Getting On Track

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- It's been more than 50 years since travelers have been able to ride a passenger train from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities. It was an amenity that thousands of people used, but into the 70's couldn't compete with government supported highways.

A map, detailing a proposed passenger rail route between Eau Claire and St. Paul.

But now, some say the need is re-appearing.

“There's over 105,000 people crossing the St. Croix River on the I-94 bridge every day. So, there's a market for this,” says Dave Christianson, Executive Director with the West Central Rail Coalition. “With the authorization of the organizing council, I approached the Union Pacific Railroad to look at whether or not we could use their railroad, to study the use of the railroad and they agreed to collaborate with us.”

The privately-funded railway would use existing Union Pacific tracks in place, rather than Amtrak’s. The current project proposal would have four trains running per day, with capacity for nearly 2,000 people.

From Eau Claire to St. Paul, the train would make stops in Menomonie, Hudson, and Stillwater, among others, on the way to the cities. It would cost around $30 per trip one-way.

“We did a feasibility study in the spring of last year that said that there was a good possibility that with the ridership that was presented in the past, studies, we could actually clear enough revenue to pay the operating costs of the railroad. In other words, we could be self-sustaining,” Christianson said.

But funding for the proposal could come in small or large amounts.

“We've estimated, if we have to pay major improvements and new siding, and new signal systems, and safety features, that, including the cost of the train, it would be anywhere from $140-$450 million,” Christianson said. “On the other hand, if the Union Pacific tells us that they will help to upgrade the track out of shared expense, or that we're good to run right now and we could lease equipment and contract for private operators and crews, contract for a facility on a pay-as-you-go basis.

“All those things mean the startup costs could be vanishing and small.”

But what's the possibility of this railway becoming a reality?

“Realistically we're looking at a two to four year period, sometime in that window for actual startup,” Christianson said.

He says project would be up and running 18 months after approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

A Union Pacific study will also be conducted this summer to see what improvements will be needed to run trains safely and on schedule at 80 mph top speeds.

Even though this project would not rely on the government for money, there are several lawmakers backing the idea. U.S. Congressman Ron Kind is one of them.

“I want to be fully supportive of this project even though I know its private funds and local funds that are being raised right now. I wish governor walker would revisit the opportunity of bringing into the state, high speed federal dollars to help with these connections, but this is about economic development,” Rep. Kind said.

But there are skeptics. Brian Westrate, Chairman with the Republican Third Congressional District says should the plan fail, taxpayers would pick up the pieces.

“I hope it works out, I want people to succeed. That being said, things like this, when they fail, they almost universally end up becoming a public problem. All of a sudden it becomes a government responsibility and the taxpayers are footing the bill,” Westrate said.

But Christianson says there are no foreseeable issues on the horizon.

“We haven't run across a fatal flaw yet. We've had all positive outcomes from all of our studies, so we continue to move forward until either we run into a brick wall, or until we start running a train.”

City leaders in Eau Claire have decided to support the passenger rail initiative.

Council members voted in March to extend their support to the coalition and plan to move the railway initiative forward.

The Union Pacific study is still in the scoping phase, and may be four to six months before there is final information on capacity needs and costs.

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