High-Speed Rail Madison

Terminus or Through-Route for Madison’s Downtown Station?

» Though Governor Doyle has selected a downtown station for the Milwaukee-Madison rail line, proponents of other alternatives suggest there’s a better way.

In the gospel of intercity rail planning, the need to locate stations downtown is one of the commandments. Unlike airplanes, trains can get you right to the center-city. That kind of direct service encourages transit-oriented development and the creation of dense neighborhoods.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) announced earlier this month that he would locate the terminus of the state’s new east-west intercity rail line just two blocks from the capitol and just adjacent to Madison’s central business district. The 85-mile line will connect Milwaukee with Madison in 75 minutes by 2013 thanks to an $823 million grant from the federal government and a commitment to purchasing several new Talgo trainsets from the state government.

At first glance, the selection of the downtown site, to be located near the Monona Terrace convention center, fits in with the elementary rules of rail planning quite well — especially when compared to the other station possibilities, at the Kohl Center sports complex west of downtown, the Yahara area northeast of downtown, and the Dane County Airport, five miles from the core.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has recently suggested creating an intermodal center, uniting urban bus and future commuter rail offerings, at Monona, despite the limited space available there because of the existing built-up downtown and tight confines next to the lake shore.

If the intercity rail project were to terminate in Madison, the Monona location for the city’s station would be justifiable. But complicating the Governor’s choice is the fact that Wisconsin intends to run four daily round-trips to Minnesota’s Twin Cities in addition to the six round-trips making the Milwaukee-Madison connection. (Some of both services will originate in Chicago.) Because trains arriving in downtown Madison from both the Twin Cities and Milwaukee will come in from the east, a Monona Station would require trains making trips between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities to reverse direction in Madison, simply avoid stopping in Wisconsin’s capital altogether, or stop somewhere else along the way through the city.

Amtrak typically earmarks twenty minutes to reverse trains. If it followed international convention, it could do so in five minutes or less; Talgo’s Series 8 train, to be used for Wisconsin’s service, is perfectly able to do as much as long as the trains have drivers at both ends. But the American rail operator seems unlikely to make provisions for such efficiency.

At the moment, the state DOT will probably opt to build a second station at the airport, nowhere near downtown. That possibility will ramp up costs substantially, reduce the number of trains entering downtown Madison, and serve a relatively minor airport that will generate few rail rides. Governor Doyle indicated last year that the airport stop was his priority, but his recent decision seems to have been influenced by local support for a downtown stop.

For over a year, urban planning consultant Barry Gore has been a major proponent of an alternate solution — placing the intercity rail station at the Yahara location, about a mile and a half outside of downtown, located where the corridors from the Twin Cities and Milwaukee intersect. This would allow all trains to stop in central Madison. Mr. Gore argues that the state’s own analysis of the station possibilities indicate construction costs would be a third as expensive as for Monona and that ridership would only be slightly lower.

Even more promising (or problematic, depending on one’s perspective) is the fact that the Yahara location is surrounded by acres of developable space ripe for new construction. Earlier this year, before the governor made his independent decision to pick the Monona stop, the city’s downtown coordinating committee unanimously voted to support Mr. Gore’s station concept, citing his argument that it could be used to expand the center city northeast.

The state DOT has argued that the limited space at Yahara will impede trains from stopping, but Mr. Gore has provided compelling evidence to the contrary.

Madison is just a through-station along a longer route; forcing trains to run stub-ended into a terminal and then back out in order to continue on their journeys would be an impediment to the system’s functioning. Splitting service by stopping some trains at Monona and others at the airport would be confusing to passengers and double station construction and operations expenses.

But the Yahara stop, as good of a compromise as it may seem, still faces a potentially insurmountable obstacle: it isn’t located downtown. Its distance from the center city will limit the number of people walking out of the station, thereby reducing the system’s usefulness. The University of Wisconsin’s location on the other side of downtown is unfortunate, to say the least.

One solution is to build the commuter rail line the city’s been discussing for years, connecting the Yahara area directly with downtown and the university; another option is to upgrade bus service substantially between the destinations. The city would benefit from improved local transit in place and a new station serving all trains heading through Madison.

83 replies on “Terminus or Through-Route for Madison’s Downtown Station?”

Actually, the railroad to be used to the Twin Cities is the one that runs through DeForest, not Waunakee. If new track was built, it would be twice the length of the line in your map.

Point taken. I adjusted the map accordingly.

Per @Froggie’s point below, I imagine it would add some serious cost. On the other hand, if the goal is HSR, this would be a chance to lay straight track to HSR specs.

I have an even better idea noted below. Run out of Madison to the southwest on the route towards Prarie du Chien, and reconnect to the route to Minneapolis at the Mississippi River. The freight service is extremely minimal, so it could be constructed as a practically passenger-only alignment. Greenfields construction could make it short and direct. It wouldn’t stop at the Dells, but the Empire Builder could continue to do that.

You said it yourself…this is a through-route stop. If you truly want Chicago-Twin Cities to be successful, you need a Madison stop that maximizes the ability to do that. Yahara does that…Monona doesn’t. I say this is a case where ability to serve multiple trips trumps its location “not being downtown”.

On the surface, David’s idea is possible. But would trigger a full EIS (or an EA at a minimum), add cost, and you’d have to figure out which suburban neighborhood you’d plow the tracks through (with the likely resultant NIMBYs).

I actually think an EIS is going to be needed for St. Paul – Madison in any case, so that’s hardly an issue.

There are at least three options for the route, and I’ve been advocating a fourth. ;) And no, I don’t live in Prairie du Chien. ;)

Very interesting. I absolutely agree that the best long term solution is to run the High speed rail to Yahara and implement a light rail line to connect to the airport, capitol, Kohl center, Monona, and UW. Would anyone disagree with that? But I suppose once the high speed line is in place and running to Monona Terrace they can always implement the light rail later and improve high speed service to only stop at Yahara, once that funding becomes available.

How possible is it to change to Yahara at this point, I wonder? They just had the big debate about whether or not to change the station’s location, and the right side won, kinda.

What if we ended up making Monona Station (Doyle Station, more likely) essentially the main commuter station, with the main Amtrak station at Yahara, built second. The airport would get commuter connections if such a line were built. Some Amtraks would still run to Monona, but only the ones that go straight back to Milwaukee/Chicago.

The obvious problem here is that now we have gone from building one station, to building two, to building three. Thoughts?

Thanks for the coverage and the discussion. The full Yahara Station concept is available at

As mentioned by riggabyte, the best solution is to link Yahara Station, the regional station, to the existing downtown with a local rail. The site makes a cross-platform transfer very easy, since the Amtrak platform would be adjacent to a second railroad corridor that cuts across the site, and leads to downtown, the UW campus and out to the airport.

But the big vision is to redevelop the station area and the whole 1.5 mile E. Washington Ave. corridor to mid-rise office and residential development, which the City already has adopted as official policy.

This new investment would create a new center of gravity to the downtown, and create a new central business district for private companies, which have left downtown Madison for suburban and exurban sites. Having access to Milwaukee and Chicago’s loop via this new rail service is a great catalyst for office development, since the Amtrak ticket price favors business trips.

