Wisconsin, Illinois still want more 'Hiawatha' trips

Plan for expansion needs revision after opposition kills sidings in Chicago suburbs
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Hiawatha_A20_Johnston
Northbound Amtrak Hiawatha No. 333 passes Tower A20 in Glenview, Ill., on May 18, 2019. This is where Canadian Pacific trains enter and leave the Chicago-Milwaukee main line via the tracks at right to reach the railroad's Bensenville Yard.
Bob Johnston
Hiawatha_NGlenview_Lassen
A southbound Hiawatha passes Metra's Glen of North Glenview station in January 2019. Plans for additional Hiawatha frequencies face revision after opposition in Glenview torpedoed a proposal for a new siding in the community.
TRAINS: David Lassen

MADISON, Wis. — Despite successful efforts by residents in northern Chicago suburbs to block “holding tracks” deemed necessary to expand Chicago-Milwaukee Amtrak Hiawatha service, a Wisconsin official insists transportation departments in his state and Illinois are still seeking additional frequencies.

“We just met with Illinois officials,” Arun Rao, Wisconsin’s passenger rail program manager, tells Trains News Wire, “and they reiterated a commitment to increase Hiawatha round trips without the two holding track projects in Glenview and Lake Forest, Ill.” Opponents in those communities had enough political clout that the Illinois Department of Transportation said it would not support sidings there. [See “Illinois DOT bows to opposition on sidings for ‘Hiawatha’ expansion,” Trains News Wire, May 13, 2019.]

Rao adds, “We need a few more conversations with the railroads to see what direction we’re going and have a better idea of an [implementation] timetable.”

Rao doesn’t expect that securing equipment for the additional trainset needed for more round trips will ultimately be a problem: “We are getting one six-car Hiawatha consist (from the Midwest states’ 88-car procurement of single-level equipment) and have an application with the Federal Railroad Administration to equip the other two consists — and that includes three cab coach cars.” California had already requested that Siemens design and build cab cars for its portion of the order.

Separately, Illinois DOT spokesman Guy Tridgell confirms his state is not opposing efforts by Wisconsin to seek federal infrastructure grants for the expansion, noting, “The department is a strong supporter of service on this line.” In fiscal 2019, Illinois is contributing $1.1 million annually to the Hiawatha operations. That is part of $42.6 million for Amtrak service within the state, which also includes includes four round trips out of Chicago to St. Louis, and two each to Carbondale, Ill., and Quincy, Ill.   

Trains News Wire is awaiting a response from Canadian Pacific. Its tracks host Hiawatha service north of Rondout, Ill., and its trains share Metra tracks with the commuter railroad and Amtrak south of there.

As a condition to add three Hiawatha round trips to the existing seven, the $195 million expansion plan introduced in 2016 proposes constructing additional passing tracks, which might hold idling Canadian Pacific trains connecting to or from Union Pacific’s freight-only route around Chicago to CP’s Bensenville Yard. The FRA found that adding a track next to Glenview homes where UP coal trains routinely shake the ground when they pass would result in “no significant impact.” Homeowners there galvanized opposition, which included spending more than $500,000 of city funds to fight construction of the track. In an email to residents late Friday, the “Glenview ACTION Committee” announced, “In short, we have beaten the railroad!”

Wisconsin DOT’s Rau declined to speculate on what alternatives might be considered until further discussions with CP, UP, Metra, and Amtrak take place, but he says, “Incremental increases in frequencies are on the table.”

Despite only one scheduled northbound departure between 4 and 8 p.m., Hiawatha ridership jumped 11% in April and has risen more than 6% since Oct. 1, 2018, putting the service on track to attract about 900,000 passengers in fiscal 2019 with no increase in the number of round trips.

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