Purpose: To establish passenger rail service in the Eau Claire-Menomonie-Twin Cities corridor
An intergovernmental group of West Central Wisconsin cities and counties gathered online on April 5 for the first organizational meeting of a new commission to pursue the establishment of passenger rail service on the Eau Claire-St. Paul corridor.
The Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission includes Eau Claire, Dunn, and St. Croix counties, as well as the municipalities of Altoona, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Baldwin, New Richmond, and Hudson. Among its purposes is to represent the public interest in a planned public-private partnership to start four trains daily along the route, for which the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition has been working in recent years. It could also play a role in a potential Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities route that was identified last week by Amtrak as one that could be part of an expanded national network with funding in President Biden's proposed infrastructure package.
The Rail Coalition's current focus has been to start with a St. Paul-Hudson/River Falls-Baldwin-Menomonie-Eau Claire service with four trains a day each way as a first step, working on a public-private partnership with Corridor Rail Development of Chicago that would have the service operated over the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad by a non-Amtrak private carrier. The Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission will coordinate efforts to implement the proposed service, undertake local planning, and pursue the long-term vision that includes service to Milwaukee and Chicago.
Each jurisdiction passed a resolution setting forth the expected activities of the commission and a commitment to join the others to create the commission. It's anticipated that the commission will meet monthly, with next steps including development of bylaws and intergovernmental agreements to advance its activities.
Amtrak Connects US vision map. Prospective new routes are shown in blue.
"Amtrak Connects US" vision includes route through Eau Calire
The formation of the new regional commission is also timely after the national passenger train carrier, Amtrak, on March 31 announced its "Amtrak Connects US" vision for new and improved routes across the country. For Wisconsin, that vision includes enhanced service on existing train routes and new services to reach Eau Claire, Madison and Green Bay. The Amtrak plan comes after President Joe Biden released his proposed infrastructure package, including an $80 billion investment in passenger and freight rail.
Leaders of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition praised the inclusion by Amtrak of a through Chicago-Twin Cities route via Eau Claire. "Being included in the nationwide vision is another demonstration of the viability of service to our region," notes Coalition Chair Scott Rogers, who is also Vice President Governmental Affairs for the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. "We have some of the fastest-growing counties and cities in the state," he said, "Adding passenger rail will help enhance the attractiveness of our communities and help that growth continue."
Amtrak expansion routes track with Wisconsin State Rail Plan
Rogers points out that Amtrak's proposed additional routes in Wisconsin are the same as those envisioned as part of Wisconsin's long-range plan, enumerated in the State Rail Plan adopted in 2014:
2014 Wisconsin Rail Plan long-range map (WisDOT)
In particular, the long-range plan map, on page 6-38 of the Rail Plan's Passenger Rail Chapter, shows plans for future routes serving Madison, the Fox Valley, Green Bay, and Eau Claire. Adopted in 2014, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation recently began a process to update the plan: Wisconsin Rail Plan 2050.
Next step in Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities expansion already underway
WisDOT, Minnesota DOT, and Amtrak are currently completing plans to extend one of the popular Chicago-Milwaukee "Hiawatha" trains across the state to Tomah, La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing and St. Paul, stations served once a day by the long-distance Empire Builder. That plan includes dedicated shuttle connections to serve Eau Claire, Madison, and Rochester. The Rail Coalition supports the project because it would be complementary to its efforts to link West Central Wisconsin to passenger rail service to Milwaukee and Chicago.
Map of proposed 2nd train with shuttles to Eau Claire, Rochester, Madison (WisDOT)
Will all new services be operated by Amtrak?
As noted, the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition's current efforts envision starting service between St. Paul and Eau Claire with a private carrier other than Amtrak. Elsewhere, privately-sponsored or public services operated by private contractors have been implemented or are being planned in Florida, Texas, Las Vegas, Connecticut and by several commuter lines. Amtrak also recently began talking with states and localities about passenger rail expansion opportunities.
"The Fact Sheet for Amtrak's Connects US vision includes a 'Why Amtrak?' section that asserts Amtrak's expertise and experience - appearing to be a pitch to states and localities to choose Amtrak for new services," points out Scott Rogers. "That implies that Amtrak is looking to be the choice of operator for the new services vs. other alternatives. Like multiple airlines serving the same publicly-supported airports, perhaps we could see coordinated services over the same lines by more than one carrier. " He points out that in Texas, Amtrak has signed an interline agreement with Texas Central, which is planning to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train using Japanese technology.
Congressional action needed
Stay tuned. As Congress and the public debate the Biden infrastructure plan, and as interest continues to grow in passenger rail expansion, we're likely to hear more about how potential new investments might be allocated and implemented. The Amtrak vision is very conceptual at this stage, and a lot needs to happen before anyone can buy tickets to new destinations. The proposed significant passenger rail investment would have to be included in any infrastructure bill that is passed this year. It's would also be important that key federal grant programs for passenger rail continue to be provided and funded.
The American Jobs Plan (Biden Infrastructure Proposal)
Amtrak Connects US Fact Sheet and Map (Amtrak)
West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition (website)
Amtrak releases vision that includes stop in Eau Claire (Leader-Telegram $)
Amtrak Eyes Eau Claire Service as Part of Biden’s Big Infrastructure Plan (Volume One)
Eau Claire part of proposed new Amtrak routes (WEAU 13 News)
Amtrak includes Eau Claire in 2035 vision (WQOW News 18)
Contact: Scot Rogers, Vice President Governmental Affairs
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Eau Claire Chamber
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,200 members.