Wisconsin Moves Ahead with Train Purchase Deal, Intent on Connecting Madison with Milwaukee

» Talgo will establish train manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. But state Republicans suggest they’ll oppose rail expansion if it gets in the way of highway spending.

Despite being a marginal player in the world high-speed rail market, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo is hoping to make a big push for orders in  North America. Thanks to a deal it signed with Wisconsin last year, it’s well on its way: The company has agreed to locate a new U.S. plant in Milwaukee, with plans to deliver 125 mph trains to the state for service to Madison by 2013.

If state Republicans gain power, however, the state’s rail efforts could be short-lived.

Under the leadership of outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Badger State has been one of the country’s leaders in developing improved rail service. The Governor announced last March that he would move forward with a plan to expand services between Chicago and Milwaukee,and reopen the passenger link to Madison. Future services could be offered to Green Bay. Later in 2009, Mr. Doyle signed a deal with Talgo to buy two 14-car trains for train operations, in exchange for that company’s commitment to locate a new plant within the state.

Wisconsin’s investment was rewarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January, which announced $810 million for the Madison-Milwaukee line, enough to have 79 mph trains operating along the 85-mile line within three years. The corridor would be upgraded to 110 mph by 2015.

Talgo announced this week that it would build its plant in a former automotive facility in Milwaukee, eventually creating about 75 jobs there. The State of Oregon revealed today that it would buy two additional 125 mph 13-car trains for its Eugene-Vancouver services, bringing total Talgo orders to about $85 million from the Wisconsin plant, a significant first step for the ambitious Spanish concern. As of now, the plant will build only Series VIII trainsets, which are fully compliant with Federal Railroad Administration rules and operate using diesel propulsion. This train is not what would be considered a truly high-speed train in other countries.

Yet as an initial response to a desire for increasing rail services, the deal seems like a good one for Wisconsin. Not only will it get new trains, but it will also get manufacturing jobs, which it has been losing for decades.

With Democratic majorities in both the State Assembly and Senate, lawmakers approved the deal with the federal government last month along partisan lines. The GOP suggested that Wisconsin shouldn’t be saddled with the operating costs of the new corridor, which would start at around $7.5 million a year. This line of reasoning is similar to that expressed by Ohio Republicans, who similarly claim to be willing to reject federal funds for improved rail service if the state is asked to subsidize operations costs.

Republican gubernatorial candidate front-runner Scott Walker is taking a hard line against the Milwaukee-Madison project, claiming that he would shut down the corridor “if it takes money away from new-and-improved roads.” Another candidate, Mark Neumann, is also critical of the program, arguing that tax cuts would be a better use of public funds and that “if high speed rail were economically sound it would already have been built by the private sector.”

Democratic candidate Tom Barrett, the Mayor of Milwaukee, is a big supporter of the project as he claims it would serve as an economic stimulus for the troubled state. He also has made the quite legitimate claim that Wisconsin will have already spent $57 million on preliminary construction activity by the time the next governor is sworn in — it doesn’t make much since to pull out once so much money has already been invested.

Both Republicans are currently leading Mr. Barrett in polls in advance of the November election.

One could argue about the specific merits of the Milwaukee-Madison service, but the considerable success of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee — it has the third highest ridership per mile of U.S. intercity rail routes after the Northeast Regional and Capitol Corridor lines — suggests that Wisconsin’s population is well prepared for improved rail operations.

Just as in Ohio, Republican objections in Wisconsin are difficult to take seriously, because they’re incoherent. Why is it problematic for the government to sponsor rail construction when highways aren’t built by the private sector either? Why should roads always be prioritized in state spending, when trains are used by thousands of people each day too? More importantly, why is it that the first serious investment in passenger rail service Wisconsin has seen in decades is immediately greeted with skepticism, while road spending continues apace in the state, at more than $2 billion a year?

Nonetheless, Wisconsin’s rail investments are likely to move forward — the public has demonstrated clear support for the mode over the years, and there have been plenty of Republicans in the state, including former Governor Tommy Thompson, who have been serious proponents of new train services. But the increasingly hysterical GOP fear of investing in transportation projects that aren’t automobile-oriented may come to pose a mounting obstacle, in Wisconsin and beyond.