The governor says he has decided, but there are many technical issues to over come. This project shows that high speed rail needs the national plan and national railway agency that the Transport Politic has been arguing for.

Barry Gore, thanks for your consideration. You conceived Yahara Station largely in opposition to the airport location. Now that the state has made its decision, it seems like you’re accepting it as a done deal and working Yahara into the existing proposal. Is this correct? The Campaign for Yahara website doesn’t seem to have changed much yet since the announcement, but I think your organization is in a strong position to make good recommendations on how to move forward.

There could, perhaps, be a small chance to bring Yahara about through the next governor. Walker talks a good game about fiscal responsibility, but is he really going to throw away a huge subsidy that can’t be used for anything else? Perhaps cooler heads could convince him to alter the plan to the less expensive Yahara alternative. Alternately, Barrett might be more sympathetic to regional concerns and the DOT’s recommendation.

In the short term it seems important to get the city or state planning for Yahara Station so that, if the call came down to build it–whether as a replacement for Monona or as a major commuter station. Over time, as downtown migrates East and Amtrak migrates Northwest, the original vision could, in a roundabout way, become real.

Mr. Rigney, thanks for your helpful comments and questions. I originally created the Yahara Station concept as an alternative to the two station scenario. I think coming down the isthmus is just about as dumb as putting the station at the airport. Others in the Campaign were initially happy that the train was coming downtown, but now it is sinking in that WisDOT is looking to put a second station at the airport. The two station scenario is official City policy dating from 2001.

The Campaign is still promoting the study of Yahara Station and we believe the site should be considered for the second station over the airport.

If there are going to be two stations Yahara would be better. There probably are advantages to an airport station from a regional point of vew–e.g., people driving in from out of Madison to use the train and not having to go downtown–but a combination of Yahara and a commuter connection to the airport should have most of these advantages without the many problematic externalities.

Thanks for the input, and keep fighting the good fight. I’ll continue to follow this, so perhaps we’ll discuss this again sometime.

This is one of those cases where the somewhat better is the enemy of the perfectly good. There’s nothing wrong with Monona. There’s an argument that Yahara would be better. But there’s money in hand. Final planning needs to be done. Construction contracts need to be awarded. Accept Monona as a done deal and move forward. It’s better to get the line built and trains running on it than to keep arguing. This reminds me of California HSR and the Altamont/Tehachapis (sp?) argument.

My concerns with Yahara Station is that there’s not all that much room between Johnson and Washington to fit trains if the train sets ever expand and get longer. Likewise, building platforms along the curve seems like trying to squeeze too much into a small space – one of the same complaints against the Monona Terrace location.

Personally, I think the most elegant solution would be to close John Nolen Drive under Monona Terrace (or put it on a substantial road diet) and utilize all that space for a rail station, both inter city and local. Build through service as David Marcus proposes above. Add grade separations over time as they become necessary.

Granted, such an option is completely pie in the sky and infeasible at this time.

More realistically, I think the Yahara Station location should be shifted to the north of Johnson street where there is a straight run of track, much more room to work with and still substantial redevelopment opportunities. The current site along the bend in the track would create some real traffic issues with grade crossings at both Johnson and Washington.

There is about 950 feet between Johnson and E. Washington. These arterials provide great access. The Talgo trainset will be 600 feet or just under 200 meters. This 200 meter train seems to be an industry standard now for routes like this in Spain (Talgo) and Germany (Seimens), although some true high speed trains use a double set for 400 meters, i.e. France and California. But Wisconsin (5.3 million) ain’t California (40 million).

I also wondered if the the train reversal could be done faster as suggested in the article, but that is accomplished with electric locomotives, not the diesel locomotives Amtrak will run on this line, which could make a difference.

The Yahara Station concept was a new version of the ‘Penn Station’ idea next to the WSOR yard that WisDOT looked at and rated quite high in the EA. Bringing the station out to E. Washington makes all the difference in visibility and urban design. The site has room for a siding track at a tangent to the curved track; the platform would not be curved, or only slightly curved if desired. The siding track and switch also helps with setting up separate gate control circuits for the station.

I would recommend running more trains if capacity becomes an issue in 20 years, however, if the platform ever needs to be extended, then grade separating E. Johnson over the tracks is always possible; the platform could stretch for half a mile if needed up into the yard.

We don’t want this regional train running all the way through Madison to the west side and then tear up some of the best farm land in the world to run a new railroad corridor around the lake. Even if that were possible, it would require the train to spend too much time trying to get through Madison.

Stop at Yahara Station for a couple minutes, then go; hopefully, someday at over 200 mph.

I also wondered if the the train reversal could be done faster as suggested in the article, but that is accomplished with electric locomotives, not the diesel locomotives

It has nothing to do with locomotive propulsion. The two biggest impediments to are locomotive shunting and full brake test. Both can be eliminated by trainsets with cabs at both ends, so the loco don’t have to be detached. The reversing time drops then to time needed for engineer to walk the length of train – in practice, 4 to 6 minutes.

I’m a bit late here but I’d like to point out that the Amtrak Cascades which uses Talgo equipment runs with a locomotive at one end and a cab car at the other.

If Wisconsin’s trains were set up the same way the crew could change ends while the train itself loads and unloads.

My worries are that a Yahara station might become functionally obsolete in a relatively short timeframe with limited platform length and little room to add capacity, in addition to built-in conflicts with grade crossings immediately to the north and south of the station on two of the main thoroughfares across the isthmus.

If there were grade separation for the rails, I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned. Likewise, if the streets were relatively minor and low-traffic ones, I wouldn’t be as concerned.

Perhaps, with some grade separation, you might be able to have the bulk of the tracks north of Johnson but with the station headhouse on the strip mall site?

Furthermore, a ‘temporary’ station at Monona Terrace does not preclude a later through station at Yahara or even the Airport for HSR service, as the Monona Terrace station could and probably should be re-used for some other form of rail transit.

Ideal solution: Monona Terrace station, and continue to Minneapolis via *Prarie du Chien*. Yes, this involves an expensive rebuild of the WSOR tracks, but it allows a straight through run through Madison, and adds rail service to a now-unserved location.

Or if you want it really fast, greenfields construction from Lone Rock (on the line to Prarie du Chien) to La Crosse.

I think that the Yahara station, developed in conjunction with improved local rail/bus transit, is the optimal location for a Madison intercity rail station.
However, I believe that passengers traveling directly from the Minneapolis-St. Paul region to Milwaukee and Chicago would be inconvenienced by all trains passing through Madison. If all trains traveling through central Wisconsin were to serve a Madison station, about 25 miles would be added to the MSP-MKE route that Amtrak currently uses. That’s not that much, but when combined with a potentially lengthy station stop in Madison, its conceivable that 30 to 45 minutes could be added to a Minneapolis to Chicago trip.
Improved intercity rail service along this route could utilize the strategy currently used by VIA Rail in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor in Canada. There, two train sets, each with full crews, are coupled together at the beginning of a journey and are separated at a midway station so that they can each proceed to their final, separate destinations.
In the future, two train sets could be coupled together in MSP, proceed to Portage, WI, and then be separated. One train would proceed to Madison and the other to Milwaukee and Chicago. Madison to Milwaukee/Chicago trains could be treated as a freestanding service.
Just an idea.

