark Belling – poised to begin, it’s that so many citizens believed it all. Here are some facts; they can be verified by Amtrak, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the cities mentioned.

1. The construction poised to begin on the revival of rail passenger service to Madison has NOTHING to do with high-speed rail other than it MAY, years from now, pave the way to a true high-speed (speeds in excess of 150 m.p.h. or so) rail line between Chicago and the Twin Cities via Milwaukee and Madison. The work that was slated to begin soon before being recently suspended is for the EXTENSION to Madison of an existing, popular, and growing train service – the Hiawatha Service – between Chicago and Milwaukee. Conventional trains speeds (79 m.p.h.) are the goal initially, with an increase to 90-110 m.p.h. The Hiawatha trains of the 1930s–1960s saw these speeds.

2. Information dispersed by anti-rail concerns has implied that the impending work is for a brand-new, newfangled, orphan "high-speed" rail line linking only Milwaukee and Madison. The reality? This is an extension of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service that is to use track and right-of-way that already has Amtrak service (the Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities-Seattle "Empire Builder") as far west as Watertown and earlier, under Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, had hosted rail passenger service from the late 1800s to the late 1950s. The trains that are to ply the revamped line to Madison are the very same trains that currently run between Chicago and Milwaukee; their runs simply are to be extended to Madison, providing through service to and from Chicago via Milwaukee.

3. A commonly heard statement is "Nobody wants to ride a train between Milwaukee and Chicago." Rail ridership statistics from around the U.S. and an overcrowded I-94 suggest otherwise, but the point that is being missed by residents of southeastern Wisconsin is that the extension isn’t simply to serve the Milwaukee-Madison market. The extension creates a matrix of sub-corridors aside from just Milwaukee-Madison. Madison, Watertown, and (if they got a station) Oconomowoc residents will be able to take the train to the Milwaukee County Airport Amtrak station to catch a flight. (This station is currently the most popular between Chicago and Milwaukee, with the exception of Chicago). Waukesha County residents could catch their trains at a Brookfield station and ride through to Chicago instead of driving to the Milwaukee Airport Amtrak station (which is what many west suburban residents do now to catch a train to Chicago; the airport Amtrak station is easier to deal with than downtown Milwaukee).

4. "Nobody rides trains; they’re empty." Blogger statements like this only underscore how little Americans understand transportation issues in general and rail transportation in particular. The fact is, fiscal year 2010 just saw Amtrak achieve its highest ridership ever, at nearly 29 million. (It was less than half that when Amtrak started in 1971). One blogger on BizTimes stated that he never rode the trains that served Seattle, Washington, and that they were always empty. Not so. Amtrak’s Vancouver, B.C.-Seattle-Portland "Cascade Corridor" began with fewer than 100,000 riders annually; presently the route is carrying some 800,000 riders annually and the State has had to add more trains. Overall, Amtrak’s numerous state-supported and other short-distance corridors throughout the country grew overall by nearly 8 percent during July/August/September 2010 despite the recent recession.

5. "Wisconsin will have to pay millions to operate the service." Probably, but did anyone think to mention that the operating costs will be offset by REVENUE? In the fall of 2009, the State of Virginia embarked on its first state-supported intercity passenger train by doing something very similar to what Wisconsin had been planning: Virginia extended an existing New York-Washington, D.C., train 173 miles on to Lynchburg, a city about half the size of Madison. There was much gnashing of teeth that no one would ride the train, etc., but that’s not what happened. The extended train is running at near capacity and is now making a profit for the State of Virginia. A similar situation exists between Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine–a route that had been devoid of rail passenger service since about 1960. The route was revived early in the 2000s as Amtrak’s Downeaster service despite much angst by pro-highway types and other prophets of doom. The initial four round trips eventually proved inadequate to accommodate demand, and more trains were added; now the popular service is being extended beyond Portland to Freeport and Brunswick, Maine. With forward-thinking leadership, Wisconsin can achieve results like this, too.

6. A couple of bloggers have stated that they’ve never seen economic growth around the Milwaukee train station and other passenger train stations and thus they’ve generalized that this is always the case for every station. Again, reality shows a different picture. Here are just a few communities where improved rail passenger service has ushered in economic growth around the station and elsewhere: Glenview, Illinois; Oakland/Jack London Square, California; Tinley Park, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; Stamford, Connecticut; Washington, D.C. (Washington Union Station is now the Number One tourist destination in the U.S. capital); Normal, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Dallas, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Anaheim, California; and so on.

7A. "Subsidized rail service competes with private operators such as Badger Bus." Do you really think that Badger Bus antied up any capital to build its "tracks" (I-94 and U.S. 18, both of which are funded by the state and not the feds) between Milwaukee and Madison? No, the taxpayers provided the capital for Badger’s (and Greyhounds) tracks.

7B. "Badger Bus is all we need for public transport between Milwaukee and Madison." Transportation planning agencies have indicated that rail is preferred over bus in a given short- or medium-distance corridor but that in the absence of rail service, people tend not to revert to the bus, but drive instead. That said, buses can and do perform important functions in various travel markets, and they work particularly well in providing coordinated connecting service with train routes. Amtrak’s network of "Thruway" buses in California has been enormously successful. If Badger is as progressive as it says it is, it would do well to provide both complementary and connecting services to Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison passenger trains. For example, Badger could serve less heavily traveled time slots between Milwaukee and Madison while also serving towns not slated to be rail passenger station stops. Tickets could be honored or interchangeable on either Amtrak or Badger. Further, Badger could obtain franchises to provide connecting service to Amtrak trains, such as Dubuque-Madison or Prairie du Chien-Madison.

8. "High-speed rail only works in Europe and Asia because of population density." The population density of southern Wisconsin and Illinois is about the same as France, which has arguably the world’s finest high-speed rail network.

If Walker goes through with this rejection, it will be yet another backward step for southern Wisconsin and Milwaukee – and costly, too. The state may end up paying back more money to the feds than it would spend on operating the extension service.

Mike Schafer, a resident of Lee, Ill., formerly resided in Waukesha.

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