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

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.



So just as the City of Madison is figuring out how to become more connected beyond a fixed-route transit system, this train route would serve the cause of making more regional connections — business-friendly regional connections.

In addition to a couple of Iowa Pacific locomotives, the seven-car trains would include a full dining car and a business car. If they are anything like the special excursion train to Prairie du Chien, they will be well appointed for the business traveler, allowing computer work and/or conversations to take place en route. The Wi-Fi service was certainly robust enough to keep businesspeople connected and working.

While the following details would have to be worked out, each of the two daily trips would take about three hours each way, travel about 80 miles per hour at top speeds, and cost roughly $40 for a one-way fare, which is probably just enough to cover the cost of operating the train.

Goyke, who has climbed on the pro-rail group All Aboard Wisconsin, sees this as the first step in diversifying local public transportation. “It would put Madison back into the rail picture,” Goyke says, “and if this is successful, other services will follow.”

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