Image above: Talgo Series VIII Train, from Talgo

23 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I’m glad you called out Wisconsin Republicans as being ridiculous on this issue. Operating costs of $7.5 million/year are a drop in the bucket of the state budget. Unfortunately, 2010 looks like it may swing toward the Republicans, so I hope that the legislature can move this thing forward quickly.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Gov. Doyle, but I’ve been really impressed by his leadership on this issue. He didn’t just stop at getting federal money for a line; he convinced a European manufacturer to set up a plant. Nice.

  • Russell Warshay

    “if high speed rail were economically sound it would already have been built by the private sector.”

    The same line of reasoning can be used with highways. Mark Neumann doesn’t sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  • poncho

    The GOP suggested that Wisconsin shouldn’t be saddled with the operating costs of the new corridor, which would start at around $7.5 million a year.

    Republican gubernatorial candidate front-runner Scott Walker is taking a hard line against the Milwaukee-Madison project, claiming that he would shut down the corridor “if it takes money away from new-and-improved roads.”

    Yeah, no worries about the operating costs of new-and-improved roads.

  • Andy

    Opponents of the Madison-Milwuakee connection often argue that the train will be slower and less convenient than driving for many people going between these two cities, so ridership will be low. But they seem to ignore that this extension isn’t just connecting Madison to Milwaukee. It’s connecting it to Chicago. So while maybe it is faster or easier to drive from Madison to Milwuakee for some people depending on their final destination in those cities, if they’re traveling to Chicago they will have to deal with terrible and unpredictable traffic and then pay $20 or more just to park for a few hours in Chicago’s Loop. If the train is an option, I’ll take it over driving to Chicago just about any time, aside from that 11:00 pm to 5:00 a.m. window when the roads aren’t too congested.

  • Mad Park

    Well, if the GOP in WI doesn’t want the Talgos we’re in need of more sets out here in WA and will be happy to taka them slightly used. Short-sighted nitwits!

    • poncho

      Actually, Oregon placed the next order for Talgos so we should be the fall back location for a Talgo factory :)

      I will give you that WA has blown Oregon out of the water with rail investment including previous Talgo purchases… so maybe we can place the plant on the border perhaps on the Columbia River Crossing. ;)

  • What’s the expected Madison-Chicago runtime, and what’s the expected frequency?

    • simple

      If I recall correctly the plan calls for 6 round trips per day at about 3 hrs per trip each way.

    • DBX

      At 110mph throughout, you can do Madison to Milwaukee in an even hour, and Milwaukee to Chicago in 1 hour, 4 minutes. But as long as Milwaukee to Chicago remains 79mph, it’s stuck at just under 1 hour 30. So, to start with, about two and a half hours end to end. 110mph throughout would bring it down to about 2:10; considerably better than even taking I-90 directly from Chicago to Madison.

      Looking down the road, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin has “railbanked” the southeast line going out of Madison to Janesville, from which active freight use currently secures it to the end of the UP-NW Metra. A straight-shot diagonal from Madison to Chicago could therefore eventually be in our future.

      • Nicholas

        don’t be ridiculous. Madison will ALWAYS need to go through Milwaukee– this line isn’t about Madison, it’s eventually going up to the twin cities– Madison is just a temporary terminal for that line. the important cities along this line will always be MSP, MKE and CHI

        • Nathanael

          Well, Madison direct to Chicago might happen SOME day, but only when the services via Milwaukee max out capacity (which is a LONG way off) — there’s still going to be massive demand from Milwaukee in both directions, and it doesn’t make sense to make a direct Madison-Chicago route until the Milwaukee demand starts crowding out Chicago-Madison and Chicago-Twin Cities demand.

  • jim

    Yes. Labelling is vitally important. It isn’t Madison-Milwaukee; it’s Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago. People tend to label just with the piece being built right now. In Virginia, we just opened Washington-Lynchburg. But it isn’t Washington-Lynchburg. It’s an extension of a Northeast Regional to Lynchburg. The most popular city-pair ticketed on the new train is Charlottesville-New York. The new Administration’s Director of DRPT is advocating spending $75M of the State’s money on a train from Richmond to Norfolk (by the way, this is a new Republican Administration; railphobia isn’t yet endemic across the GOP). The usual comments were heard: we can drive from Norfolk to Richmond easily enough — route 460 is relatively uncongested — we don’t need this train. But, again, this will be an extension of one of the Northeast Regionals that currently terminate/originate in Richmond to terminate/originate in Norfolk. I don’t think Norfolk-New York will be the most popular city pair ticket on it, since that trip would run about seven hours, but Norfolk-Washington is very likely and driving that requires you tackle I-95.

