Threats to the coal supply for area power plants caused at least in part by railroad traffic congestion have confirmed the decision Gretchen and I made this summer not to ride Amtrak to Colorado as we have in the past; we’ll drive instead.
We made a similar decision not to choose Amtrak for a trip to Seattle; we’ve ridden often enough to know that heavy rail traffic, such as the coal trains and, now, the oil trains, has a devastating impact on Amtrak’s schedules. Amtrak spends a lot of time on sidings waiting while a freight train rumbles past on the main track. The Washington Post reported recently that the on-time performance for the Amtrak route from here to Seattle was only 21 percent in the past year.
We would much prefer train travel over flying, which has made us wistful about the one-time prospects for high-speed rail in Wisconsin.
High-speed rail was once on track for the state as it is elsewhere in the country. But when Gov. Scott Walker was elected, he made good on a campaign pledge to scuttle the plans, which he described as a boondoggle.
Dave Cieslewicz,the former mayor of Madison, jogged my memory on this with a recent column in Madison’s Isthmus newspaper. Cieslewicz wrote: “Walker claimed that he opposed the 100 percent federally funded train because of the annual operating costs to the state, which amounted to around $7 million. But now the state is on the line for as much as $118 million, for which it will have received nothing at all. In other words, for the dollars the governor has put at risk, the state could have funded the new train operation for about a decade and a half.”
Cieslewicz used the words “at risk” because the claims against the state by the train manufacturer Talgo have not been entirely resolved.
Talgo had been lured to Milwaukee by the city’s investment in a manufacturing site and the state’s order for two trains. Then-Gov. James Doyle also had arranged for $810 million in federal stimulus money for the Milwaukee-to-Madison route. Walker returned that money. And the state has declined to take possession of the trains, citing various contract provisions.
Talgo has claimed it is owed $65.9 million in addition to the $40 million it has already received. A state claims board in May rejected the claim, and a lawsuit is likely, according to media reports.
Cieslewicz again: “To add insult to injury, in May the completed trains were unceremoniously moved from the now abandoned Milwaukee Talgo plant for Indiana, where it is possible they will become part of the Wolverine line connecting Chicago to Detroit. And, in fact, Illinois is paying for an extension of Amtrak service to Rockford, and plans are in place to also go from Rockford to Dubuque. From there it’s not hard to imagine completing the line to the Twin Cities and bypassing Wisconsin altogether.”
RailwayAge said that the Wisconsin rail debacle means that modern trains for projects in other states that might have been manufactured in Wisconsin are now being made elsewhere. So there is that in addition to the loss of opportunities of communities like ours along the planned path of expansion that could benefit from links to the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Talgo chief executive Antonio Perez, quoted in RailwayAge, said: “I don’t see how any company would in the future choose to do business with the state of Wisconsin when the state has shown that it cannot be trusted to honor contracts that it signed.”
Higher-speed rail in Wisconsin wouldn’t get us to Colorado any quicker, but it would have been part of an urgently needed nationwide upgrade of rail transportation. In addition to whatever has been done to damage the state’s reputation and jobs outlook, Walker’s decision means Wisconsin has failed to do its share in rebuilding the nation’s transit system. It’s a blunder Wisconsinites will have to live with for a long time to come.