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Jun 23, 201403:11 PMVan Lines

with Joe Vanden Plas

Train of thought: Could Madison-to-Chicago service come quickly?

(page 1 of 2)

The proposed Madison-to-Chicago commuter train might not be an express train, but if one gentleman had his way, it would get here in express fashion.

That gentleman is Gary Goyke, the former state lawmaker turned lobbyist, who could be the captain of the “all-lobby” team when it comes to the prospect of twice-daily commuter service between Madison and Chicago.

Goyke invited members of government, business, and the media (including yours truly) on an excursion over the weekend aboard the “Prairie du Chien Limited,” along the rails of the former Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. While I can’t promise the scenery from Madison to Chicago is as scenic as the route from Madison to Prairie du Chien, it could be a sight for sore eyes when it comes to establishing more business connections between Madison and Chicago.

Imagine two round-trip options a day connecting Madison and downtown Chicago, and perhaps passing through Janesville on the way to Chicago. Goyke, whose optimism matches his enthusiasm, seems to think approvals could happen very quickly. “I’d say four or five months,” he said. “It’s going to be quick.”

Given all the collaboration that must take place between various stakeholders, I think that’s a bit optimistic, but no matter the timing, Goyke believes it’s a 95% possibility. After enjoying the scenic ride amid many pleasant conversations with the likes of State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts and local hotelier George Wiesner, general manager of Best Western Plus Inn on the Park, and considering the possibilities of greater connections between two rail-loving cities, Madison and Chicago, I can hardly fault him.

The stakeholders start with Iowa Pacific, the railroad holding company that would supply the cars, but several players have plenty to gain. They include: the Wisconsin Southern and Union Pacific railroads, which own sections of track; the Chicago-based Metra train service, which serves northeast Illinois; and then the southern Wisconsin counties through which the train would travel, bringing with it people and economic development possibilities.

The project needs some additional champions to make the case before the Wisconsin River Rail Transit Commission, which exists to make such connections. That’s where Goyke and some of his fellow travelers come in. He’s accustomed to lobbying before the state Legislature, but rarely before municipalities and commissions.

Methinks he has a lot to sell. At the moment, Madisonians who want to travel by train to Chicago have to drive to Harvard, Ill. (one stop along a Metra line), park overnight, and climb aboard. They could also drive to downtown Milwaukee and catch Amtrak’s Hiawatha to Chicago, which makes about as much sense as flying from here to Chicago — none.

What does make sense, on both sides of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, is moving some vehicular traffic off the freeways. On Chicago’s end, traffic is congested and parking is expensive, which inhibits tourism and business development.

On our side of the border, the University of Wisconsin-Madison could establish even better connections with its extensive alumni base in metropolitan Chicago. Fewer Wisconsinites would have to share the road with people who mix driving with texting, and baby boomers who have aged beyond their “drivable years” would have another transportation option.

Perhaps the best thing is that it doesn’t need state approval, at least according to Goyke. As demonstrated by Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to turn down $800 million in federal funding for Milwaukee-to-Madison Amtrak service, state leadership is less than enthusiastic about publicly funded trains, but Goyke believes the Madison-to-Chicago commuter train can be done in partnership with more accommodating local governments along the eventual route.

Even if the state has a say, why would Walker object? We’re talking about a mostly private-sector solution. The train track infrastructure already exists; it’s simply a matter of selecting the route and making some locally or privately funded track improvements. Some municipalities along the route, via their own financing or federal aid dollars, eventually could build a parking facility and whatever else is required for a multimodal train station.


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Jun 25, 2014 08:29 am
 Posted by  John

"Madisonians who want to travel by train to Chicago have to drive to Harvard, Ill. (one stop along a Metra line), park overnight, and climb aboard. They could also drive to downtown Milwaukee and catch Amtrak’s Hiawatha to Chicago"

Excuse me? You totally glossed over the EXISTING daily Amtrak service from the area. Why do Madisonians so eager for trains disregard the service we already have (and already pay for)?

A half hour drive from the northwest side gets you to the Amtrak station in the Dells and it's only 20 minutes from Easttowne to the Columbus station (it could actually take you longer to get downtown and park from either of those locations, depending on traffic). In 2013, Amtrak had about 30,000 "boardings and alightings" at those 2 stations (about 40 people per day each way). Obviously many of them were going to places other than Chicago, but let's be generous and say half were. I think Mr. Goyke will have a hard time making an economic case for new train service to Chicago when the existing, heavily subsidized service only garners 20 riders a day.

Jun 25, 2014 11:42 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

This is a great idea. I would take the train to Chicago frequently!

Jun 25, 2014 03:19 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I take the Van Galder bus from Madison to Chicago a couple of times a year. It's a nice comfortable ride with only four stops on the way. It's $30 each way. There are nine departures daily and its usually four hours or a little less to downtown Chicago. Shaving an hour off the trip and having a club car with food would be an improvement, but not worth it if the train costs a lot more. The bus service is perfectly adequate.

Jun 25, 2014 05:50 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

The existing Amtrak train to Chicago via Cambridge/Wisconsin Dells goes only once a day in each direction, hardly practical. Further, when going in the Chicago direction, it's on day 2 of a cross-continent trip from Washington. As it tends to accrue delay time over the course of the trip, the boarding time at Cambridge/Dells is unreliable at best. Thus, the current average boarding at these stops is not a good indicator of potential ridership on a direct Madison-Chicago route. Ridership of the Milwaukee-Chicago route would be a fairer comparison.

I take the VanGalder bus often and the service is convenient but the fact that it is subject to same traffic and delays on the interstate as cars are is always a wild card, if one needs to be in Chicago by a certain time. If we had a reliable commuter train running on predictable schedules, similar to what exists in the eastern corridor and no need for super speed, I would use it often. It works very well in the east and coach ticket prices on other short-haul Amtrak routes are quite comparable to bus fares.

Mar 1, 2015 09:39 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

If they do it right, travelers will use it. If not - cars and buses will out compete the train as mode of getting there.

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