Transit is defined by Merriam-Webster as “conveyance of persons or things from one place to another”.
And it’s been in the Milwaukee news cycle a lot recently. Whether it’s discussions over what to do with The Hop, the continued discussion over what to do with I794, or simply, as Governor Tony Evers would say, fixing the damn roads.
No matter which way you get around, the idea that getting around quickly by any means desired is one that many would say shouldn’t be controversial. But as with anything, there are a lot of factors at play.
Peter Park is the former city developer for Milwaukee who recently held the same position in Denver. He spoke at a recent 794 public forum, and had a quote that’s stuck with me since then:
“If we are this country that talks about choice, and freedom of choice, why would we design a city that limits the choice and dependency on one mode of travel?”
With that concept of freedom of choice in mind, I made the trip to visit some friends in La Crosse, Wisconsin by alternative means: via one of the longest-running modes of transportation in our nation’s history.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder first served customers in 1929, as the flagship train of the Great Northern Railway. It currently operates two lines between Chicago and both Seattle and Portland serving customers at up to 38 different stations depending on the line. One of those stations is the Milwaukee Intermodal Station downtown, where I hopped on board the train about 15 minutes behind my scheduled 4:45 departure time.
After boarding the Superliner, I took stock of my immediate surroundings. The first thing that stuck out: the legroom. As a six foot tall man, I was able to fully stretch out my legs and still had room in front of me to spare. Additionally, carry-on rules are a lot less strict than air travel; one of my bags was basically a cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and snacks for the trip.
After an attempted nap was thwarted by a nearby crying baby, I made my way to the dining car, where due to Amtrak’s communal dining policy, I was placed with Kevin and Moa. The Swedish couple was on their way to the Twin Cities to visit Kevin’s host family from his college days. Getting a European perspective on rail travel seemed like a smart idea.
“The biggest [thing] that plays a role is the environment” Kevin told me. “Most people say “Yeah I [ride the train] because going with my car is bad for the climate. And the government just pumps money into good trains and good buses, because they care about the climate.”
Moa added the idea of using a car as the sole mode of getting around didn’t make much sense to them, especially on long trips. “Yeah you can get where you want to go, but you deal with detours, and then you have to stay up and drive and find somewhere to sleep.”
After finally grabbing that nap we arrived an acceptable 20 minutes delayed in La Crosse at 8:30pm, basically the same time it would take to make the trip by car with a bathroom/gas stop.
The ride home, on the other hand, was a different story.
There are two golden rules I always observe when travelling: bring earplugs because the crying baby always finds you, and ALWAYS sign up for text alerts. It was because of this second rule, I was able to follow along with the slowly deteriorating status of my train ride home.
By the time my scheduled 11:37am Sunday departure arrived, the train was somewhere in North Dakota and delayed by nearly 12 hours. Suffice to say I had no plans to wait for a train that would get me home at 1:15am. With a few taps of my phone on the Amtrak website, I was able to book a Thruway bus that would get me on the road at 4:00pm and arrive in Milwaukee just before 9. Not everyone was so lucky, however. One passenger attempted to get on the bus right as we were about to depart, saying he didn’t receive notice about how long the train was delayed. With no ticket for the bus, he was denied entry.
How can delays on a mode of transportation in 2023 stretch to half a day long, and how can it be deemed a common occurance? Amtrak’s website has a whole page dedicated to the different reasons why your train might be delayed. The most common reason they cite is “freight train interference”, a side effect of Amtrak not owning a large portion of the tracks they operate their trains on outside the Northeast. But rail hosts only tell one part of the Empire Builder delay story.
“On that route, there’s a lot of things that can happen” Passenger Rail Correspondent for Trains Magazine Bob Johnston tells me. One of those many things is breakdowns of long-distance train equipment. Johnston tells me that a lot of the replacements for this equipment is still put away, as a cost-saving measure. “Amtrak has not, despite what they say, prioritized returning this equipment to service. So that means, if there’s no spare equipment, and there’s a mechanical problem, then the train can’t leave the station or it becomes disabled en route.”
Other factors include rail stress due to extreme temperatures, derailments like ones the Empire Builder suffered just recently and in 2021 that resulted in three deaths, and other obstructions on the track. As a train that navigates through the Rocky Mountains, this isn’t all that surprising.
What did surprise me was that the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees how long Amtrak employees are on the clock, is highly strict about when crew members clock in and out of work. “A member of the crew cannot work more than twelve hours, literally to the second from the time they report” says David Alan, a long-time contributor to Railway Age and all-around expert on the workings of Amtrak. “So when you hit twelve hours, the train is dead where it stands. All they can do is the next chance they get, when a fresh crew comes to relieve them they can get off the train, that’s all they can do.”
As you can imagine, this would be a tall order to accomplish in a place like Glasgow, Montana, a plains town of 3,202 four hours and fifteen minutes north of Billings where my train’s crew had their own hours expire.
It all makes me think of the people in communities such as Glasgow, or any of the other small towns served by the Empire Builder, for whom the train is the only means of travel regularly available to them. A Montana study as far back as 2003 analyzed the potential ramifications of cancelling Empire Builder service to rural communities. In their words: “Amtrak’s Empire Builder is an essential transportation service for which there is, by and large in most of the Montana communities served, no reasonable alternative.” For reference, the closest international airport to both Glasgow and Havre, Montana would be in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
While Wisconsin stops in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, and La Crosse are all close by freeways and bus routes, a place like Columbus has either Highway 151 or the Amtrak station to get you out of town.
“My message to people in these towns” Alan says “is the only people who can people who can save these trains are your elected officials. Tell your story, tell them loud, tell them long, and never stop. Otherwise, you’ll lose your trains.”
There are plans to expand Amtrak service in Wisconsin in a conceptual phase. But these plans would be largely contingent on the current rail infrastructure being financially supported enough to warrant more trains running on them. Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration would need to choose the projects under consideration as a project they’ve selected for the federal Corridor ID program, which we expect to hear more on by late summer.
For now at least, it seems Amtrak and the Empire Builder have a long way to go before most people will choose to use rail to cross the Badger State.