In 1999, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) unveiled a new “Midwest Rail Initiative” that would create a railway network connecting Milwaukee and Madison to existing passenger railways in Chicago and Minneapolis.
While Thompson hoped to have the train completed by 2003 with contributions from the federal and state governments, Thompson was instead named to President-elect George W. Bush’s Cabinet in Dec. 2000, putting an end to Thompson’s push for the project.
After several years with little action regarding the passenger rail in Wisconsin, the next elected Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle (D) revived the passenger rail talks. But this time, Wisconsin looked at high-speed rail — typically trains which run at least 160 mph — to move the Midwest closer to rail systems in Europe and Japan.
But in 2007, the Great Recession hit the U.S., again halting potential projects. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a stimulus bill featuring $8 billion for high-speed rail projects which were “shovel ready.” Because Doyle and Wisconsin already had a plan ready to go, the state received $810 million to upgrade the Amtrak Hiawatha line running between Milwaukee and Chicago and add a new route from Milwaukee to Madison.
After Doyle chose not to run for reelection in 2010, Republican Scott Walker won the governorship on a campaign centered around stopping the high-speed rail plan. Walker said the plan was a “boondoggle,” as he believed it would cost the state too much to maintain the rail system and the money would be better spent on road infrastructure.
Instead, the $810 million from the federal government had to be returned, ultimately killing the project.
In a statement released after Wisconsin returned the money, Walker told reporters Wisconsin had won. Instead, the $810 million was redistributed to other states — including California, Washington and Illinois — to work on their own high-speed rail projects.
Since then, talks about high-speed railways across the country have only grown. Projects are completed or underway in Florida, Texas, California and the Pacific Northwest — to name just a few. While Wisconsin never completed their railway, the trains which would have run the route are believed to still be stored in Milwaukee by the manufacturer Talgo, according to Wisconsin Public Radio’s Bridgit Bowden, who co-created the Derailed podcast in 2019.
Despite Wisconsin’s failure to build a high-speed rail, the state could have another opportunity in the coming years with the popularity of high-speed rail growing globally.
The making of a mega-region
Surprisingly, many members of Gen Z — or the generation born between 1998 and 2010 — have proven to be key supporters in growing high-speed railway projects. Many of these Gen Z-ers are concerned about the sustainability of cars and planes as well as the connectedness of our country as cars have become less of a status symbol and airlines suffer from pilot shortages, leading to a rise in advocacy from Gen Z on Twitter.
Because of its low maintenance requirements and high profitability, high-speed rail is one of the most cost-efficient forms of transportation, as long as you can attract enough passengers. President of the Wisconsin High Speed Transportation Group and PhD candidate in Transportation Administration and Community Development Mike Schlicting explained this is what makes the Japanese rail system so profitable.
“If you think about train costs, it’s the same to carry one person or 400 people,” Schlicting said. “The difference is one passenger pays $25 while 400 passengers pay several thousand. Say the train breaks even at 100 passengers, which means those other 300 passengers are pure profit. Japan excels because some of their trains have 1,300 seats and they add standing room to maximize their profits.”
The other benefit of high-speed rail is its ability to connect cities within regions, ultimately creating “megaregions” consisting of several metropolitan areas. One potential megaregion in the U.S. is the Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-Indianapolis connection.
Design innovation graduate student and Vice President of WiHST Utkarsh Maheshwari said while high-speed rail could be used to connect an entire country, it really needs to be focused on specific regions.
Maheshwari said by creating megaregions, high-speed rail reduces the time and cost of traveling while it increases passenger productivity. It also positively affects intermediate cities or stops — such as Madison — more than large cities like Chicago.
“A lot of people would rather move to be in smaller cities to have a better living experience with more affordable housing costs and a higher quality of life,” Maheshwari said. “With high-speed rail, you can live in these cities but still work in a larger city that’s just 30 or 40 minutes away by train rather than two or three hours away by car.”
Schlicting echoed this message, explaining your job opportunities would no longer be limited to the metro area you live in or live closest to. Instead, you could live in Madison or Milwaukee and commute to work in downtown Chicago every day.