Also on the proposed mainline, also bordered by redevelopment sites (excludes Kraft/Oscar Mayer plant to the east of tracks), and _directly_ adjacent to an existing local transit hub and park and ride facility: Huxley Street just south of Aberg Avenue.

Long, straight, track alignment; direct Interstate access via Aberg Avenue/Highway 30 (which would also facilitate addition of intercity bus service at such an intermodal rail/local transit facility).

@ Brendan-
If the route passes through Madison between The Cities and MKE, more traffic will be gained, and the time over the distance using Talgo equipment will certainly be substantially less than the more than 6 hours currently allotted to trains 7 and 8. At 25 miles longer than the current route, the time will still be at least 1 hour, and perhaps 90 minutes faster than today’s Empire Builder. Here in the NW, our Talgos can run off the 180 miles ‘twixt Seattle and Portland in as little as 3:25, while the heavier and slower Coast Starlight requires more than 4 hours for the same distance. You will love the Talgos when they start running in a couple of years.

I live in Seattle so I’ve ridden the Talgo equipped Cascades many times. They are VERY nice, especially after the interior refresh the cars recently received.

Wisconsin’s Talgos should be even nicer as the cars will be new.

None of the three 1950s-era Chicago-Twin Cities rail lines served Madison. Three lines, the Milwaukee Road, CB&Q and Chicago and Northwestern, competed on the route with five trains daily (although the times were not evenly spaced), but the lines bypassed Madison. (At the time, the state government and University of Wisconsin were not as dynamic as they are now, and there was little manufacturing base in the city.) All ran over 100 mph on portions of their routes, and averaged more then 60 over the more than 400 miles from Saint Paul to Chicago. The only other route with similar competition, and speed, was the Chicago-Saint Louis pair.

The routes:

The Twin Cities Hiawatha ran through Milwaukee and La Crosse, the current route of the Empire Builder.

The Chicago and Northwestern’s Twin Cities 400 (400 miles in 400 minutes) ran through Milwaukee and Eau Clare, also bypassing Madison to the north.

The Burlington’s Twin Cities Zephyr ran almost due west across Illinois—well south of Madison, before turning up the Mississippi.

What could be used for a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities through routing service? West of Madison, the Wisconsin River cuts a wide, flat, straight valley west to the Mississippi. It is relatively undeveloped and could easily support a very high speed line to the Mississippi. From there, trains could follow the river as their CB&Q and Milwaukee Road predecessors did at speeds around 100 mph (but probably not at true high-speed). In the long run, the route could be shortened and sped up by building a cut-off from the Wisconsin Valley to the river south of La Crosse, and by serving Rochester north of La Crosse.

I’ve never been able to commit to a route I really like for going between Madison and the Twin Cities. I personally favor going through Rochester because I grew up along the tracks just to the west, but there is not and has never been a direct train route from Rochester to the Twin Cities, so a new ROW will need to be found, causing huge delays to any project.

Going through Rochester would take 9 or 10 years due to all the design, land acquisition, and environmental impact studies, so I’ve been leaning toward the idea of having the Madison route bounce through Eau Claire instead since there are rails for that direction. Adding more Twin Cities to Chicago trains is a priority for me, and using existing ROW seems to be the best option at the moment. Later, as the Rochester route becomes clear, the decision can be made whether to keep running Chicago-bound trains along the river, through Eau Claire, through Rochester, or some combination of the three.

I’m sure there are many timings floating around for the Hiawatha and Zephyr running along either side of the river. I looked at one in the book The Hiawatha Story, and I think it only ever managed to hit 90 for 2 or 3 miles along the entire river stretch between La Crosse and the Twin Cities. Most of it was much slower. Many people want to have high-speed trains running along the Mississippi, but I think it’s impractical given the high bluffs and narrow areas of low-lying land. I don’t have a problem with upgrading it as much as is practical so that today’s Empire Builder can go as fast as possible, but trying anything faster than 90 would be really difficult (at least on the west bank).

The Rochester route can be built as fast as the money will allow (I think Mn/DOT is mostly planning to build it supporting 110 at the start, but with curves designed for between 125 and 185 so it could be upgraded), and the C&NW 400 used to run fast on the tracks between St. Paul and Eau Claire, so both of those could be faster and serve more people than running along the Mississippi. Ultimately, I think going through Rochester would be fastest and carry the most passengers.

Anyway, this article is the first I’d heard of the idea of running along the Wisconsin River — I suppose crossing at Prairie du Chien could allow a stop in Decorah to be added if so desired. Then we start getting into the funny business of how to connect a Rochester-bound route to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Will it go to the airport? How will it approach the Union Depot in St. Paul? Will it loop around to all three?

“…but there is not and has never been a direct train route from Rochester to the Twin Cities,”

Wrong Mulad,

Chicago Great Western had direct passenger train service from St. Paul to Rochester, called the Viking. I don’t know when the mainline was abandoned, but if you’re aware of the UP track stretching south from downtown St. Paul, through the defunct meatpacking plants in South St. Paul into Rosemount. I’m not a whiz with importing maps from Google, but if you follow from Rosemount US-52 to Hampton, and MN-56 to Dodge Center to the current Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern tracks, you’d understand where it went and where it will probably go if it serves Rochester. (

In terms of the service, the only thing I see working for ~200mph service is to have it come through Rochester and north of La Crosse, through the Dells, Portage, and the Madison airport. At the airport, Twin Cities to Madison users would have to take a taxi or bus in the short-run, but any users coming from Chicago or Milwaukee would get direct service on a line using more suburban stations in the other cities (Glenview, Sturtevant, Oconomowoc, Sun Prairie).

Of course, hardly any of this will matter if the Party of No stands in the way of a meaningful transportation bill.

If Illinois can plan to link Champaign and Springfield for the ultimate HSR route from Chicago to St. Louis, then Wisconsin can plan to link Madison and La Crosse for the ultimate HSR route to Minneapolis.

Speaking of… in the article, I noticed “…the fact that Wisconsin intends to run four daily round-trips to Minnesota’s Twin Cities in addition…”

Is that currently planned and being developed for service in the next 5 years? This is the first I’ve heard about plans at such a concrete level using these Talgos.

I haven’t seen such references in planning documents for MnDOT’s recent rail plan, the St. Paul Union Depot plan, or the Minneapolis Ballpark Multimodal plan.

If WisDOT is actually working on service to MSP, it would be great. Given that four or five airlines fly MSP-CHI nearly hourly, there’s no doubt we need more than the one daily Empire Builder.

Any info on this?

