Baseball season is almost here again, which means that it is almost time for marauding bands of FIBs to come roaring up to “Wrigley Field North” towing their boats and swigging beers that are not Miller Lite. In the past, Brewers fans have had little recourse except to develop disparaging acronyms for the invading Cubs fans, but now in 2009, they have the opportunity to return the favor via Amtrak’s “Miller Park South” promotion.

The “Miller Park South” promotion will offer a free train ticket on Amtrak’s Hiawatha line to 100 Brewer fans who buy tickets for the Sept. 17 Brewers-Cubs game at Wrigley Field. It is only fitting that Amtrak would team up with America’s Pastime, since few things celebrate Americana like riding the train to a baseball game with scores of like-minded fans.

Mass transit in Wisconsin enjoyed a career year in 2008, and although its gaudy numbers did not result in success for mass transit measures at the ballot box, it did mean that Amtrak and its teammates were number one in the hearts of many Sconnies. The Milwaukee to Chicago line that will be taking the Brewers fans to “Miller Park South” experienced a 26 percent growth in ridership over the previous year, and throughout the entire nation, ridership increased 11 percent during that same time period.

The challenge for Amtrak is now to prove that those numbers were not inflated by the performance-enhancing drug of high gas prices and that intercity trains are legitimate stars just beginning to enter the prime of their careers.

The American train culture that has developed over time has focused on stadium anthems such as “City of New Orleans,” which romanticize the long-distance train home run. These routes that roll past cities, farms and fields are largely responsible for Amtrak’s financial strikeouts and the taunts from transit bush-leaguers in the Republican Party. Few Americans have the luxury of time and money to take lengthy train holidays, so the costs of maintaining long-distance train services far exceed the revenues they bring in.

In a perfect nation committed to mass transit, our country would provide endless funds for Amtrak, similar to the Yankees trying to buy a World Series title. Unfortunately, while no one bats an eye at putting mounds of money toward socialized driving, the scrutiny of public funding for mass transit operations is intense. Thus, Amtrak needs to be intelligent about the routes it chooses to focus its funds on now and develop in the future.

Chicks may dig the long ball, but a successful Amtrak will be one that focuses on developing effective regional high-speed rail networks in corridors with high demand. Amtrak’s service currently has some holes in its game, and yet riders have still expressed a demand to use regional routes between close urban centers. These urban centers, such as Milwaukee and Chicago, have extensive business ties, so Amtrak’s trains provide essential economic connections that are more convenient and relaxing than flying or driving.

The future is bright for the economic prospects of these regional routes, especially if Amtrak is able to develop its skills and realize its potential with high-speed rail lines that rival those of Europe and Asia. The increased level of service will make the diehards happy and it will also get the fair-weather fans to hop on the mass transit bandwagon.

Here in Wisconsin, train fans have to tip their caps to Amtrak for the public relations aggressiveness of the “Miller Park South” promotion. Wisconsin folks love their Brewers, but they all might not be familiar with the services Amtrak offers. Linking free train tickets with the Brew Crew’s most heated rivalry is the perfect way to draw attention to one of the Midwest’s premier regional service corridors.

Although they may have their differences, Chicago and Milwaukee have important economic and social connections that are easily bridged by a 90-minute train ride. With their promotion, Amtrak can highlight the ease and comfort with which Brewers fans invade Chicago while pointing out that a future high-speed rail line will be able to cut that travel time nearly in half. The timing is perfect as well, with some of the $8 billion allocated to high-speed rail development in the economic stimulus package expected to go toward a Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago high-speed rail line.

Midwest Amtrak fans longing for a high-speed rail World Series to come home to Wisconsin should be filled with the hope and optimism usually reserved for Opening Day. The “Miller Park South” promotion shows that Amtrak is starting to understand that its future is in economically viable regional routes between urban centers. Hopefully, both Amtrak and the Brew Crew can continue the momentum of their 2008 successes and team up in 2009 to defeat the evil Cubs and the boat-towing SUVs driven by their obnoxious fans.

Zachary Schuster ([email protected]) is a graduate student studying water resources engineering and water resources management.