NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Among many conservatives the high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison is unpopular. That’s a political issue. As a practical matter, those who are on the other side of the political fence hold their reigns of power. The train project is moving forward.
Today’s blog isn’t to argue the merits of a high speed train. It’s only to talk about the practical choices of getting the line up and running – because that’s what is most likely to happen. On that count, the state has made two smart choices.
The state chose the right site for the Madison train station. It needs to be downtown, near the state capital and the central office buildings. There had been considerable debate about this. Supporters of a true high-speed rail line say this type of train service is intended to be almost like an airplane. The travelers are on mid-range trips and are willing to travel to a train station that’s on the outskirts of town. To people who make this argument, things like plentiful parking and avoiding the slow-speeds of inner-city railroad crossings are most important. The opposing view is that the Madison-Milwaukee line will have a commuter component to it – that there’s enough semi-regular back-and-forth traffic between the two cities that there will be a regular, steady base ridership. I think these people are right. But for people to regularly take the train and leave their cars behind the train station needs to be centrally located. The biggest advantage the train has is that it offers downtown-to-downtown transportation. The state got this one right.
The other sometimes-forgotten rule for new trains is that you don’t want newly-designed or custom-made trains. Modern trains are no longer a standard locomotive and bare-bones coaches with seats. They are complicated high-tech machines. You want a design that’s been tested, de-bugged, and is already up –and-running somewhere else. Talgo, picked as the manufacturer of the Wisconsin train, already has trains up and running between Portland and Seattle (pictured above), and in Europe. Our train cars will be of similar design. That’s good. Amtrak’s forays into custom-built equipment have been expensive mistakes. The Acela express trains, the Metroliner trains of the 1970s, and the Viewliner sleeping cars of a decade ago were all custom-built, and all needed expensive reengineering after they were put in service. Wisconsin is on the right track to avoiding those problems.
There are a lot of things about the new train we don’t know. Ridership levels are a question mark. Operating budgets are also unclear, and may be higher than projected. Those are arguments for another day. For now the state has made some good decisions about how to run its trains.
Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau