Trains For America

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Madison debates city station, airport station for HSR stop

My Wisconsinite boss for the summer over at the Congress for the New Urbanism, Stephen Filmanowicz, tweeted about this a few days ago, so a big H/T to him. Madison, WI is one of the major cities to be part of the Midwest HSR project, but a number of activists are uncomfortable about the idea of having the city’s sole train station be at the regional airport outside of town. One man in particular is raising a fuss, much to the ire of many government leaders, who don’t want the city’s chances of getting federal HSR money to be put in jeopardy. From the Madison Capital Times:

Shorter travel times were a key factor in 2002 when officials with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sent a letter to then-Mayor Sue Bauman, saying a “single airport station best serves the interests of the Madison community and the overall service goals of the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.”

City of Madison officials initially balked at the decision and at one point talked about pursuing two train stations: one at Monona Terrace and another on the east side. But eventually the issue faded as rail dollars failed to materialize, gasoline prices fell, and talk of trains went to the back burner.

With federal rail money looking likely, however, the question over station location has come up again — much to the chagrin of some state and local officials who were hoping to keep things quiet to avoid any last-second controversy.

One initial problem identified with a station downtown at Monona Terrace was the need to back trains out to rejoin the main line, adding 30 minutes to the trip and creating traffic snarls downtown. But the Yahara Station plan avoids that hang-up by sticking to the mainline route, eliminating the need for trains to reverse course out of the downtown.

Even the mayor is backing the airport site, stating that there might be two stations for the city in the future. I don’t think that’s going to appeal to Amtrak and Midwest HSR planners, who are going to want to limit the stops to keep travel times down. The whole airport vs. downtown station discussion is one we’ve featured before on TFA. On one hand, one of the biggest benefits of good passenger rail is the downtown-to-downtown connectivity that is convenient for passengers and good for local economies. On the other hand, connections with other modes of transport, including air travel, are also important, particularly if airlines are to be convinced that they stand to benefit from improved train service.

And the pragmatists have a point that it would be a shame to muck up a bid for federal HSR money. But that’s not a good enough reason to not think ahead when placing critical infrastructure. Connectivity is going to be key. If the station ends up being placed at the airport, they need to make sure that there are convenient connections to downtown and vice versa if the urban location is chosen. Taxis don’t count. And the article mentions commuter rail; it would be extremely shortsighted of the city to place this intercity station without an eye to how it could connect to local rail service in the future.

A sticky issue to be sure. Thoughts?

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, United States High Speed Rail

23 Responses

  1. Andrew says:

    Having lived in Madison for nine years (86 to 95), I don’t get the controversy.

    The airport is 5 minutes (and 3 stoplights?) from the Yahara site. The Yahara site is 5 minutes from downtown. Downtown is 10-15 minutes from the furthestmost southwest points of the town (and those folks would probably be better served driving around on the beltline to the airport). Madison is not exactly a big metro area. The contiguous built up area from Verona to the airport is less than 15 miles across.

    The Monona Terrace site has been a 50+ year pipedream in town. The station was traditionally west of downtown near the university (and still exists) at Washington and Regent Street near the Kohl Center. The drawback of this site is that the only train line it is on is the line to Prarie du Chien. The line to Janesville, Beloit, and Rockford runs south from Monona Terrace.

    That being said, it should not take 30 minutes for a push-pull train to pull into the station, and then pull-out. 10 minutes tops, excluding the station stop which is going to be made anyway. All you have to do is stop, have the engineer walk the train during the stop, make a brake test, and off you go.

    The whole thing is a tempest in a teapot from people desperate for trains but totally lacking in perspective. Everyone wanting to go anywhere from town besides Chicago on the Van Galder Alco Bus drives to the airport. The airport is where the car rental agencies are, and where the parking is. A station could be plopped down there without needing additional parking lots built.

  2. Logan Nash says:

    On the other hand, from a development perspective, there’s potential for TOD with the urban station, not so much with the airport. A less compelling argument, perhaps, but worth considering.

  3. Allan says:

    It has been years since I have flown into the Madison airport to visit my relatives there. What I do remember is that it was out in the boonies and not very busy.

    So the question is whether or not the Madison airport is a destination for HSR travellers or whether Madison itself is the destination.

    What are the advantages and disadvantages at each location for the passenger? If I take a train to Chicago, then I’m not going to want to take HSR to the Madison airport.