WisDOT and MnDOT both got $1 million in the ARRA grant to begin the analysis of the Madison to St. Paul link. WisDOT is hosting meetings around the state to look at the possible routes. Fixing the track from Madison up to Portage seems to be the biggest project. The train could get back on the current route of the Empire Builder at Portage, and I think that track to LaCrosse and up the river is in pretty good shape. St. Paul got a big grant to start work on the Union Depot, which will link to the Central Corridor LRT.

WisDOT keeps reminding critics of the Madison link that this is the Twin Cities to Chicago route of the Midwest HSR, that is the big picture, which seems lost on some folks here in Madison. I think, given the four hour drive, and the reciprocity agreement between the two states that brings lots of Twin Cities students to the UW, the St. Paul to Madison run will be the biggest selling ticket on the line. It is a long drive, but too short to fly; while that train ride from St. Paul to Chicago will still be quite long, so many will continue to fly.

The track up the river is in pretty good shape, yes. However, it’s on the Northern Transcon, which means it can’t go too fast or too frequently. It’s also really curvy, which limits speed even further.

We went at a decent clip last time the Empire Builder detoured on the BNSF route.

In the long run, a fresh ROW is going to be needed, period, and direct from Madison to La Crosse seems reasonable to me. Until then, the “Northern Transcon” is probably the fastest route available. There’s also the CP ROW on the other side of the river, if the Mississippi River crossing problem could be managed.

Ugh. This is one area where losing Amtrak’s service assumptions would make everything much better. For examples:

1. Dead-ending into a station and reversing takes 3-4 minutes on the ICE. For a Chicago-Minneapolis route, this is fine; the train doesn’t have to be cleaned at an intermediate stop.

2. Any ROW through downtown Madison would be much better used for local or regional service. The northeastern anchor of such service would be at a junction with the intercity line, where there could be a timed cross-platform transfer. One-seat rides are important, but they’re not that important.

3. The curves involved in a Yahara location would make the train lose almost as much time in Madison as it would dead-ending into Monona.

4. Intercity rail sometimes needs to make compromises on downtown locations. Amtrak usually stops further away from downtown than necessary – including in Wisconsin, where there are closer locations to Madison than Portage – but Wisconsin’s situation is such that stopping in too many downtowns is cost-prohibitive. Accept that there would have to be Shin-Waukesha and Shin-Madison stations and that future HSR would have to use a Shin-Eau Claire station.

Do note that the current plans involve going around those Yahara curves to get to any airport station, losing the time period regardless of the station location.

Ugh. Unless the Madison HSR station is simply located in Sun Prairie with a local connector, the trains will either take stupidly slow and curvy routes, or follow my suggestion due west out of Southwest Madison to the Mississippi.

I think the 2000 Tri-State Study, which you can find at, going through Passenger Rail Studies, has the train coming from Milwaukee into the WI-30/US-151 junction and following the WI-30 ROW back to the railroad next to Packers Avenue. This is 2 miles of new track in an expressway ROW with soft curves. I’m not an engineer, but I suspect it could maintain at least 90mph, since it’s almost all grade-separated. Following the existing ROW to Yahara is 3.5 miles, has about 10 grade-crossings and an excruciating curve. Bypassing the urbanized area of Madison has huge speed benefits, but understandly loses riders until Madison can develop a real transit network.

Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison service is pretty much a bird in hand at this point, and the primary passenger rail markets in Madison are overwhelmingly near the Monona site (especially the walk-to market, which should not be underestimated in a capital city — see Springfield, IL). Frequent service beyond Madison is nowhere near a certainty. Given that the Monona station would continue to have utility for potential commuter service even if Amtrak were to someday not need it, starting out with Amtrak service there seems to me to be a no-brainer. Let’s not handicap the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison service from the start just to site the station to accommodate some future frequent MSP service that may well be a long time in coming. And, as others have mentioned, when frequent service someday arrives, there’s no reason why three of the CHI-MSP trains per day couldn’t simply bypass Madison altogether on the most direct route. If you want to go to Madison, take one of the 6 local trains per day (hypothetical frequencies!).

What I haven’t seen is building at the Airport, with then developing light rail into the city like the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis from the Mall of America to Target Field. This eliminates the problems associated with the Monona Terrace, Yahara or any other site in Madison. Plus, it could easily be expanded throughout the Dane County plus area. Would ridership be down that much?

I lived, worked and studied in Madison for several years, and in that time involved myself in various transportation issues. I had to move away to find work after graduating from UW. That’s ironic now because I’m a transportation planner and would love to be in the room on this debate. I share the excitement over HSR and sympathize with those trying to make best use of the federal investment.
There are several issues complicating the discussion. First, running west from Madison isn’t really an option as the unglaciated hilly terrain of the “driftless area” is ecologically sensitive. While a great place for canoes and tourist trains, it’s inapropriate for HSR.
All 3 station sites make sense, but the expense of doing all 3 does not. The airport station could be done cheaply without much disruption to anybody and it would create an economically valuable link to tourism attractions in the Wisconsin Dells area but it’s too distant from the core to really serve Madison well. The Dells could be better served by adding conventional trains now from the MKE airport station. The current times and prices to the Dells from MKE, MSP and Chicago make it very uncompetitive with autos. Still, the 1 trip a day is always sold out in summer. Another option I’ve long advocated for is a north-south commuter rail linking Rockford-Beloit-Janesville-Madison-Deforest-Portage It would connect the current MSP-Chicago Route, the MSN-MKE route, and perhaps a Rockford-Chicago route as well… Monona Terrace is the best place to serve downtown based on the existing local transit system and concentration of activity. The big challenge there is navigating slowly through eastside neighborhoods and the intersection of Williamson/Blair/J.Nolen/Wilson. It’s a tricky spot with challenges to separate tracks from roads. I might have suggested a station east of Blair at Williamson just to avoid that mess. The Yahara station is an interesting concept but it misses the core of activity and relies on other developments for its potential success – better transit connections, improving traffic flow through the isthmus to serve it, redevelopment of surrounding properties (including public park land) at significantly higher densities than the neighborhood has thus far been willing to allow, somehow dealing with unacceptable at-grade crossings of Washington, Johnson and other streets. So, all the options have pluses and minuses. I think the decision to bring rail into downtown for the intial MSN-MKE route will work out well enough based on existing conditions and planned frequency.
In the long term the MSN to MSP market will also want that connection into the core Capitol Square area, but running Chicago to MSP trains through Madison is problematic in terms of journey time and competitiveness with air travel. Also for planners to think about – getting to suburban office locations around the Chicago area (like Schaumburg) could be at a disadvantage to driving from Wisconsin even with 110mph trains. Suburban stops on the HSR routes radiating from Chicago would help there.
As for what needs to happen in Madison regarding local transit – that is a rat’s nest of a problem that has been overstudied for decades. What I witneesed was many good intelligent people coming at the problem all wrong. For so many years they have been looking at the barely used east-west freight tracks and wondering “why can’t they be used for passenger rail?” Instead, they need to ask “what’s the best way to provide mobility?” Madison doesn’t have the overall population, density, financial capacity or the willingness to develop densely that would support local rail. (the N-S connection with regional cities is a different story because it’s a different type of service – long distance focused on competing with congested I-90) What Madison’s geography and demography calls for is a bus network that fans out on the ends of a high-frequency corridor (It pains me to say that because I’m a railfan, but a practical one). The current system kind of tries to do that, but it fails to reach the right synthesis. With some simple infrastructure investments in stations, exclusive lanes, off-board payment, etc. they could have a great system something like Eugene, Oregon’s EmX. Being eco-conscious, it could run on electric catenary with modern trolleybuses – maybe even the kind with batteries that can circle into the suburban areas and come back to the wire. They could concentrate ridership by continuing plans to modestly improve core city density and also allow tall buildings with dense activity at the East towne and West towne mall sites as endpoint anchors for the corridor. Madison has had great difficulty with Nimby-ism and the bus vs. rail vs. auto debate, and that has meant little to no progress improving transit over the past several decades. It’s very sad. I can only hope that the coming of HSR encourages creative new thinking and provides an impetus to formulate a new vision that matches the real-world potential of such a wonderful place.

