Chippewa & St Croix Valley Rail Connections move closer to reality
Two initiatives that would provide passenger rail connections to the Chippewa and St. Croix Valleys have taken important steps forward in recent weeks. They include:
Map from the Wisconsin Rail Plan: Long range vision for passenger rail (WisDOT)
Starting with Twin Cities-Eau Claire trains
The West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition has been working for several years to lay the groundwork to establish passenger train service serving the region with trains to the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago to ensure the area's economic competitiveness. Those connections are included in the official long-range transportation plans for both Wisconsin and Minnesota. As a first step, the coalition is proposing a public-private partnership to start with four trains a day each way between St. Paul and Eau Claire, with shuttle connections to other nearby communities like River Falls and Chippewa Falls. See map below...
West Central Wisconsin train and route
Trains will travel over the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad with potential stops for Stillwater, Hudson/River Falls, Baldwin, and Menomonie. The Coalition is working with a private rail developer interested in providing the equipment and operating the trains, with ongoing costs provided by fares and the economic activity around station sites.
Next step: Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission
To advance the public side of the project, counties and municipalities along and near the route are working on establishing a Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission to identify the public benefits of the project, pursue opportunities for transit oriented station development, foster bi-state cooperation, and help the project obtain grant funding for start-up costs. Resolutions to create the commission have already been passed by the Dunn, Eau Claire, and St. Croix County Boards; the City of Eau Claire, the City of Altoona, The City of Menomonie, New Richmond, and the Village of Baldwin. Other entities are in the process of considering their participation. Once at least eight counties and municipalities approve similar resolutions, the commission will be created. See the links below for more information on the project and to see Eau Claire County's resolution for establishing the commission.
West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition website
Fact Sheet: Bringing Passenger Rail to West Central Wisconsin (click to download)
Eau Claire County Resolutions Re: Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission (passed Dec 15, 2020, click to download)
Group hopes to bring passenger rail service back to Chippewa Valley (WEAU 13 News)
Eau Claire sets its sights on passenger rail with new Rail Commission (WQOW News 18)
Rail advocates push for independent body (Leader-Telegram, subscription required)
Eastward connections to Milwaukee and Chicago
Given the vision to link the region east to Milwaukee and Chicago, another development make progress in recent weeks that would provide a dedicated shuttle connection from Eau Claire to access Amtrak trains at Tomah.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) announced it has received two federal grants that will enable it to implement plans with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to extend one of its popular Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains on the current Amtrak "Empire Builder" route to Tomah, La Crosse, Winona, Minnesota and St. Paul. That plan could include dedicated shuttle connections from that route to Madison, Eau Claire and Rochester.
WisDOT map showing shuttle connections for the Twin Cities Hiawatha extension
Many Chippewa Valley area residents already drive to Tomah to catch the current Amtrak service, but a dedicated shuttle will improve mobility for those who cannot or do not want to drive. Shuttle connections like these have been successful in other states like California and North Carolina. WisDOT also recently established dedicated shuttles to link the current Hiawatha service at Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, and Green Bay.
The grants announced by WisDOT from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) include a $16.2 million Restoration & Enhancement Grant, which helps new services get established by paying a declining percentage of the operating expenses over three years as ridership builds, and a $31.8 million matching grant to help cover capital improvement costs.
Local support for Eau Claire shuttle
As WisDOT began consideration of the Eau Claire shuttle, local support for the connection was expressed in resolutions and letters from the Eau Claire City Council, Eau Claire County Board, Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, and West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition.
The proposed Eau Claire shuttle would travel along I-94 and make a direct connection to trains at the Amtrak station in Tomah. The West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, which is working to establish a multi-frequency Twin Cities-Eau Claire corridor as a public-private partnership on the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad, has endorsed the proposal as a complementary step to provide residents of the region access to the national passenger train network.
In a resolution it drafted earlier this year the Coalition noted that many people already drive to the station at Tomah: "This would open up more travel opportunities for area residents and visitors to connect to/from Milwaukee and Chicago via Tomah, and would especially provide improved mobility for students, seniors and others who cannot or do not want to drive 80 miles to access the service." In a letter to WisDOT Secretary Craig Thompson, the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce noted: "Transportation is a critical component for economic prosperity. The Chamber has long advocated for establishing passenger rail service to our region as an important component for economic competitiveness and talent attraction," and that the shuttle "would enhance the connectivity of our community and be complementary to efforts to obtain future direct train service for Eau Claire." The Eau Claire City Council passed a supporting resolution on February 25, and the Eau Claire County Board on May 5. See the links below.
Next steps for the Hiawatha extension and shuttle
WisDOT, MnDOT, and Amtrak are working on schedules and operating scenarios for the new train project, and Minnesota's legislature must still appropriate its needed $10 million in matching funds for the capital expenses, which is expected to be considered during its 2021 session.
’Second Empire Builder’ project wins a $12.6 million Restoration & Enhancement grant (MIPRC)
Wisconsin-Minnesota passenger rail project getting $31.8 million federal grant (La Crosse Tribune)
Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger Rail Service (WisDOT)
Eau Claire-Tomah Shuttle Fact Sheet (West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition)
Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce Letter in support of CRISI grant (Eau Claire Chamber)
Eau Claire City Council Resolution (City of Eau Claire)
Eau Claire County Board Resolution (Eau Claire County)
West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition Letter and Resolution (West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition)
Long-term opportunities for high speed Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities service
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is nearing completion of a Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study that is expected to show the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor to be one of the strongest potential high speed rail markets in the Midwest because of its high travel demand. With current bullet-train style projects advancing in California, Texas and LA-Las Vegas, there is significant potential for Eau Claire and the region to be located on one of the next high speed rail lines to be developed.
FRA Midwest Regional Rail Planning Study
Eau Claire Chamber
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,200 members.