July 6, 2008

I Got the Hiawatha-to-Chicago Blues...

OPINION: A train commuter's lament
Next stop: Glenview... and then Chicago

By Julie Jacob
For RacinePost

This is getting ridiculous.

That's what I thought, w
hen I spied, through the open restroom door, the man in the business suit perched uncomfortably on the closed toilet seat on the 5:08 p.m. Amtrak Hiawatha train from Chicago to Milwaukee. He looked miserable, but I suppose he was trying to make the best of the only available place to sit that day in early June.

Like almost every other weekday evening lately, every seat was filled on the train. Passengers who could not find a seat perched on the luggage shelves, sat cross-legged on the floor, or, like this man, staked out a place in the restroom.

I have been a daily commuter on the Amtrak Hiawatha since last September. Many times over the past nine months, I have wondered why a $1.9 billion bill to repair and expand I-94 from Mitchell Airport to the state line can breeze through the Wisconsin legislature, but finding the money to increase the number of daily Amtrak Hiawatha trains and expand the service to Madison seems an impossible task for our state and federal legislatures.

I am not an expert on passenger rail service. But I can tell you this: During the 15 years that I lived in Chicago, I often took the Amtrak Hiawatha or Metra train to Wisconsin to visit my family in Racine. Years ago, the Hiawatha and Metra trains were half-empty. Over the years, however, I saw the trains become steadily more crowded as more and more people who worked in Chicago moved to Wisconsin, attracted by the state's lower housing costs and more relaxed lifestyle.

When I moved to Racine last fall, and began commuting daily to my job in downtown Chicago, I discovered that those almost-full Hiawatha trains had become jam-packed trains. According to the Amtrak website, Hiawatha ridership is up 24% compared to last year. Ridership has climbed every year for the past several years, in fact.

The morning train is already pretty full by the time it gets to Sturtevant, after just two stops -- the start in downtown Milwaukee and Mitchell Airport. The conductor usually has to make an announcement asking passengers to move their laptop bags, coats and briefcases from the adjacent seat. (I lived in Chicago for 15 years, and after years of using the CTA, have no problem asking people to move their belongings, but people who have never lived in a big city are more reticent.) So, anyway, sometimes it's a challenge finding a seat in Sturtevant! The train is always crowded when I ride it, except for days just before or after holidays, when a lot of people take off from work.

Now I have read many blog posts from rail opponents who think trains are useless things, a drain on taxpayer money that should be used instead to build more highways. They are entitled to their opinion. But this is my observation, based on months of riding the Hiawatha nearly every day. The train arrives in Sturtevant early, at 6:43 a.m. It’s dark and cold in the winter, but cozy and warm in the sparkling new passenger depot. On beautiful summer mornings, it’s lovely to wait up on the platform.

By 6:30 a.m., the lot is filled with cars, while a line three or four deep waits to get through the two gated entrances to the parking lot. (Parking is $2 a day, or $30 for a monthly pass.) Riders stand silhouetted against the morning, sipping coffee out of stainless steel mugs, chatting on their cell phones, yakking with their fellow commuters or flipping through the newspapers. About half to two-thirds of the passengers are regular commuters, while the rest are leisure travelers – families with children headed to Chicago for a day of sightseeing, students on their way back to college, people on their way to catch a connecting train at Union Station or the El to Midway or O’Hare.

The commuters are a mixed group. Some are married with young children; they want to work in Chicago but want to raise their families in quiet Racine County. Others, like me, have moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to family. Others are people who simply prefer living in Wisconsin, but have careers that require them to work in Chicago.

The train rolls into the station, and people climb aboard. The regulars nod greetings to the conductors. “Hey, Bucky,” they say. “Nice day today.” As soon as they get on the train, the regulars are all business. They flip open their laptops, turn on their Blackberries, or recline their seats and close their eyes. Meanwhile, those new to the Amtrak Hiawatha marvel at the speed and convenience of the train. Kids peer out the window and adults test the reclining seats and overhead reading lights. “It sure beats driving,” is a phrase I have heard uttered again and again by passengers.

It’s a pretty ride into Illinois. The Hiawatha glides past farm fields and red barns. As the train crosses into Illinois, the landscape gradually morphs into townhouse subdivisions and well-scrubbed suburbs. The first and only stop before Chicago is Glenview, where more people pile on the train – good luck finding seats on the crowded train. Then the Hiawatha chugs on past the dense building clusters of the inner-ring suburbs and slips into the city. Old Industrial buildings turned into upscale lofts line the tracks. Chicago’s majestic skyline looms in the distance; the Sears Tower juts into the clouds. One hour after the Hiawatha leaves the Sturtevant station, it pulls into Union Station and people stream off and hurry off to jobs, schools and tourist attractions.

Not many choices... and a long wait between trains

That’s what I see every morning. This is what I hear: Wistful comments from the regular who say, “Oh, if only there were another train in the morning between the 6:43 a.m. and the 8:23 a.m.” Or “I wish there were another train between 5:08 p.m. and the 8:05 p.m.” or “Why isn’t there a late night train so people can take Amtrak back after an evening baseball game or dinner or festival?” Or, “Why doesn’t the Amtrak Hiawatha run every hour?

Actually, there once was a train service that ran every hour between downtown Milwaukee and downtown Chicago from early morning to midnight. It was called the Chicago North shore and Milwaukee Road, and for decades the electric train zipped along at 80 miles an hour between the two cities. The North Shore was fast, cheap, and reliable.

Now the anti-rail crowd will be quick to point out that the North Shore shut down in 1964 due to dwindling ridership and financial losses. It’s true the North Shore went out of business after more than 50 years of service — but that was in an era when gas cost pennies per gallon, no one worried about carbon emissions, and road rage and gridlock were unheard of.