“There are several issues complicating the discussion. First, running west from Madison isn’t really an option as the unglaciated hilly terrain of the “driftless area” is ecologically sensitive. While a great place for canoes and tourist trains, it’s inapropriate for HSR.”

Hrrrm? How sensitive is this exactly? It already has a rail line and multiple state highways running through it.

The existing rail line is actually geometrically designed to very high standards and could support HSR *on that route*. It’s right next to state highway 133 most of the distance. It’s also surrounded by towns (which obviously developed around it). The first point at which there appear to be any ecological issues with the route itself are the 20 miles just east of Prarie du Chien (Wisconsin river bridge….) but it certainly doesn’t seem out of the question.

I guess a greenfields route is out of the question due to the presence of untouched lands and the curviness of state highway 14.

Trolleybuses are definitely a nice idea.

West of Sauk City the Wisconsin River is “Wild and Scenic” meaning any development is subject to additional evironmental review. There are no dams there and it regularly floods during the spring. In bad years that shuts down the highways and railways and causes a fair bit of damage. The driftless area is home to organic farming hippies and the McCarthy black helicopter crowd – they fought hard against the highway improvements and they will dig in staunchly against anything and everything they see as an outside encroachment. The bigger reason to travel north rather than west from Madison is that there is more population and growth there. Serving the Portage/Dells area is a no brainer. It could even capture some weekday commuters with the right pricing scheme. West of that there are good arguments for both options of following I-90 or I-94, LaCrosse-Rochester or Eau Claire, though I think the former has a slight advantage due to multiple destinations and overall higher population served.

Ah, so it is the western end which is the problem.

The advantages of the greater population in the Dells are significant.

I think this means a big push to get push-pulls so that fast reversal at Monona is possible. I believe Wisconsin is buying push-pulls anyway — we just have to make sure they reverse fast.

Or else have a stub terminal station in downtown Madison and a through suburban station with a connector to downtown Madison.

The the site of the through suburban station is determined by where is the best place with space for a station to collect local bus routes to the suburban side of the terminus.

How much room is there in corridor from Wanona to the airport … is it built out, or is there room for track? Light rail track would allow a rapid streetcar system that would be able to leave the corridor at both sides.

Point: The Yahara station seems to be the best for both Twin Cities trains and also for dense development around the station. The area around the Monona station for example is half water/lake. But the real problem is that Madison has not planned for light rail. With light rail to the airport or Yahara, the downtown, university and the west side would be adequately served.

Question: There have been 6 trains planned for Chicago-Twin Cities as recently as a few months ago. When and who cut that back to 4 Yonah?

The neighborhood has opposed building anything over 4 stories in the Yahara Station area. Rental properties might be densified, but some of the nearby single family areas would be up in arms. Downtown/ Cap. Square area allows 10-12 stories and there are state office buildings that generate a lot of trips to the other parts of Wisconsin and federal offices in MSP and Chicago. Capitol Square/State St. is the place where all transit and roads come together in Madison. It is also where tourists are likely going and where they want to stay in a hotel. For suburban convenience there should be a station in Sun Prairie or near to I-90. The airport can work well too especially due to the availability of rental cars there. Exteding good transit from the airport to downtown would not be difficult, and should be done, but that doesn’t negate the need for trains to directly serve Cap. Square. Yahara isn’t a bad spot if E. Wash had better bus connections to downtown, but the city is unwilling to dedicate a lane and traffic is terrible at rush time. I know the location well as I lived a few blocks from it for several years. I’m not against it per se, just saying it’s a heavy lift because of the other things that need to happen to make it work. I’m more concerned with running the trains at-grade which is really going to slow them down and present safety issues. The line needs to be lifted on a viaduct from East Towne all the way through the neighborhoods, and in the future, perhaps as part of the MSP line planning – a cutoff needs to be looked into that would take the line directly between the airport and East Towne rather than angling down in towards the city and dense neighborhoods. That would shave time from the route and avoid some impacts (though causing others).

Both the Emerson East and Tenney Lapham Neighborhood Associations have passed unanimous resolutions in favor of Yahara Station. The Capitol Gateway plan allows 8 story structures at First and E. Washington. With the increasing blight in the corridor attitudes have changed toward favoring redevelopment, and that is before any TOD study that includes a multi-modal station.

There are 14 bus routes that pass Yahara Station, nine on E. Wash and five on Johnson.

The EA studied two different short cuts to the airport, and rejected both due to cost and impact. The route is set and it goes through the Yahara site.

Thanks for the update. It’s good that the neighborhoods are open to slightly more density. The bus service isn’t an issue at the Yahara site, it’s the fact of forcing transfers for people wanting to get to the square/state street/university. It’s far enough that the potential for walking trips is really diminished and there is more reliance on bus connections forced into the equation. Also, the Yahara site ignores the additional vehicle traffic from the west side through the isthmus – many people will drive and park or get dropped off and picked up at a regional HSR station, The terrace is easier for people to get in and out of from the west side with minimum disruption to downtown mobility and the bus system – admittedly, it’s slightly more difficult from the east side, but a station out by I-90/sun prairie could serve some of those folks. As I indicated before, Monona Terrace also has difficulty, specifically, I think the Blair intersection mess is problematic, and I’m interested to see how it’s dealt with.

I’m glad you’re passionate about the Yahara site and redevelopment around it, but it’s that reliance on other developments rather than existing conditions which turns me off. It makes sense if you think MSP-Chicago trains will run through Madison and you’re trying to shave time, but I don’t think the savings are great enough to justify missing the square. It makes sense if you live in the near east neighborhoods and you don’t want noise and diesel in your backyard. (I used to live up against the track and sympathize, but not enough to want a transfer to get to the square.) It makes sense if the airport wasn’t so close and a viable connection point for long-distance air/rail combo trips with people coming in from the west or even drawing MKE people out as competition to Mitchell. It’s not that I think Yahara is a bad site, I just think the others are better in current form and context.

