A group of people filled the River Falls Public Library's lower level Wednesday, April 24. The crowd gathered to learn more about potential plans for commuter trains going from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities.
William Draves, co-chair of the St. Croix Valley Rail Group, said his organization and the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition are planning a fully-private train, which would not use taxpayer dollars for support.
The group shared some history of efforts to bring a passenger train to the area, where those efforts are today, and then took time to answer questions.
Ann Schell, Senior Transportation Planner with West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, shared some background on the passenger train project.
Schell said the WCWRPC has been working to bring passenger trains to the area for 20 years.
• 1996-2000: The Midwest Rail Initiative, a cooperative between several Midwestern states, including Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as the Federal Railroad Administration, formed in 1996, and began studying ways to bring passenger trains to the area, using existing tracks.
Goals included passenger rail trips from the Twin Cities to Chicago.
• 1999: The West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition began, with its goal of bringing passenger rail services linking Eau Claire to the Twin Cities. The WCWRC began exploring the possibilities of making this a reality, looking at public-private partnerships, value capture financing and transit-oriented development.
• 2008-2010: Two bi-state studies began. In 2010, Wisconsin pulled out of a Minnesota-Wisconsin bi-state high-speed rail study. The study was completed, but without Wisconsin. The study recommended a rail route that would go through La Crosse.
• 2010-11: A Minnesota-Wisconsin Gateway corridor study was initiated by federal legislative action. The goal was to study transit between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire. Commuter rail and bus transit were looked at all the way to Eau Claire, but alternative routes beyond Woodbury were dropped due to cost/benefit analysis results.
• 2017: The WCWRP commission did a transit study for St. Croix County, Schell said, which she was contracted to complete. The purpose was to examine the feasibility of transit in St. Croix County. The study found that 43.7% of people living in St. Croix County, and in all of River Falls, 43.7% worked in the Twin Cities.
The need for rail
Dave Christiansen, a former MNDOT train official, and now executive director of the organizing Council of the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, told people "You and I are witnessing history, as we create a new transportation system in this century."
Christiansen said there are today, 40,000 cars traveling each day on I-94 from Eau Claire to the St. Croix River Crossing. He said around 105,000 cars cross the St. Croix River each day, on the I-94 bridge.
He said anyone who has traveled between Wisconsin and the Twin Cities lately knows how backed up traffic can be, especially during rush hour.
From about 1960 to the early 2000s, Christansen said, passenger rail was thought to be unprofitable. He said this is no longer the case.
For example, he said Indiana's Hoosier State train runs between Chicago and Indianapolis. Christiansen said the Hoosier State, run by a public-private partnership, went from being nearly shut down to making a $150,000 profit.
However, as of Tuesday, April 30, the Amtrak website for the Hoosier State Train route said that all Hoosier State travel will be suspended starting July 1 of this year, due to a lack of funding from the state of Indiana.
Christiansen also said Florida's Brightline is an example of a successful commuter rail. This line will be able to travel at 110 miles per hour. Christiansen said this rail line was so successful that, though its rail lines are expected to expand and double, Richard Branson has bought out half the company's shares. He did later say, when questioned, that yes, the Brightline is not currently making a profit, but said this was due to the line being under construction.
The Virginia Rail Express, which runs near Washington DC, has always been making a profit, Christiansen said.
He added that trains would let people get where they're going faster.
He said train systems would need to be integrated into local transit system. People would need ways to get to train stations, and possibly need park-and-ride type locations to leave cars.
West Central Wisconsin rail plans
Christiansen said WCWRC is working with Union Pacific to create a fully, privately run rail system, running trips from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities. When initially started, the rail system would start in Eau Claire, and have stops in Menomonie and Hudson, then travel to Oak Park Heights on to St. Paul. Later, Christiansen said, WCWRC hopes to extend this line to Minneapolis, as phase two of the project.
The train would make four round trips per day, and would run about 1 hour 20 minutes from Eau Claire to St. Paul.
The train would run 79 miles per hour, which especially with traffic, would make travel faster for commuters, especially during rush hour.
He said the train will have a seating capacity of a little more than 400, with three coach cars and one business class car. Stations would need to be developed along the way.
Projected one-way fare would be:
• $32 from Eau Claire to St. Paul
• $22 from Menomonie to St. Paul
• $7.50 from Hudson to St. Paul
• $5.5 from Stillwater (Oak Park Heights) to St. Paul.
The annual revenue is projected to be $13.5 to $15.8 million, Christiansen said, based on ticket fares.
The train cars themselves would be rented from a Chicago company.
Union Pacific has said the rails will need work before commuter trains can run on them. Christiansen said UP has agreed that if WCWRC hires a UP-approved consultant to determine what adjustments need to be made, then UP will sign a contract with WCWRC.
The consultant study is a $200,000 contract, Christiansen said, but $50,000 of that will need to be upfront.
He said once the study is done, however, UP will charge the WCWRC pay-as-you-go rail fees, rather than a lump sum. Operating costs will include labor, equipment leases for the train, insurance, maintenance and track fees.
Westminster Junction in St. Paul will also need to be upgraded in order to get WCWRC trains in and out of St. Paul, and Union Depot.
A shuttle bus is planned from the area of UW-River Falls to the Hudson station, and Draves said it is hoped that UWRF would subsidize that for UWRF students.
Some notable questions and answers included:
• Where would a Hudson train station be located? Draves said this is unknown at this time.
• Once you arrive in the Twin Cities, how would you get to your destination? Christiansen said people will arrive at Union Depot, and be able to take busses or light rail to their destination, though they may need to take a taxi or uber. Christiansen also noted that the WCWRC plans to extend their line to Minneapolis as phase two, to help people reach further into the Twin Cities.
• Is there a fee for the shuttle bus? Draves said yes, there would be. However, he also pointed out that the train fare from Hudson to the Twin Cities is only $7.50, not the full $32 it would cost to ride from Eau Clare to the Twin Cities.
• One questioner asked if there would be an increase in crime due to the trains. Christinasen said an increase in crime has not been documented at either end of any train routes around the country. A questionnaire also pointed out an article about crime on the light rail in the Twin Cities. This WCCO article from September 2015 referenced "serious" crimes on the light rail. The report did note that busses saw more crime than the light rail.
• What would be the carbon footprint benefit? Christiansen said each train passenger has about one-fifth of the carbon footprints they would have while driving.
• Will the trains have attendants or be automated like the light rail? Chrsitiansan said the WCWRC plans to have attendants working the trains.
For more information, visit www.westwisconsinrail.org