My 78-year-old father, who remembers the North Shore, tells me that the best thing about it was that it truly linked Milwaukee and Chicago. Back then, Chicago wasn’t a distant city reached only by a stressful drive on the Edens Expressway. It was quite feasible then to live in one city and work in the other, and to easily shuttle between the neighboring cities for shopping, baseball games and festivals. At a time when the entire Midwest is struggling through a recession, doesn’t it makes sense to increase our ties to Chicago, one of the few bright economic stars in the region? While the Amtrak Hiawatha can’t completely duplicate the old North Shore (for one thing, the Amtrak station is about eight miles west of Racine, instead of in the middle of the city), increased daily service would almost match the North Shore's convenience.

Now I imagine anyone who does not take the train may be thinking: Why should I support expanded passenger rail service? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for you is that better passenger rail service will help everyone in southeastern Wisconsin. Convenient public transportation is a drawing card for businesses looking to expand or relocate, as well as for well-educated “creative class” looking for a place to call home. Good passenger rail service, therefore, is an important piece in transforming southeastern Wisconsin into a more attractive place to live and do business, which, in turn, generates more jobs, increases tax revenue, and boosts the quality of life for everyone.

Congress is currently considering a bill, HR 6003, that would provide increased funding for Amtrak, along with matching grants to states that want to improve Amtrak service. According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the state has set aside $80 million in grant money to increase Amtrak Hiawatha frequency and expand the line to Madison. If Congress approves HR 6003 by a veto-proof margin and Congress appropriates the funds, the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation will apply for a matching grant to do both.

If you support better Amtrak Hiawatha service, please contact your state and federal representatives – State Sen. John Lehman, Sen. Herb Kohl, Sen. Russ Feingold, and Rep. Paul Ryan. Write the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Amtrak. Let people know you support increased passenger rail service.

And if you don’t do it for yourself, at least do it for the poor passengers scrunched on the luggage racks on the standing-room-only 5:08.
Julie Jacob, who works as a communications professional in Chicago, recently moved back to Racine after 15 years in the Windy City.


  1. "...attracted by the state's lower housing costs and more relaxed lifestyle."

    What do you think easier mobility between Chicago, Racine, & Milw will do to this?

  2. As a KRM opponent I do support the Hiwatha, it has proven to be a success. Add more cars and expand that service.

  3. Lou D'Abbraccio7/10/2008 12:51 PM

    I think the author makes a compelling argument for what is a clear need: improving mass transit for Racine workers to access the Chicago employment market.

    However, my concern with KRM is that it will not address this need; Instead, it provides a kludged together system which would require changing trains in Kenosha, and far slower and less comfortable trip to Chicago.

    I think it is fair to infer that the author agrees with this premise; Otherwise, why does she take the far more expensive Hiawatha from Sturtevant, instead of the Metra train from Kenosha, which is far more comparable to KRM?

    If we're going to restructure mass transit in the Chicago-Racine-Milwaukee corridor, let's do it right; Not a "Frankenstein" system that stops for an artificial line on a map and would make a Racine to Chicago commute a 2+ hour ordeal, but an integrated system that efficiently connects workers and jobs. Otherwise, channel whatever funding is available to adding additional trains and passenger capacity to the existing Hiawatha service, which has proven over time to be an asset to this community.

  4. Hello - I found your post while doing some research... next year, my job will be moving downtown, but we just recently (less than 2 years) moved to Racine. I'd rather not move again, so I'm looking for some additional advice on the feasiblity of the Hiawatha option. The Metra line takes significantly longer, so would not be realistic. Have you seen any impact to your worklife as a result of having to leave the office early on most days to catch the 5:08? How often is it standing room only? Would you recommend this commute option to another professional with a family?

  5. Dear Anonymous:

    The Hiawatha is a viable option if you have a regular 9-to-5 job and feel confident you can usually make the 5:08, and don't mind getting up early to catch the 6:43 morning train. If you have erratic hours at work or hate getting up early, then it may not be the best option. However, Congress recently passed the bill boosting Amtrak funding by a veto-proof majority. Now representatives of both Houses are hammering out differences in the Senate and House versions. If the committee comes to an agreement, and if the two Houses still are able to override President Bush's veto, then Wisconsin will have a huge chunk of money next year to improve the Amtrak Hiawatha service. According to Randall Wade, a representative from the Wisconsin DOT, the money would be used to increase the number of daily Hiawatha trains, and also extend the service to Madison. You might want to contact the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, www.midwesthsr.org, midwesthsr@aol.com to express your support for increased Amtrak Hiawatha service. You might also want to write the Wisconsin DOT to express your support for more Hiawatha trains. Randall Wade's e-mail is Randall.Wade@dot.state.wi.us. For fast, comfortable travel between Chicago and Milwaukee, the Amtrak is the best option, in my opinion. I see the KRM as more of a cheap commuter service between Milwaukee and Waukegan, with the option for people to connect in Waukegan to the Metra train to Chicago.

  6. My family just took the train for the first time on Friday August 15th and had a pleasant trip both ways, I wish they would add another car, the train was packed both ways, people were sitting in the luggage racks.

  7. 14 Trains a day & no service to COUNTY OF KENOSHA!! Tom Wrona

  8. With new So,west airlines starting @ Mitchell. This would be great, if Kenosha county would have a stop, for the 14 trains a Day!!!

  9. As a regular rider of Hiawatha, I couldn't agree with you more. Several of us take the Hiawatha to Chicago and have to return later than 9pm after class in Chicago. Since there is no train after 8 we are stuck driving.

    Why can we not have more frequent schedules between Chicago to Milwaukee, and have one late-night train.