Getting Back on the Rail: Worth it for Biz Travel?

Thanks to federal stimulus funding, the Milwaukee to Madison high-speed rail line is closer to reality than ever before, but that doesn't mean everyone views it as a viable, cost-effective transportation alternative.

All indications are that the long-sought rail connector, which would essentially link Madison to Chicago by rail because Milwaukee and Chicago already are served by the Hiawatha Amtrak train, will receive $519 million in federal funding that is part of an $8 billion rail allocation contained in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

The state is preparing the requisite paperwork for what many believe is a done deal. Yet even though the public's satisfaction with airline service has declined for the third straight year, according to J.D. Power & Associates, some question whether this high-speed rail service will be time- and cost-competitive enough for Madison business travelers to bypass cars and planes.

The doubters include State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia. Vos is an outright opponent of commuter rail in metropolitan areas that are not densely populated; he has doubts about the high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee, and he's even more dubious of the proposed future rail line between Madison and the Twin Cities.

"I'm a skeptic about spending billions and billions of dollars on the high-speed rail initiative when it's not necessarily going to be high speed, and it's not necessarily going to be anything that in a meaningful way competes for people who are going to want to drive a car, or for people who are going to want to take a plane," he said.

Rail Routing

Ron Adams, railroad and harbor section chief for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said $397 million of the more than $500 million in federal funding would be used for rail infrastructure, including Amtrak stations at each stop. About $122 million would be spent on equipment, including locomotives.

In Madison, the proposed high-speed rail route runs past Dane County Regional Airport and down to about First Street before crossing East Washington Avenue. For economic development reasons, there is support for a "Yahara" Amtrak station at Burr Jones Field, near First Street and East Washington, but current plans call for the station to be at the airport. From Madison, the train route heads east with stops in Watertown, Oconomowoc, and Brookfield before proceeding to the Amtrak Station on St. Paul Avenue in downtown Milwaukee.

From there, it links up with the Milwaukee to Chicago route, which extends from the downtown Amtrak station to Mitchell International Airport on MilwaukeeÕs southeast side, and then makes two stops — at Sturtevant, Wis. and Glenview, Ill. — before continuing on to Union Station in downtown Chicago.

In terms of train speed for the Milwaukee to Madison route, the DOT estimates an average of 78 miles per hour for the "express" service and an average of 67 miles per hour for the service with stops. At various points along the route, the train would reach 110 miles per hour, which is more aligned with the federal government's guidelines for high-speed service (90 to 100 mph). "We're talking a top speed of up to 110 miles per hour," Adams said. "When you have stops, there are areas where you can't go 110."

Once this service is fully operational, Adams said those speeds would take Madisonians along the planned route to Union Station in Chicago in two hours and 25 minutes.

While that might not sound like a big advantage over the automobile, keep in mind that there are productivity benefits to taking the Amtrak train, including 110-volt electrical outlets. This enables business travelers to plug in cell phones, PDAs, and laptops while using them en route.

According to Adams, the DOT is looking into the possibility of wireless Internet or Wi-Fi service on the trains (a service some airlines now are providing), but for the time being, the owners of laptop connect cards are the only ones who can access the Internet on the train. "We would expect to see at least that level of capability [from Madison to Milwaukee]," Adams said. "Again, it's really going to depend on what's out there at the time."

Trains, Planes & Automobiles

Now, let's do some comparison shopping:

Because the existing round-trip rail fare between Milwaukee and Chicago is $44 ($22 one way), and because Madison and Milwaukee are about the same distance apart as Milwaukee and Chicago, it's fair to assume that a round-trip rail fare between Madison and Chicago would be about $88 ($44 x 2).

Given these factors, high-speed rail advocates like Rick Harnisch, executive director of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association, believe rail hits a sweet spot with cost advantages over air travel and time advantages over automobile travel.

A recent online check of business day air fares for a 45-minute economy flight between Madison and Chicago found the range for one traveler to be between $300 to $400 round trip, so the estimated round-trip train fare of $88 is very cost competitive to that of an airplane ticket.

The advantage of air travel, of course, is that it gets you there faster — in this case, 100 minutes faster (45 minutes for the plane versus two hours and 25 minutes, or 145 minutes, for the train.)

The opportunity to do productive work in both the air and train modes makes that consideration a wash, especially with both looking to add high-speed Internet access.

Harnisch said "true" high-speed rail, which would feature speeds well above the federal guidelines, would do more to mitigate the time advantage of air. He said speeds of 150 mph are a perfectly reasonable expectation for high-speed rail from Chicago to Madison, (some high-speed trains are being built to travel 220 mph.) He also said the business community in Madison — if it wants to stay on the economic map — needs to come out in favor of true high-speed rail between Chicago and Minneapolis, with a stop in Madison.

"Now, if it's 150 or 160 miles per hour, that puts you in the one hour to one hour and 15-minute range [from Chicago]," Harnisch said. "Think how that changes your position in the economy. If we designed it right, you'd have direct service to O'Hare. So suddenly you're an hour away from O'Hare, and anybody in the world can fly to O'Hare and be just an hour away from downtown Madison.

"That really changes Madison's place in the world."

For the sake of estimating, we will assume that car travel is about three hours from Madison to downtown Chicago at virtually any time of day, so the train shaves about 35 minutes off the normal travel time. "I'd say by train, you're more likely to get there when you plan on getting there," Adams said. "I don't know what you call rush hour in Chicago anymore."

