Wisconsin’s Assets and Possibilities
Loads of natural beauty, like the Great Lakes shoreline and the Driftless region. Amazing tourist sites, like the Dells. Sports teams with huge fan bases. Outdoor adventures in every season.
Imagine quick and affordable trains connecting them all. Imagine low-stress trips from southern Wisconsin to Chicago and the Twin Cities in an hour or two.
It’s possible—and there’s new funding and momentum.
Fast, frequent trains could pull Wisconsin together, and take the state to the next level.
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo: Rick Harnish
Photo taken by Rick Harnish.
Now’s the Time
Wisconsin is well positioned to use the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to extend successful Amtrak Hiawatha trains.
In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration in 2023 awarded $2.5 million in Corridor ID funding to plan new and improved service in Wisconsin. This includes extensions from Milwaukee to Green Bay, Madison, and Eau Claire, and service between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities.
Proposed new service would offer statewide benefits, which makes it possible to build the statewide support needed. And Wisconsin’s business community has already shown strong interest.
Wisconsin’s State Rail Plan
Across party lines and geographical divides, Wisconsin’s leaders have recognized the immense value that trains could deliver.
The Wisconsin Rail Plan 2050 would deliver big wins for a wide range of stakeholders across the state—including the business, educational, and tourism sectors. It calls for service between Milwaukee and Green Bay via the Fox Cities, between Milwaukee and Madison, and between Madison and Eau Claire, on the way to the Twin Cities.
It’s very doable. And it would be transformative.
The legislature should create and fund a program to take advantage of new federal funds for construction.
Wisconsin should also aim higher. It’s time to plan for additional lines, to include cities such as Janesville, Port Washington, Racine, Sheboygan, and Stevens Point.
Wisconsin’s State Rail Plan—with additions shown by dashed lines—could connect the entire state.
Expand the Hiawatha
Wisconsin can take a huge step forward just by upgrading and extending its already popular Hiawatha route.
It’s among the most popular and heavily used in North America.
With steady infrastructure upgrades—and service and geographical expansions—the Hiawatha could be an excellent foundation for Wisconsin’s train network. That’s the essence of the Wisconsin Rail Plan’s vision.
Highlighted Wisconsin Cities
The Chicago – Milwaukee Hiawatha is by far the most popular Amtrak route in the Midwest. It should offer hourly departures.
Some Hiawatha trains should be extended to Green Bay. The state should work with Canadian National for a win-win: Better freight-rail service and expanded passenger-train service.
Eau Claire has worked hard for years to establish train service to the Twin Cities (to the west) and Chicago (to the east). A third daily Empire Builder run—via Eau Claire instead of LaCrosse—could be a start
The Empire Builder, running from Seattle to Chicago, has more riders than any other Amtrak long-haul line. The Twin Cities-to-Chicago segment is so popular that Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois are cooperating to add a second daily departure, each way.
Some Hiawatha trains should be extended to Madison. The City of Madison is taking the lead in siting a new railroad station to pave the way.
Stevens Point isn’t in the Wisconsin Rail Plan, but a Green Bay – St. Paul route would fill the gap. In the short term, the state could operate more frequent buses.
Chicago to Twin Cities HSR
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Regional Rail Plan envisions a Chicago to Twin Cities line as the spine of a regional railroad network.
The line would create a 400-mile corridor of innovation. The vast majority of the line would be in Wisconsin—with stops in Madison and Milwaukee, at minimum. And the endpoints would be two of the most dynamic cities in America.
This corridor, in short, amounts to one of the most promising and obvious near-term opportunities for HSR in the entire nation. It would not only make Wisconsin much more accessible to the region’s major cities (and vice versa). It would drive growth across the state’s entire railroad and transit network.
Wisconsin should aggressively pursue this opportunity while also expanding its shared-use network.
Photo by Rick Harnish
Moving Wisconsin Forward
Civic leaders and business groups across Wisconsin have demonstrated strong support for a network of fast, frequent trains in the state.
The only roadblock now is the disconnect between politics and the will of the people.
Breaking the logjam will require a broad coalition of average people who want better—and more sustainable—ways to get around, working with civic leaders who are deeply invested in their communities.
When citizens and local civic leaders push for change from the grassroots up, real change is possible. Policy-makers will follow their lead.
We’re on the cusp of it now. Can you imagine it?
Will you help translate the possibilities into real transformation on the ground?