OPINION: A train commuter's lament
By Julie Jacob
This is getting ridiculous.
That's what I thought, when 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.
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.