For a business traveler driving a mid-sized car with a 12-gallon gas tank, a round trip from Milwaukee to Madison takes about a half tank of gas, so it's safe to estimate that a round-trip car ride from Madison to Chicago would take a full tank of gas if not more. At the current cost of gas — roughly $2.50 per gallon — it would take $30 to fill the gas tank.

So in terms of sheer cost of the trip, driving is preferable, but the calculation is not that simple; there are productivity hours to consider. A mid-level executive making $75,000 annually is essentially paid an hourly rate of $36 per hour (based on a 40 hours/week). Using this example, the cost ($36 x 3 hours) to a company in terms of lost productivity tilts the balance in favor of rail.

That does not factor in the cost of parking a car in downtown Chicago. "If you need to go to downtown Chicago [by car], you're looking at probably $40 or $45 to store your car for the day," said Harnisch, who lives outside of Chicago. "You can get down to $25 or $30, but it takes some skill at knowing where to park."

Vos and Harnisch may disagree about the value of the proposed Madison to Milwaukee rail line, but they are in complete agreement about the merits of truly high-speed trains. Vos noted that unless high-speed rail is competitive with the automobile in terms of travel time, people will simply stick to current options.

"In certain circumstances, it works if you have very dense areas with lots of traffic where people can see a time advantage and a cost advantage to be able to take a train versus a car," Vos said, "but as somebody who has driven the route from Chicago to Madison, there is traffic around Chicago but rarely is there traffic that causes much of a delay around Milwaukee.

"For an opportunity to pay more money, not have a vehicle when I get there, and only go at the speed of a normal car, that doesn't seem to me to be much of an advantage for spending billions of dollars to make it happen."

Based on his personal experience, Vos disputed the notion that the train is always a more productive mode of transportation than the automobile. For laptop use, he concedes that it is, but for the use of a mobile phone, he'll dial up an argument.

"I'm on my cell phone the vast majority of time when I'm driving," Vos stated. [Ed. note: It's illegal in Chicago]. "You really can't do that in a productive way on a train with 100 people around you. If you're working on your laptop, that's possible, but if you want to return phone calls and talk on the cell phone, being on the train is probably less productive than being in a car."

Vos is even more skeptical about the number of people who will use the train to go from Chicago to Minneapolis because it would be, in his estimation, a six-hour train ride versus a one-hour plane trip. High-speed rail would have to be more competitive with air travel than the anticipated speeds would allow, he added.

"When I look and see the amount of traffic between people who live in Milwaukee and Chicago and people who live in Chicago and Madison and Minneapolis, more people in my mind will continue to take airplanes from Chicago to Minneapolis because time is of the essence," Vos said. "If you don't go to a couple of hundred miles an hour, which can never happen because our corridor is too dense, you'll never see an opportunity where you're actually making it either time competitive or cost competitive."

Cost-Benefit

There isn't yet enough information to estimate the extent to which this Madison to Milwaukee route will be self sufficient — ie. financed through the fare box — or the extent to which the state and federal governments will cover operations.

Amtrak critics point to its 38 money-losing years, but its defenders note that most forms of transportation are subsidized by taxpayers. In the last fiscal year, the State of Wisconsin was going to contribute $6.5 million toward the Hiawatha service. In addition, there probably was "at least that much that was recovered from the fare box," Adams said, noting that $7.3 million was collected from October of 2008 to April of 2009. He said fare box capture isn't as much of an issue with high-speed rail because "we can charge higher fares" than commuter rail can.

He added: "We've done some preliminary things as we've moved forward with our application for the stimulus funding under the ARRA. We'll have to do some more, but this is going to be a service that is comparable to the Milwaukee-Chicago service today."

That comes as no surprise to Vos, who said rail advocates rarely even raise this point. "Wouldn't it be nice to know for the high-speed rail that they have an idea about ridership?" Vos asked. "Do they have any idea about the projected taxpayer subsidy? You never hear them talk about that."

If things turn out more like commuter rail, the taxpayers will subsidize quite a bit of high-speed rail's operations, and that's on top of millions of capital for rail upgrades and locomotives. According to Vos, the fare box capture on the KRM commuter line between Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee is only 18%, while the taxpayers subsidize 82% of its operational costs.

The public can choose to do that, of course, but Vos asserted that realistic estimates on the pubic-private share should be part of the cost-benefit analysis, and taxpayers should be aware of their share of the annual operating costs.

"We only have limited resources, so we've got to focus on the very best investments to grow our economy," Vos said. "Whether environmentalists or anti-car advocates like it or not, the vast majority of Americans will use a car before they will take subsidized transit. We've seen that."

Vos also said that unlike rail, the people who drive vehicles on the highway system generally pay for it. "I look at it and say that the highway system we have right now is funded by user fees," he noted. "Now we might disagree, but for the most part the money that goes into building the interstate highway system comes out of two sources — either the federal gas tax, which provides money from the federal government, or the state gas tax and driver's registration fees, which provides the state share. So, in my mind, people who utilize it are the ones who are actually benefitting from it."

Processing All This

The DOT has submitted a pre-application for funding, and it will be expected to correct any weaknesses before submitting a final application. The biggest uncertainty is not about funding; it's about when Wisconsin will receive the ultimate green light because there is no time frame for federal officials to review eligibility, rank projects, and announce the selections. However, "We're obviously excited about being able to apply for funding," Adams said, "and move this project forward."