    On the other hand, I am concerned about parking, pickups, dropoffs, etc.

    Sorry Logan but TOD isn’t even on my radar. What I am concerned about is the convenience for the passenger.

  4. Chris G says:

    I’m not familiar with the geography of Madison and where things are in relation. But what is the issue with having a stop at both?

    You need to have a downtown stop to be able to include airport time in your argument that the train is competitive. But I don’t quite understand the need to have one or the other.

    Eventually HSR needs to go to airports and downtown.

  5. “The airport is 5 minutes (and 3 stoplights?) from the Yahara site. The Yahara site is 5 minutes from downtown.”

    I assume these are car minutes, which are pretty much irrelevant for people getting off a train. The question is what can people walk to from each possible site?

    Yes, usually a five-minute drive corresponds to a twenty-minute walk, but if the driving route is more direct or more unpleasant for walkers, the walk will take longer.

    From the maps in the links, it’s pretty clear that the downtown station is the way to go. The whole point is for people in Madison to not have to drive to get somewhere else.

  6. Allan says:

    Cap’n Transit – I don’t know where you live that a five-minute drive corresponds to a 20-minute walk. I can drive a lot farther than in five minutes than it will take me 20 minutes to walk … and I’m a fast walker.

    What is within walking distance (that is subjective but say about 5-10 minutes), is irrelevant unless it is transportation or lodging. People aren’t going to want to drag their luggage around for much longer than that.

    People travelling in on HSR are not looking to go shopping around the train station.

  7. The people who selected the location for the state capitol and the state university did so with aesthetics in mind. The city center is on an isthmus loosely oriented east-west. Rail service from Milwaukee has to go around the north end of Lake Monona. The direct rail lines from Chicago cross in a bay of Lake Monona. The closest thing the city had to through passenger train service was the Chicago and North Western’s Chicago to the Twin Cities trains by way of Wyeville and Eau Claire, but those missed Milwaukee.

    The high speed rail proposal, in attempting to link Chicago and the Cities while including both Madison and Milwaukee, has to contend with Madison’s odd geography. Because that proposal has the required finding of no significant environmental impact from the Federal Railroad Administration, it qualifies as shovel ready.

    That leaves Madison in the odd position of becoming (for the time being) a terminus of a high speed rail line intended to go someplace else. It’s not as awkward as La Porte, Indiana being the terminus (for all time) of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line, but it leaves people with business at the capitol or the university a long way from those destinations. But to build a terminus downtown requires a new impact statement, and to send Twin Cities trains on a detour of several miles with a reversal in the European fashion would take some of the time-competitiveness away.

  8. Erik says:

    Just to be clear at the location of the proposed station, the trains would not have to pull in and back out, it is on the mainline track and the trains will go there regardless of where the station is located. It is not really downtown either, it would be on the east end of the isthmus. Downtown is on the west end, but it would be much closer. Due to Madison’s unique geography, most of the main bus routes run together down the isthmus, and would go right by the station. The train station could become a local public transit hub with easy access from all areas of the city. The airport station would likely be an end of the line stop on a single public transit line.

  9. NikolasM says:

    Downtown with a light rail line to the airport would be my vote. Downtown should always be first.

  10. Andrew says:

    You folks don’t understand Madison geography. Both proposed stops are east of the isthmus on which the capital lies between Lakes Monona and Mendota. Lake Mendota’s location relative to town forced the lines to Minneapolis to pass north and east of town – next to the airport.

    If going to/from a house – anywhere in the region; any stop will be convenient for some, not convenient for others
    The university – west of downtown
    The high tech/biotech research parks, CUNA campus, etc. – far west of downtown
    Government offices – anywhere from downtown to far west of downtown
    Private offices – spread all over the region

    Why not build both mainline stops? They are literally 2 miles apart, tops. It makes no sense to spend that kind of money or locate stops that closely.

    Yahra stop – yes its far enough away, that no one is going to walk a couple of miles uphill to get to downtown from it – and through one of the less desirable neighborhoods in Madison to boot (

    Downtown station with light rail to the airport? The light rail right of way would be the same freight rail line that will be used by the passenger trains – non-starter. As mentioned, a train going from Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis must pass by the Airport to return to Portage and the Milwaukee Road mainline, while most non-residential destinations and downtown and west, which means a trip down the Isthmus.

    Transit Oriented Development at the Yahara site? Unlikely, its next to the Oscar Mayer factory and a freight yard. Madison is already a TOD style town. It doesn’t need designated TOD areas – its simply how everything is built.