  • The exact same language and reasoning was used to reject the NOLA to BR line. Whatever the merits of an individual line, it never ceases to amaze me that the costs of operating rail is “subsidization” while highway spending is “investing.”

  • OceanRailroader

    Virginia’s rail improvement plans have been very smoothly run vs the other states where the two parties play tug of war with one another over it. I think if Wisconsion doesn’t want the money it should go to Virginia based off of the smooth running rail plan.

    • Nathanael

      North Carolina’s have gone even smoother.

      But North Carolina’s top need right now — having gotten *lots* of money for its inside-NC project — is to get the Virginia connection, so I guess that argues for giving it to Virginia too.

  • JackRussell

    I think some Republicans view rail as something that is only of interest to an urban Democratic population, whereas they see roads as more of interest to a rural Republican population.

    In areas where congestion is endemic, this dynamic doesn’t really work. The futility of road widening is far more evident.

    Again in Virgina, they are spending highway funds to improve rail freight capacity – the idea being that if more freight ships by rail instead of truck that congestion on I-81 is reduced and the need for road repairs and maintenance will also be reduced. They get far more bang for the buck by spending the money this way rather than on more road improvements.

    A week ago I was on a train from Newark Airport to DC, and I was surprised to discover that the train didn’t terminate in Union Station – as it happens, it was the Lynchburg train. There are a few quirks as a result of this – they need to change engines in DC (electric to diesel), and it needs to come in on a low-platform track (which is a minor pain if you are hauling a lot of luggage).

    That train trip came about in a round-about way. The airlines are using more and more regional carriers that are flying smaller and smaller aircraft. Initially they wanted us to go to/from Newark on a “flying coke can” – a 37-seat prop plane that has no heat, limited luggage space, small seats, uncomfortable in turbulence, and to top it off the airline schedule was such that we would have had a 5-hour layover (which apparently is also habitually late). We took the train home and got home hours before the other people in our group. And had a far more pleasant and comfortable ride.

  • DBX

    Someone ought to rough up the Republicans in Wisconsin over all the money they’ve wasted on roads-to-nowhere in the past. Some of Tommy Thompson’s four-lane projects have been questionable to say the least. Did US-53 need to be four-lane through places like Solon Springs and Minong, for example? There are plenty of other roads like it. Do the voters really want to blow their budget again on building expressways for 2,500 vehicles a day in each direction? In contrast it’s the current Democratic administration that dealt with the actual need to correct congested safety disasters like Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee. It would be a shame to see the rail improvements beached on the mindless antics of a bunch of Glenn Beck tubthumpers in Waukesha going off on trying to establish freedom from middle-lane-hoggers as a constitutional right.

  • If manufacturing automobiles was economically feasible, automobile companies would not require bailouts, subsidies, tax breaks and wage cutbacks.

  • OceanRailroader

    I found out news today that the airlines want to add another $20 to $50 for sitting near the exits with the extra six inches of leg room. Now I checked Amtrack last week and I could go to Richmond to Lancaster for $58 or to New York for $70. Even if rail moves along slowly it is still going to faster and cheaper then the airlines in less then a year if not already.

  • This is both promising and disappointing on multiple fronts, here is hoping that the investment can continue no matter who is in power, its a shame that its come down to partisan squabbling like so much else in this country. At this rate nothing really will ever happen, we are already so far behind the rest of the world, the way this country and many stats are going, we are going to be left further and further behind

    needless to say, this would be very exciting!! especially if I could get the train from Albany, NY across all the way to Madison!

  • Nathanael

    I’m hoping the Republican’ts (since it’s always can’t, can’t, can’t with them) aren’t able to stop this eminently sensible and valuable project. I would actually be fairly likely to use it to get to Madison.

  • Nick V

    We need to continue to build rail – rail gives us flexibility long term. As the economy grows and the world demands more oil our gas prices will creep up. The train is a long term investment for our mobility. Also, rail encourages “place making” – walkable, transit friendly communities.
    GOP and Democrats both need to get on this “train” – Mobility makes us more efficient and helps our economy!
    It isn’t either or – it is build rail, roads, transit, etc.

  • Todd P

    I don’t know which I appreciate more; This article, or these comments.

    It’s nice to read that people have common sense, even if there’s not a lot of us out there.

    -T
    Milwaukee, WI

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