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Friday, February 23, 2024

Transit experts weigh in on proposed Madison Amtrak station

Transit experts stress the importance of speed and frequency for Madison train service.

The city of Madison held a virtual meeting Tuesday to present initial findings of the Madison Passenger Rail Station Identification Study to the public.

City officials unveiled the preliminary draft of the project in January. The study aims to find a future site for a Madison Amtrak station. It evaluated six corridors for a potential site, later narrowing the study to eight site locations.  

Although no funding has been approved for a potential new train station or passenger rail service to Madison, Mayor Rhodes-Conway expressed her excitement for the potential corridor at the meeting.

“We want visitors to Madison to feel how special our community is,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Get excited about the prospect of passenger rail service returning to Madison because I am super excited about it.” 

Arun Rao, Amtrak director of network development,  said Tuesday the proposed Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor has both potential for high ridership and return on investment. 

Rao said most of the ridership, like the existing Hiawatha Line, would be for business trips, tourism and educational travel rather than daily commutes.  

Transit experts on rail service to Madison 

Dr. Michael Schlicting, Ph.D. in transportation & community development and University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni, told The Daily Cardinal his primary concern is how an extended Hiawatha train will compete with alternatives like the Badger Bus or driving in terms of speed, schedule, reliability and ease of use.  

Schlicting referenced past failures like the Lake Country Limited from Janesville to Chicago, which was discontinued in 2001 after less than two years of service. He said the line was a “complete failure due to speed and frequency issues.” 

Schlicting emphasized the importance of ensuring all tracks from Madison to Milwaukee can support a time-competitive alternative. 

Noah Sobczak, president of student-run Wisconsin High-Speed Transportation Group, said there should be an emphasis on train operation, planning a future with faster trains and opportunities for transit-oriented development when choosing a site. 

Sobczak told the Cardinal he prefers high-speed rail service to Madison, such as the Japanese Shinkansen rolling stock, which operates at over 180 mph. Using Shinkansen locomotives could mean Madison to Milwaukee in under 40 minutes and Madison to Chicago in under 90 minutes, according to Sobczak’s calculations. The current Hiawatha Line runs 90 minutes on average between Milwaukee and Chicago.

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The existing locomotive used by Amtrak Midwest, the Siemens Charger, can operate at over 100 mph. However, Amtrak rarely runs their trains this fast because the freight-owned track they operate on cannot support higher speeds. 

“The only current limitation to the speed of the corridor is the infrastructure itself, upgrading the current track and grade crossings could allow for higher speeds,” Sobczak said. 

Rao said the corridor's speed has yet to be determined, but will likely use the Siemens Charger.  

Transit Experts on Station Location 

Regarding station location, Schlicting said the study should focus on accessibility for cars and public transit. 

“Will it be easy to park and hop onto the train? This is critical to those outside the city of Madison area who may drive to the station, and then park and ride, such as Deforest, Waunakee, Sun Prairie, etc.,” Schlicting said. 

Schlicting recommended the Johnson Street location due to its proximity to campus and space for parking and redevelopment. 

“The station is on the future north/south BRT, and the rail line could also be expanded north someday to Minneapolis,” he said. “Also, that whole area has potential redevelopment, including potential affordable housing.”

Schlicting said the proposed Baldwin and Blair sites are acceptable but have more limitations. He is opposed to the Monona site.  

“As for Monona Terrace, it is a dark, cramped and noisy location that I believe is hard to get to,” Schlicting said. “Further, Monona Terrace would cause significant traffic jams on Williamson, Wilson and Blair as that whole intersection will need to shut down for the train to enter and exit the station.”

Sobczak has a similar view. He said the Monona site “may provide less economic benefit to the city than other sites.”

Sobczak prefers the Johnson Street site. 

“It is the best location to recreate a station area in Madison while still serving a large part of the city,” Sobczak said. “The site has a lot of potential for spurring development in Madison...with adequate access to existing roads and planned BRT services.”

City officials plan to recommend one or more station sites later this year. If rail lines are added or extended to Madison, the service would not start to run until 2027 at the earliest, according to the study.

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