    IF there are to be two stops, the second stop should be a restoration of the old depot at Washington and Regent, not Monona Terrace. Yes this would require a back-up move by through trains serving it, but it would put the stop next to where the students live at the University (likeliest riders to not own a car and desire to walk to the station), and in the midst of the biggest destination (the University).

    Look at a map!

  11. Andrew, that stop at the existing Milwaukee Road station would make a lot of sense for most passengers attempting to go to the University and Capitol Square, as well as giving people headed to the south and west side a shorter taxi ride, but that back-up move would put a real hole in Chicago – Twin Cities timings. The fundamental problem here is the shovel-ready constraint reinforcing the hit-several-Wisconsin-population-centers mentality in the high speed proposal. The Milwaukee Road had the right idea years ago: the Hiawathas called at Portage, where Madison passengers changed to a motor train, and there was a direct service from the Everett Street Depot to Madison.

  12. Paul says:

    Andrew, I like the idea that NikolasM put forth. Why does the light rail need to run on existing tracks? What is wrong with a tram like I just rode in Vienna running down the middle of Washington Ave. and then down Stoughton road. to the airport. BTW to everyone that has not been to Madison, not a single person walks from the airport to downtown or vice versa. I lived there from ’69 to ’90. I did more walking and biking there than your average kid. In my mind, a stop near the state capital or UW with tram to the airport (not on existing lines rail lines but on the street like a street car as they had back in the day) is the best alternative if only 1 stop is possible. Here is the tram Madison should consider:

  13. Andrew says:


    Why should light rail (or really, some sort of FRA compatible DMU service, which is what is actually being proposed) run down the existing tracks? Because they are there, they closely parallel the streets, and it would be much cheaper to build on a non-street right of way where you don’t need to repave streets and move utilities, and its faster to operate out of traffic?

    Also Stoughton Rd. doesn’t go to the airport – it goes to the Air National Guard station. The airport terminal is off Packers Ave. and the Milwaukee Road line to Portage.

    Stephen Karlson:

    The Milwaukee Road ran shuttles to Madison from Columbus, up Rt. 151, not Portage. They also ran direct rail service from Chicago and Janesville to the Washington Ave. Station and service from Chicago and Milwaukee which also stopped at a station at Franklin Street on the opposite side of the Capitol before terminating at Washington Ave. The Chicago and Northwestern ran service from Chicago and Janesville via the isthmus with a stop at Blair St. opposite the Milwaukee Road’s alternate station (I believe the reason Milwaukee Road had two stops was to make transfers between the railroads easy), which then continued to Baraboo and Eau Claire and Minneapolis. The Illinois Central had a stop near Washington Ave. as well, but hadn’t run passenger trains for eons.

    The Monona Terrace Station idea was Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of a combined Civic Center and train station directly adjacent to the Capitol on John Nolen Drive which would have centralized the three stations into one location directly below the bluff of the isthmus and on what was then a relatively wide right of way with multiple tracks past downtown. With the expansion of John Nolen Drive, there is less space now for a spacious terminus here, but it could still work, possibly with three tracks and two platforms. The locations with the most space for a terminal, complete with parking, yards, platforms, and station building are the Washington Ave. location (the yard across Park Ave. could be restored) and the Airport.

    Since the goal is for Madison to be a through stop on a line from Chicago and Milwaukee to Minneapolis, the Airport site makes the most sense for running times. If the commuter rail line ever gets off the ground, it should have a spur to the airport to allow connections to the west side of town, where most economic activity is, and where most people live, and the commuter rail line should stop at Washington Ave. and Monona Terrace and near the Yahara site.

  14. Andrew,

    You’re showing your youth. The bus shuttle to Columbus replaced the motor train to Portage (connecting with Hiawathas to or from the Cities) as an economy measure. That economy measure also offered a part-rail alternative for Milwaukee passengers, who previously had direct trains through Watertown (the last vestige of which was 12-23 Watertown-Milwaukee “Cannonball” service) and as you note, Chicago passengers had a direct train via Janesville and Zenda, which hauled a lot of flatlanders to the University, thus 117-118 survived as weekend trains up to Amtrak.

    I spoke with several Wisconsin rail managers (there may be an article in Passenger Train Journal reflecting those conversations) who explained the other constraints, including parking, on a station under the Terrace.