I’ll have to look at what cut-offs the EA studied, but as I mentioned that would only make sense down the road, and then maybe only if all MSP-Chi trains were coming through Madison rather than some taking current routing which is what I’d prefer. For this initial MSN-MKE line, I think the decisions being made are sound and I am hopeful that the forward progress continues…

A Madison train station, like a Madison airport, is a regional transportation provider, yet rail travelers from outside the city limits and those traveling on multi-day trips are being ignored here. And while homage is paid by the writer to the value of intermodal connections, no mention is made that the airport offers the most potential as an intermodal center.

I take as a given that, absent the discovery of a fatal flaw, the downtown station will be in the Monona Terrace area. Otherwise, moving it would be the third station site chosen by Governor Doyle just this year! Thus, the real question in my mind is where should a second station go, if there is to be one.

I believe it should be located where it serves those I identify above. That’s the airport. And with a second station complimenting a downtown station, the short distance to the downtown from the airport — certainly no hardship with 1.5 million passengers using the Dane County airport last year with public outcry — is a non-factor.

The last detailed study done of potential station sites here ranked the airport first. It noted that the majority of those using the trains would be from outside the city of Madison and two-thirds would be taking overnight and longer trips. They will outnumber the day-trippers and commuters.

The airport site would best serve those arriving and departing here on their way to and from the many popular destinations in the multi-county area outside the downtown. More local bus service and a light-rail line would only make it better, as would Greyhound making it their area base.

The regional airport already well serves the multi-county region and is the right location for the regional train station we still need.

The Yahara Station site has been promoted as a “downtown” site. Madison doesn’t need and its size doesn’t justify a second downtown station.

FYI, this sentence in my post should have read: “And with a second station complimenting a downtown station, the short distance to the downtown from the airport — certainly no hardship with 1.5 million passengers using the Dane County airport last year without public outcry — is a non-factor.”

The distance to downtown is a huge factor, when you consider the lack of connecting transit and the fact that most of the market of people traveling to Madison wants to go to downtown, not the airport.

None of this is fatal if there were plans for a good – i.e. rapid, frequent, stopping at multiple interesting points – transit connection from the airport to the city. But there aren’t.

The points made in the original article are good ones (the same cannot be said of most of the comments), but ignore a critical fact: the rail service being planned is a REGIONAL service, not a project to bring people from out of town as close to Capitol Square as possible. More than half of the population Madison metro area is outside the city limits. The feasibility studies for passenger train service to Madison accordingly project that more than half of the riders will be from, or going to, points outside the city limits (never mind outside of “downtown”, wherever that is). The pros and cons in the above article are laid out as though none of this mattered. It does matter. The Wilson St site for a train station makes the service impractical and unattractive to everyone who doesn’t live or work within walking distance. That would be—will be—fatal to the success of the operation.

A study conducted via Google Earth shows that all locations in the Madison metro area south of Highway 30 and east of E. Washington are closer to the Yahara Station than the airport. Anyone coming from the downtown, the UW campus and west side would need to pass Yahara Station on the way to the airport; this includes patrons from Verona, downtown Middleton, Fitchburg, Cottage Grove, Stoughton, McFarland, and even downtown Sun Prairie.

Yahara Station is on a six-lane federal highway with great access to the interstate; the airport is on a dead-end two-lane road in a marsh.

The airport is not centrally located to the regional market and is in fact quite isolated, only providing better access from the low, density, rural area north of Lake Mendota.

“…the rail service being planned is a REGIONAL service, not a project to bring people from out of town as close to Capitol Square as possible.” Actually, I would submit that the latter is exactly what this service, predicated on “downtown to downtown” connectivity, is. Downtown Madison (let’s dispense with the supercilious quotation marks), as both the urban core of Wisconsin’s capital city and the vibrant center of the Capital Region, is the natural destination for a service that is at once a quasi-commuter service between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago and a means of longer-distance connections between Madison and other midwestern cities via a Chicago hub. I fail to see how the “regional” dimension (which could be invoked for just about any destination city anywhere) argues against a downtown station (much less for one at the airport), unless the latter is demonstrably more (and the former demonstrably less) accessible to/from regional as well as local destinations/origins.

“The Wilson St site for a train station makes the service impractical and unattractive to everyone who doesn’t live or work within walking distance.” Honestly: is there any basis whatsoever, either in evidence or analysis, to support this statement, which is, on the face of it, absurd? By its very central location, the Monona Terrace site is reachable by more direct routes to/from the rest of the city and the region than is the airport, and for the same reason, enjoys easier access by a variety of modes. Much the same can be said, as others have noted, of Yahara Station, which is why it, and not the airport, should be considered as the second site if and when the Twin Cities connection is developed and also as the logical “Plan B” site if Monona Terrace does not work out.

Note to JIM:

No, the standard Amtrak 20 minutes for backing does not include cleaning. It is based partly on the awkwardness (and hazard) of backing any train, and includes the running time in both directions between switch and platform. As has been pointed out, Talgo equipment (no less than the equipment in today’s Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago) is push-pull, which means that reversing the direction is not at ll the same as “backing”. It still requires the engineer to walk the length of the train, check things out in the cab, and, I believe, perform a brake test (since the controls are different).

Note to Matt:

For heavens sake, man, the CHI–MKE–MSN–Twin Cities operation has been on the book since the creation of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative in 1995. It’s one of the eight lines radiating out from Chicago which are part of the master plan, and always has been. There’s nothing the least bit “new” about the idea (apart from a recent suggestion that the bit to the Twin Cities should run through Eau Claire instead off along the river on the Empire Builder route).

What hazards are you talking about? The three-minute reversing times in Germany and Switzerland haven’t led to any accident. The controls are only different if you manufacture the cab car to have different controls.

If the current rolling stock is incompatible with short turnaround times, they should put it in the specs: “we could reverse trains in 3 minutes, but those would be modern DMUs. As we are compelled to run FRA-compliant crap, our reversal time is instead 20 minutes. Sorry.” That would be honest. Talking about how it’s unsafe to reverse trains quickly isn’t.

The Illinois HSR grant allowed for the purchase not only of passenger cars but also locomotives, presumably also from Talgo, and set up in a symmetrical pattern with a locomotive at both ends of each train. This should ease congestion a bit at the Chicago hub and allow for things like a Monona Station. There’s no “backing” involved, the engineer just walks to the other end of the train and fires that locomotive up.

Of course, it would be more efficient for one of the locomotives to simply be an empty locomotive-shaped car with a cab in it… this may be the outcome, actually, due to the obvious cost savings.

Thinking about it, the Madison stop is going to be significant anyway, since it’s one of the four biggest stops on the entire route (Chicago, Milwaukee downtown, Madison, St. Paul Union Depot). There will be scheduled dwell time there, unlike at smaller intermediate stations.

So what will be the minimum push-pull reversal time? I’m guessing the brake test is the time determinant: locking up one cab, walking to the other end, and unlocking the other cab is not going to take very long. How long do those brake tests take and what do they involve? I know they have brake tests in Europe too.

Even at major stations, dwells can be minimal. At Shin-Osaka, where Shinkansen trains have to change drivers, trains dwell for about a minute.

