October 20, 2016
-Sean Ryan, Milwaukee Business Journal-
Increased rush hour ridership on Amtrak’s Hiawatha passenger rail route has Wisconsin and Illinois planning major upgrades to add up to three new round trips per day.
A public hearing on the project is scheduled for Oct. 27 in Milwaukee, and local officials hope to have federal approval for the project sometime this winter, said Arun Rao, passenger rail implementation manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“Ridership has nearly doubled since we went to seven round trips in 2003,” Rao said.
The project will increase Amtrak’s Hiawatha service from seven to 10 round trips per day between Milwaukee and Chicago. They would have a top speed of 79 miles per hour, the same as current service.
Adding three routes will require substantial track upgrades and the addition of a third train to run on the route. Based on preliminary estimates from 2014, the DOT anticipates $150 million to $200 million in construction costs, not including the price of a new train set, Rao said. More concrete capital and operation costs will be released in late November or December, he said.
The added trips include a new route leaving Milwaukee for Chicago during the peak morning hours, and one leaving Chicago for Milwaukee in the peak afternoon times, Rao said. That is a reflection of the current commuter patterns.
Currently, there are more trains hitting capacity for people heading from Milwaukee to Chicago in the morning, and then back home at the end of the day, Rao said. However, the number of commuters to Milwaukee from Chicago also is significant, he said.
“There is definitely greater flow on the Hiawatha service in terms of commuter and business trip activity from Milwaukee to Chicago,” he said.
The Hiawatha route had a ridership of 807,000 for fiscal year 2016. The upgrade to 10 trips would increase the annual passenger volume to 980,200 in its initial year of service, which was forecast in 2019. It is unlikely the work will be done in time for the new routes to start in 2019, Rao said.
“There’s typically a ramp-up period with expanded services like this and the number grows year after year,” he said.
The timing of the project depends on when Wisconsin and Illinois can secure federal money to pay for the project, Rao said. Once federal grants are awarded, the design and construction work would take about three years.
Wisconsin and Illinois would seek federal grants to cover the majority of the construction costs, Rao said. The federal government usually requires local governments cover 20 percent of project costs.
The states could do the project incrementally, securing smaller grants to space out the construction work. Under that scenario, additional round trips could be added one at a time, he said.
In addition to the track work, Wisconsin and Illinois would need a third train to run the Hiawatha line. Based on the prices Illinois is paying under a current procurement contract, that new train set could cost up to $23.3 million.
Rao estimated a new locomotive could cost $8.3 million, based on prices Illinois is paying Siemens to manufacture them for the Midwest passenger rail network. Amtrak could provide coach cars for the train, or new ones could be purchased. Those new, two-level coach cars cost about $3 million each, and a new train would need five, Rao said.
Original Publication: Milwaukee Business Journal