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Amish rail riders could benefit from expanded Amtrak option

A representative of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers (WARP) met with members of the local Amish community on Oct. 29 to discuss issues with current Amtrak train services and the possibility of creating a regional train line for more local trips that could better suit passengers.

For the past few months, WARP representative Terry Brown has been speaking with members of the Amish community to arrange this meeting. Since he began working with Amtrak and the Department of Transportation on the project to create a second train for Wisconsin railway passengers, Brown said he has visited many of the stations along Amtrak’s train route through the state and has noticed that there are many Amish passengers from the Clark County area.

“I have been in Tomah three times since August and I have seen at least eight people from Clark County each time. You or your fellow drivers drive down to Tomah and I know y’all use Amtrak when appropriate, but it doesn’t serve all your transportation needs,” he said. “I want to get the word out to as many train riders as I can. Everyone at Amtrak has said that the Amish community are very regular users of Amtrak.”

Presenting information about Amtrak’s only longdistance train that travels through Wisconsin, the Empire Builder, and its record on performance over the past year, Brown said the train’s record for being on time has fluctuated between 10-50 percent, and is late an average of 1.5 hours on any given trip.

“I don’t know about you, but one word comes to mind and that’s disgusting,” he said on the train not being on time. “You can’t run a railroad with one out of 10 trains on time. No one wants a train that is four and a half hours late.”

For the Amish passengers, the late trains have created some problems. Having people with vehicles driving them to and from Tomah — the train station most Clark County Amish commuters use to access Amtrak—there have often been times where the drivers would be forced to wait at the station for hours for their passengers to arrive. When traveling to other stations to switch trains, such as the Chicago station, the late Empire Builder has sometimes caused the passengers to miss their train and forced them to stay overnight and make temporary accommodations until the next train was available. Brown was sympathetic to their problems.

“How do you prepare for an erratic train? Many of those connections ... those trains are gone by 5:30,” he said.

The Empire Builder — which runs from Seattle to Chicago — is one of Amtrak’s most popular trains in the country, carrying about 100,000 passengers in a year. To get through places like Wisconsin with little to no Amtrak passenger lines, Amtrak makes agreements with nearby freight railroad lines to allow passenger trains to operate on their railways in exchange for money and certain repairs to the lines to make them suitable for high-speed traffic.

Brown said when these agreements were made, Congress had passed rules to give the faster passenger trains the right of first passage. In practice, however, he said most of the delays seen today by the Amish and other passengers are the result of the host railroads failing to follow these rules, keeping the passenger trains behind the slower freight trains.

“Congress is not enforcing it (the right of first passage for passenger trains),” he said. “They’ve given us no teeth to enforce it. The freight trains are free to do what they want.”

In order to get the Empire Builder back on track, and to increase the amount of railway services for Wisconsin residents to use, Brown said he has been working on creating a second, smaller train that would operate along all the regional stops — running from St. Paul to Chicago.

“My mission is to educate you on the second train,” he said. “My train is a regional train. The Empire Builder is a long train. My regional train would stop in Minneapolis.”

The regional train would be a boon to most of the Empire Builder’s ‘ □ passengers. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, about 70 percent of the 100,000 passengers who use the Empire Builder use it for regional transportation. For Wisconsin riders, Brown said, that means most passengers end their rides at one of 11 stops: St. Paul, Red Wing or Winona in Minnesota; La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus or Milwaukee in Wisconsin; or Glenview or Chicago in Illinois.

’’Chicago and Minneapolis is their end destination,” he said. “With 70 percent of train riders using the Empire Builder as a regional train, the department knows a second train would probably be huge.”

Known for now as the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) train, Brown said the regional train is still in the planning stages, but will run through Wisconsin during the morning hours on an opposite schedule than the Empire Builder, which travels through Wisconsin during the afternoon.

“We want to have it run on an opposite schedule than the Empire Builder ... it will give you a choice,” he said.

The TCMC train will have some other notable differences with the Empire Builder, Brown said. Only six cars long, he said the train is expected to operate at 79 mph on Canadian Pacific railway lines — one of the nation’s highest ranking host railroads with passenger trains. The train will also add a stop at the Milwaukee Airport to give commuters easier access to the airport.

Since it’s a regional train, Brown said the TCMC will be funded by taxpayers in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. To get it up and running, he said $12 million needs to come from the Wisconsin state budget to repair some portions of the Canadian Pacific track to make it suitable for the faster train. Both Minnesota and Illinois, he said, will also be contributing to the project.

“It will be supported by us taxpayers of Wisconsin,” he said. “We will pay the bills with the state of Minnesota for the regional train.”

Brown said adding the second train will have multiple benefits. Passengers will have more options for traveling times, since the Empire Builder and TCMC will run through stations at opposite times. With more options, he said more riders would be willing to use the trains. But his biggest hope is for the TCMC train to help put the Empire Builder back on schedule.

“What can we do to get the Empire Builder on time? The second train is important. We don’t want a nine to 10 percent performance rate in March,” he said. “We’re expecting the train to be on time rather than having long hours. This will help

by Cheyenne Thomas

a lot of folks.” To get his plan in motion, Brown told the Amish that it was important for them to contact their state representatives and members of Congress through letters or phone calls to let them know the public is interested in the TCMC train and to give Amtrak more power in enforcing its right of first passage.

“How will your lawmakers know the Empire Builder is important to you unless you tell them?” he asked.