Not all railroads have the lean production ideas of Japan, but even when they set dwells to be longer, they’re never as long as you’d think. SNCF’s proposal for California is for 5-minute dwells at the most important stations, such as San Jose and Los Angeles, and 2-minute dwells elsewhere.

The backing and reversing move should dominate Madison’s train dwell.

Note to Alon Levy

Backing is hazardous because, unlike the high speed lines in Europe and Japan on their totally grade-separated and secured rights of way, there are grade crossings, people walking around (well, trespassers), etc. and of course (another difference) much backing movement in this country takes place in or through rail yards.

When a train like the Empire Builder is backed, the conductor stands at the end of the train and is in radio communication with the engineer. Traditionally, an adjunct to the trainline (the tube with pressurized air) was used by the conductor to communicate with the engineer; I daresay the radio is superior, at least until someone’s battery dies. (It was a radio screw-up that caused the disastrous and fatal derailment of the Builder at Fall River in 1986.) It seems to me that for a couple of years I haven’t seen the airhose and valve hung up on the rear ends of the Builder and other trains I’ve taken, for use if a backing move became necessary.

And please remember that I distinguished between backing moves and reversing. Quite different. I have no idea if European brake test rules are different from ours; I definitely see the point of making sure that the controls work “at the other end” before setting out on the main line. Not long ago I was on a Hiawatha run from Chicago on a trainset that had arrived from Milwaukee a half hour earlier. As we set out, the engineer noticed that the speedometer in the locomotive at the north end of the consist was defective, despite having functioned properly on several previous runs.

I’m not talking about high-speed lines. In fact, the high-speed lines don’t have backing; if they’d need to back, they instead bypass the main station and build a new station, which in Madison’s case would be near the airport. The backing is done on legacy and commuter lines, many of which have grade crossings.

The Empire Builder is irrelevant here. It’s a steam-era train that runs only to make sure the Montana and North Dakota Senators vote for Amtrak bills. Modern trains are different. First, they have PTC; even US freight trains will get PTC in a few years. Second, they use high-level platforms to make sure people don’t trespass on the tracks. This is used successfully in Germany on legacy lines with grade crossings. The cost of high-level platforms in this case is a single raised strip of concrete a train-length wide at each station; German towns have completed more complicated projects than just raising a platform for a few hundred thousand dollars each. In high-wage countries, it’s much cheaper than having linemen wave at the conductor.

Backing is hazardous because, unlike the high speed lines in Europe and Japan on their totally grade-separated and secured rights of way, there are grade crossings, people walking around (well, trespassers), etc.

Wow, what a bullshit! European push-pull or MU trains often do run with driving trailers heading at their full speed through level crossings.

I think we have a bit of a terminology confusion here.

In my (albeit limited) understanding, “backing” is essentially switching, and follows the rules for switching. As it has been said, the direction is reversed, and a conductor or switching worker directs the engineer via radio or via hand signals. There are technical means which make the radio connection better, such as overlaying an intermittent beep, and when it fails, the engineer has to stop immediately…

“Reversing” is, on the other hand, a “line opreration” activity where (in case of push-pull consists), the engineer shuts down the controls on the incoming end, and activates them on the outgoing end, or the engine is uncoupled and passes the train and gets coupled to the other end.

With push-pull consists, a simplified brake test is allowed, when the engine changes, a full bake test will be needed.

The time needed for “backing” is a question of seconds, if the assisting staff is at the right position.

The time needed for “reversing” is considerably longer, and the best times I am aware about is 3 to 4 minutes (with push-pull sets; and, yes Amtrak can do that too … with the Keystone services running through to New York). When the incoming engine remains at the station, and a new engine is coupled at the other end, 7 minutes are well possible.

Yes, yes, yes, push-pull trains run at track speeds in this country, too, with the engineer/motorman on the point. That’s not backing up, it’s running forward in the opposite direction. Totally different from what I was talking about, when the engineer effectively can’t see what the train is heading toward.

Among the problems with American passenger trains is that train-high platforms cannot be used on tracks shared with freight trains. And Amtrak’s landlord railroads are opposed to station tracks, i.e. a sort of siding for the platform, of the sort that was commonplace in the 19th century, a liability matter I believe.

And I have to assume that Mr Levy has never tried to get a ticket on the Empire Builder. It’s a busy train, even if perchance it doesn’t happen to go anywhere he wants to go. The folks who live between Spokane and Grand Forks along US 2, more or less, don’t have many transportation options, particularly in winter. Thus postwar ridership on the Great Northern route was stronger than that on the Northern Pacific route, despite the significant population difference.

So why do you bring up such backing in response to run push-pull or double headed trains?

Among the problems with American passenger trains is that train-high platforms cannot be used on tracks shared with freight trains.

So there are no freight trains on Northeast Corridor, or the rule isn’t as general as you put it?

Regarding Empire Builder – I don’t think that Alon’s criticism was directed at EB itself. IMO, he criticised applying practices from very long distance trains like EB to short to medium long lines like that of Chicago hub.

PS: please, use the “Reply” button. It makes threads much more readable.

Your concern to clarify the discussion does you credit, but this is what he actually wrote:

The Empire Builder is irrelevant here. It’s a steam-era train that runs only to make sure the Montana and North Dakota Senators vote for Amtrak bills.

That reads like a blow-off, to me. And and ignorant one: the criteria used by planners for the Amtrak system to evaluate routes are publicly available. Always, of course, hamstrung by the DOT demand that the system be limited to 20 terminal points.

So far as I know, there was only one case of route changes designed to please/appease congress, and those were a couple of trains in West Virginia connected with Harley Staggers. (Those who blame the Chicago–Janesville experiment on the same kind of thing are speaking from surmise, not information.)

Indeed, it’s a whiskery fable that the Amtrak system, and the “closely spaced” stops, are a scheme to keep congressmen on board. The fact is that if you count revenue miles, which is how intercity public transport is measured (“riders” are an urban transit measure), the trains outside of the Northeast Corridor—Amtrak’s supposed crown jewel—rack up roughly the same number of passenger-miles as the NEC operation.

The fact is that if you count revenue miles, which is how intercity public transport is measured (“riders” are an urban transit measure), the trains outside of the Northeast Corridor—Amtrak’s supposed crown jewel—rack up roughly the same number of passenger-miles as the NEC operation.

And if you count revenue then all the non-NEC trains, combined, make less money than the NEC. And if you count revenue minus avoidable costs, all the long-distance trains that aren’t the Auto Train have negative net income. This includes the Empire Builder, which has a higher recovery ratio than the rest of the LD trains but still turns out to be one of the biggest money losers.

The reason intercity operations usually quote numbers in passenger-km is that they’re more or less proportional to revenue and profit. In Amtrak’s case, this is not true; the NEC has much higher fares per km than the other services.

Like the Empire Builder or not it is one of the most successful long distance trains in the Amtrak system. Ridership is strong enough that if a second train per day was added it would likely be full.

Few rail services in North America take in more revenue than their costs. If that is the metric then all intercity rail service except for the NEC and the Auto Train should be abandoned.

Even most regional services require a subsidy, AFAIK the Chicago-MKE-Madison-Twin Cities service is expected to be subsidized as well.