On top of decreasing commute times, high-speed rail would also improve travel in general. Co-founding member of WiHST and former Operations Director for Badgerloop — a University of Wisconsin student organization — Johnny Kohlbeck explained the concept of a “Goldilocks Zone” where high-speed rail would fit in between other forms of transportation.
“Areas that are somewhere between 100 and 350 miles apart, that really is a Goldilocks Zone,” Kohlbeck said. “Where it takes too much time to drive by car and it costs too much money to fly by plane. So the routes from Madison to Chicago or even Minneapolis to Chicago are perfect for high-speed rail.”
With high-speed rail, short flights like those from Milwaukee to Chicago could be replaced with regular trips between the cities that would only take 45 minutes to an hour. This change would reduce environmental costs and allow growth to take place around the train hubs. This growth is commonly referred to as Transit Oriented Development.
The Transit Oriented Development Institute defines TOD as “the creation of compact, walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a lower-stress life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.”
Program Director for Engineering Professional Development at UW Dave Peterson said TOD has been beneficial in cities such as Denver.
“Denver is a really good example. It was kind of rundown and when they built a big rail hub in the middle of downtown Denver, there was immediately an increase in investment in the surrounding area,” Peterson said. “Apartments started going up and now it’s kind of the hip part of town to be in.”
While the general benefits of high-speed rail are virtually endless, UW and the City of Madison could be two of the biggest beneficiaries, especially if high-speed rail makes it to Wisconsin in the future.
Connecting the university and the community
If high-speed rail had made it to Wisconsin in the early 2010s, the City of Madison would have been one of — if not the biggest — beneficiary of the system.
As previously mentioned, intermediate cities like Madison would prosper as more people would move into these regions and drive economic growth in the area. In addition to this growth, Madison would also prevent “brain drain,” as explained by Maheshwari.
“High-speed transportation to these smaller towns, which have colleges but haven’t had an overall brain drain — where people leave the city as soon as they graduate because they find jobs elsewhere — that brain drain would slow down,” Maheshwari said. “People would instead just live in Madison because a lot of these jobs that are in Minneapolis or Chicago, people could just commute there regularly.”
As the largest growing city for workers in 2020 according to LinkedIn location data, Madison is primed for more commercial development to respond to the influx of residents. In an interview with The Badger Herald, Doyle said the failed high-speed rail plan in Wisconsin would have helped develop the hubs of Milwaukee, Madison and Watertown.
Peterson agreed with Doyle, saying a high-speed rail station in downtown Madison would help the city improve economically. Peterson added high-speed rail would give students and residents more access to Milwaukee and Chicago — two of the largest feeder cities for UW.
High-speed rail in Madison would also allow the university to grow, as students from across the state would have better access to Madison and potentially be more willing to leave their hometowns. Kohlbeck said with high-speed rail, we wouldn’t need to jam the student population into a small area like the Isthmus, as students could commute into the city via rail.
Between WiHST and Badgerloop, UW has plenty of connections to high-speed rail already. But one connection which has existed longer than any other is the Central Japan Railway Company, commonly referred to as JR Central.
JR Central Chairman Emeritus Yoshiyuki Kasai is a 1969 UW alumnus and helped establish the JR Central Internship Program in 2000. Despite having to cancel the 2020 program due to COVID-19, the internship has featured 49 Badgers over its 20-year history. Interns learn about all aspects of JR Central and gain behind-the-scenes access to the functionings and mechanics of the rail system.
Maheshwari was part of the last cohort of students in the internship and he detailed his experience with JR Central, explaining he got to see virtually every aspect of the rail system. He added since the current U.S. rail system is far behind Japan, U.S. developers should take help from international experts to implement high-speed rail quickly and cheaply.
Despite Maheshwari’s hopes, the U.S. remains lacking in innovative transportations like high-speed rail. Schlicting compared our current passenger rail system to the technological stage of dial-up internet in the early 2000s.