    The impasse, which might end up quashing all possible train service, is that using Truax as end point for an extension that may never be built inconveniences passengers who might be disposed to use the train if it stopped somewhere near Madison destinations.

  15. Madison is already a TOD style town. It doesn’t need designated TOD areas – its simply how everything is built.

    If it’s so TOD, how come “everyone” drives everywhere, according to your comments?

  16. Andrew says:

    Stephen Karlson:

    “The bus shuttle to Columbus replaced the motor train to Portage (connecting with Hiawathas to or from the Cities)”

    The motor train to Portage? I don’t think that has run since 1950 or so? By the mid-1950’s, the service was buses to Portage for connections northbound to the Twin Cities and the Pacific NW on the Olympian Hiawatha, and trains from Milwaukee via Watertown for passage from Chicago. The trains via Janesville were the daytime “Varsity” from Chicago and the “Sioux” heading overnight to Sioux Falls, SD (well, almost to there). When the Milwaukee trains got dropped a few years later, all transfers were shifted to Columbus (where they’ve remained for the past 50 years) so that there was one transfer point north and southbound.

    The answer to the Truax dilemma is to build the line all the way to Portage, so that the Empire Builder can serve Madison, and so that trains can be run at least in the summer up to Wisconsin Dells from Chicago via Madison.

    Cap’n Transit:

    “If it’s so TOD, how come “everyone” drives everywhere, according to your comments?”

    Because the bus service is pretty bad once you get beyond the central area (defining that as perhaps Camp Randall Stadium and the UW Hospital to the Yahara River). I spent most of my time using the excellent bike paths to get around except when there was snow on the ground, not riding the bus.

    The point is the development pattern in Madison inside the Beltline is what is now touted as TOD, and what was formerly known as ordinary development patterns (relatively dense housing interspersed with businesses at major intersections and along primary roads).

  17. “Build the line all the way to Portage.”

    I don’t object to this proposal out of hand, although even with 110 mph trackage, that diversion will extend Builder running times compared to the current routing. Excursions to the Dells are another piece of Milwaukee history you may be familiar with (right up to the summer of 1970 they’d regularly run a second section of the Morning Hiawatha using gallery coaches) although, again, running it via Madison means longer running times from Chicago.

    (And yes, the motor train to Portage gave way to a bus before 1954.)

  18. KGradinger says:

    As an out-of-state undergrad at UW-Madison in the ’90s, I took many flights out of MSN (Madison’s airport code) for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. The problem with MSN is that it is at the end of the line in the airline’s hub-and-spoke model. If you want to fly from Madison to the rest of the world, you will pay through the nose and have to connect through a messy hub along the way – usually O’Hare, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

    Airline passengers leaving from MSN don’t drive (or take a train) from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Chicago – those travelers can reach any destination they desire from their local hub. Instead, MSN serves south-central Wisconsin flyers by feeding them to O’Hare and other hubs on their way to the rest of the world. Officials should bear this dynamic in mind when determining station location.

    Don’t get me wrong: Air-rail connections AT HUBS are VERY important pieces of HSR systems. HSR can help to reduce congestion and delays at major airports by doing the job that regional jets are doing today. HSR should connect downtown Madison to the cross-country and international flights leaving from O’hare and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Field – not the other way around. However, the primary purpose of HSR should continue to be connecting regional population centers that are within a few hundred miles of each other.

    Therefore, the argument that trains should stop outside of Madison to avoid a time-consuming reverse maneuver on the way from Chicago/Milwaukee to Minneapolis is a particularly irritating one. The vast majority of early adopters to this service will be those travelers between Chicago/Milwaukee and Madison because travel times on this segment will be in the sweet-spot of 2-3 hours. It’s 350 miles, as the crow flies, from Chicago to Minneapolis and the challenges of building true HSR through the Driftless Zone and the Mississippi River valley will have the project tied up in EIS for a long time. Even with the most optimistic estimates, it will be at least a decade before the line between Madison and Minneapolis is brought up to HSR standards and even then the trip time between Minneapolis and Milwaukee/Chicago will still leave many passengers opting for air travel. So to focus on the needs of Minneapolis-bound passengers at the expense of thousands of downtown Madison residents (many of whom live car-free) and employees is missing the forest for the trees.