Chris, most of the regional services Amtrak runs make more money than their avoidable costs. In other words: if Amtrak runs a second train, and ridership is equal to that of the first train, then it will produce a net profit. The Auto Train is in the same category. None of those trains is profitable when you include all costs (stations, administration, etc.), but they still make enough money that Amtrak’s losing less money running them than not running them. This is not true of the Builder, or of any non-Auto Train LD service.

“This is not true of the Builder, or of any non-Auto Train LD service.”

….largely because they are all “train #1”, meaning that the avoidable cost is “everything”. A second train on some LD routes might look different.

No, the avoidable cost only includes things that scale linearly in how many trains you run: track access fees, labor, fuel. This is in addition to attributed costs, which include items that scale with service (train maintenance) and items that don’t (stations).

Among the problems with American passenger trains is that train-high platforms cannot be used on tracks shared with freight trains.

This is completely false. The loading gauge allows freight trains to pass, no matter what. Some states have additional rules mandating over-wide clearances at stations, to allow railroad workers to hang from the side of the train. Some don’t. Even the states that do have exceptions in constrained areas, regardless of platform height. For example, California, which has low-platform rules, posts “No hanging from the sides” signs in San Francisco.

Well, not completely false. The issue is that where Amtrak is a tenant, the landlord gets to set the terms, with or without the connivance of the state. On the route of the Downeaster, there are train-high platforms, but so designed for freight clearance (dictated by the landlord) that the large platform gap isn’t exactly ergonomic, and pretty impossible for the mobility-impaired. (They use portable bridges, which are a time-consuming nuisance, and the FRA is, or has been, making noises about disallowing such arrangements.)

Elsewhere on the Northeast Corridor, freight trains don’t pass through passenger stations or there are through-tracks that don’t pass the platforms.

In parts of the world where there’s more than one train a day in each direction, there are contraptions of various design to mechanically bridge a gap between coach opening and the platform, and they seem to work well, even when there is really no gap at all and the point is to make a solid surface between platform and train; but there are obvious economic problems. If the Midwest Regional Initiative is built out as planned, and if the system is served by a fleet of Talgos, high platforms won’t really be necessary, as the Talgos have low floors and a neat little boarding step that folds out from under the doorsteps.

Talgos are just one trainset. If you’re designing your entire network around one trainset, you’re just inviting vendor lock and monopoly. Better to go with more common boarding heights, which cluster in the 1 meter range.

Portable bridges are a complete waste. There’s a national standard for loading gauge; 10’8″ width is deemed sufficient by the FRA. Freight trains serve some areas where the clearance is this tight, for examples San Francisco and Long Island. What UP deems acceptable is not relevant; most of the corridors those trains are expected to run on are state-owned or are marginal freight corridors that could be bought for cheap. We’re not talking about the Sunset route here.

The Talgo trains, Amtrak Superliner gear, and Sounder Bi-Level coaches all seem to operate just fine in the Seattle area. All three types of gear are relatively low to the rail and allow near-level boarding at stations with a low platform.

Since the minimum clearance from centerline to platform edge and for car height above the railhead are part of the loading gauge any platforms designed for the Talgo equipment will work just fine with any other low-floor mainline passenger equipment.

To my mind it doesn’t really matter if high or low platform is the standard in a particular area, just that everything use the same standard. It is when you mix the two that you have problems.

The problem is that other major manufacturers build trains to a much higher boarding height. Japanese train manufacturers build to about a meter above top of rail; so do Bombardier, Alstom, and Siemens, at least when it comes to intercity trains. Locking in to Talgo’s (and Stadler’s) boarding height reduces the availability of manufacturers, which allows Talgo and Stadler to stiff the state on prices. It doesn’t even improve service – raised platforms are cheap, and low-floor trains cost and weigh more than high-floor trains.

But even Talgo’s boarding height would be better than what Wisconsin is planning. Wisconsin has no intention of raising platforms to the height of a Talgo/Stadler. That would provide level boarding and drastically reduce both dwell times and the risk of people walking on the tracks.


The vast majority of the North American rail network is designed for low/no-platforms including intercity and commuter rail. The Talgo trains work just fine in this environment and have the advantage that stations can be shared with say Superliner gear or common (in the US) commuter rail cars.

From what I’ve seen on the Cascades service the lack of level boarding at most stations really doesn’t increase dwell times in any meaningful way. Outside of the terminals the dwell times are VERY short.

As far as vendor lock-in goes, that already has been happening due to FRA regulations. Even with that from what I’ve seen Talgo is pretty aggressive with their pricing.

Besides in most areas the real “lock in” will be caused by sharing platforms with commuter rail or existing Amtrak service.

With high platforms, dwells at local stations can be well under 30 seconds. I’m going to go on a limb here and say that the Cascades dwells you pronounce short are on the order of minutes.

It doesn’t matter what the “vast majority of the North American rail network” by track-km is designed for. The vast majority of North American rail ridership is on lines with high platforms, which means that from the point of view of rolling stock compatibility, experience with operations, etc., there’s no point building to an inferior standard.

The FRA regulations that cause the most vendor lock are probably going away in the next five years. Caltrain just got a waiver, and Amtrak believes the entire edifice will come down once PTC is up. In a few years any manufacturer big enough to land LIRR/Metro-North/NJT contracts will be able to make lightweight trains for the US market. Most of those manufacturers don’t build to low platforms.

A very interesting discussion!

To the point of the best station location, various options for the journey from Madison to St. Paul have been noted, but no one has mentioned Chicago options. Chicago’s Metra serves its northwest suburbs on a line to Harvard, IL. This line continues through Janesville, Oregon, and Fitchburg, WI, and enters the aerial photo above obliquely lower left to upper right across Monona Bay, and thence under Monona Terrace! If we are talking about the time frame of future Madison-St. Paul service, I think this line should be yellow on the photo and labeled “To Chicago”. The existing “To Chicago” should be relabeled “To Milwaukee”.

I grant that this line, jointly owned in Dane County by the City of Fitchburg and the Village of Oregon, needs a lot of work, but the existing right-of-way could be used for a direct Madison-Chicago line in the longer term, providing more options and a more direct Chicago route in a carbon-constrained future in which air travel is too expensive for civilians of ordinary means.

Because east-west, and perhaps even north-south, Dane County commuter rail lines could be running this decade, and before a Madison-St. Paul intercity line, and because of the long-term possibility of direct Chicago service from Madison, I favor the Monona station location. Monona Station could serve trains direct Chicago-St. Paul trains and commuter rail without reversing, although Milwaukee-St. Paul trains would require reversing. I recognize that Yahara Station has more real estate development potential, but feel that transit-oriented development around commuter stations will be much more important in Dane County than additional development around one or two intercity rail stations.

I hope that we can all unite around the governor’s choice and get something done, as there are many opponents who will use our different policy priorities to delay action.

Hey, how ’bout it goes through, via track to Rochester, MN on old tracks, then connects to the Twin Cites? Save money and won’t have to pay for a separate rail line, I think that is good for a centralized system that connects the most people.

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