“The U.S. is stuck back in the early 2000s when we had dial-up computers,” Schlicting said. “Compared to China, Japan, Germany, they’re on 5G networks. In other words, we’re behind much of Europe and Asia by a few decades and that gap is only growing as the U.S. fails to take action.”
This lack of technological advancement leaves just two questions — Where is high-speed rail in the U.S. and will it arrive in Wisconsin soon?
Future of high-speed rail in Wisconsin, the U.S.
Besides the initial investment of high-speed rail — which can cost upwards of several billion dollars, depending on the location and length of the route — the costs of high-speed rail are relatively low. Furthermore, rail systems like the one almost built in Wisconsin have proven beneficial in other parts of the world.
But in the U.S. government partisanship has held back infrastructure innovation, as Republicans favor other forms of transportation and are generally anti-public transit, which includes high-speed rail.
Doyle said while the federal government would have paid for 100% of the high-speed rail project, Republicans in Wisconsin stood in the way of the project. Doyle said Republicans have had no problem declining free money from the government, citing Wisconsin’s decision to not accept Medicaid expansion money under the Obama administration.
“You just never know with the Wisconsin Republicans, these are people that turn down money that’s supposed to come to the state,” Doyle said. “There’s no doubt we missed an opportunity and in particular the fact that Wisconsin got picked to take 25% of that stimulus money. It’s hard to see that coming here again.”
Wisconsin Republicans aren’t the only GOP group to stop high-speed rail from making its way to the U.S. Ohio and Florida, both of which had Republican governors, also rejected money dedicated to high-speed rail from the federal government in 2009.
While Wisconsin could have been a leader in high-speed rail for the rest of the U.S., they’re now more likely to be a follower. Major projects in Florida (Miami to Orlando), Texas (Dallas to Houston) and California (Los Angeles to San Francisco) are all underway and expected to be completed by the end of the decade.
Between the projects underway and President Joe Biden’s well-known love for trains — he earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” for using Amtrak regularly while serving as a senator for Delaware — the U.S. seems closer to high-speed rail than ever before.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is also a supporter of high-speed rail, tweeting “Gen Z is dreaming big. It’s time we all did the same.”
“I am excited about the Biden administration because they are interested in rail and investing in rail,” Peterson said. “I think there are some bills that are ready to go to invest in rail. So there’s the possibility we’re getting into an environment that we were in back when the Obama administration attempted to fund passenger rail.”
One of the bills Peterson referenced is the American High-Speed Rail Act, proposed by a group of representatives in the House. The bill would invest roughly $41 billion in high-speed rail over the next five years, with an additional $38 billion available to incentivize private investment.
Kohlbeck emphasized the importance of investing in public infrastructure outside of roads. Wisconsin ranks near the top nationally in annual road spending, according to the Urban Institute and this money could potentially be redirected to projects like high-speed rail.
“High-speed rail in the United States is inevitable,” Kohlbeck said. “We’ve seen across the country, no matter the price for public infrastructure, we have really under-invested for the better part of 40 years and we’re seeing the effects of it.”
Between Maheshwari, Schlicting, Kohlbeck, Doyle and Peterson, all five said Wisconsin and the U.S. are shifting toward a culture dedicated to high-speed rail. This culture is anchored by a declining interest in cars among young people and Wisconsin is ready for the rise of high-speed rail when it comes.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation creates a state rail plan every few years including freight rail, intercity passenger rail and commuter rail for the coming decades. The plan also identifies and prioritizes where Wisconsin rail investments should go, including potential new rail projects like high-speed rail. The Wisconsin Rail Plan 2030, released in 2014, is scheduled to be replaced by the Wisconsin Rail Plan 2050 in Jan. 2022.
While Wisconsin is likely at least 10 or 15 years away from any semblance of high-speed rail, the potential for success from the other projects makes Kohlbeck and other high-speed rail advocates hopeful.
“[High-speed rail] just makes sense. The longer we wait, the more costly it is to have tons of cars and tons of airplanes flying these short routes,” Kohlbeck said. “I’m hopeful as we look forward that this could really be a reality and not just some sort of pipe dream.”