  19. “The challenges of building true HSR through the Driftless Zone and the Mississippi River Valley …”

    Correct in part, although perhaps the problem is with the railroad safety regulation. Until the Japanese and the French developed their passenger-only high speed rail lines, the fastest passenger trains in the world were the Hiawathas, with the fastest timings on the Sparta-Portage and New Lisbon-Portage segments, and the Zephyrs along the Mississippi River.

    Another possibility, admittedly involving additional permitting and contracting hassles, is to use the Milwaukee Road to Camp Douglas, and turn the North Western – Omaha Road routing (now Union Pacific beyond Wyeville) into the high speed line. That bypasses the ridge west of Tomah and the Mississippi Valley, although the current crossing of the St. Croix at Hudson has some nasty hills on either side of the river.

  20. RWW says:

    Many readers to this blog and the Cap Times article miss that what’s proposed is a near-east side site. It’s somewhat close to downtown but avoids the backup move. The site is not that far from another site proposed earlier, Pennsylvania Ave, next to the WSOR yards.

    No matter what high-speed technology is used, a train arriving from Milwaukee will run slowly through a residential neighborhood a few sharp curves. After the curves, it’s two miles to the airport–not much of opportunity for acceleration. The Yahara and Pennsylvania Ave. sites are both near the slow spots.

    An airport station would add 5-10 minutes to a trip to/from Milwaukee and Chicago. For passengers from central and western Madison and outlying areas to the west, it adds another 5 minutes in driving time. When you’re looking at the short run to Milwaukee or Chicago, those minutes begin to add up and make HSR less attractive.

    I’m afraid that the WisDOT is so impressed by the success of the Milwaukee Mitchell Field station that it feels a similar site would work in Madison. That fails to take into account that MSN is a regional airport and MKE is a hub that is beginning to be an attractive alternative to ORD for north suburban Chicago.

    Stephen Karlson: In the plans I’ve seen so far, the EB would retain its present route through Columbus. The Omaha Road is being considered as an option in the WisDOT plan.

  21. Andrew says:


    “It’s 350 miles, as the crow flies, from Chicago to Minneapolis and the challenges of building true HSR through the Driftless Zone and the Mississippi River valley will have the project tied up in EIS for a long time.”

    Actually, the former Milwaukee Road line from Madison to Prarie Du Chien only involves about 10 minor curves once you get past Mazomanie and run down the Wisconsin River Valley. This would be an excellent high speed route. Then you run up the Mississippi on the BNSF to La Crosse. I wonder what time could be achieved on this route if you went for 125 mph+ on the Madison to Mississippi portion.

    KGradinger: “HSR should connect downtown Madison to the cross-country and international flights leaving from O’hare and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Field – not the other way around.”

    RWW: “I’m afraid that the WisDOT is so impressed by the success of the Milwaukee Mitchell Field station that it feels a similar site would work in Madison.”

    The purpose of stopping at the airport is that the parking and car rental infrastructure already exists there, not to make train-plane transfers easy.

    If they are not going to stop at the airport, they should stop at Washington and Regent, near the University and west of downtown, at the old train station.

    Whatever station is chosen, it needs to be able to serve trains from Milwaukee and trains from Rockford/Beloit/Janesville. The Yahara site cannot do that.

  22. DBX says:

    Yahara is a pipe dream and a weak attempt to kill two birds with one stone. The fact is that Madison, like many other places, will need both a downtown station and an airport station in the long run. The question of which high speed rail project gets built first will determine which station gets built first. If it’s a Milwaukee line terminating in Madison, then, downtown is the obvious choice. If it’s a through Milwaukee to Minneapolis line, it has to be the airport. But eventually, it’s likely that Madison will not only see both local Milwaukee and through MKE-MSP service patterns, but also a more direct route to Chicago via the railbanked line to Janesville and Harvard IL — a service that could also provide a convenient rail link to O’Hare. A train on that line could originate at Truax or even farther north, at Portage, the Dells, La Crosse or even Rochester, MN, run through downtown Madison and then straight southeast to Chicago.

  23. toddinde says:

    I live near Madison, and lived in Madison for several years at different times. The Yahara Station is very practical, close to transit that can access the entire city, a comfortable walk with a light bag from downtown, and an easy bike ride from campus. The airport is too far out, but could easily be linked to the Yahara Station by a shuttle. I also believe that the Yahara Station would lead to a lot of desirable development in that part of town that would end up making it a northern anchor to far downtown. Sure, I would love to see the trains go to the old Milwaukee station, but I am not sure that the Yahara station would not become just as beloved in time.

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