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The Varsity transports passengers from Chicago to Madison in vintage rail cars.
Photograph: Zach LongThe Varsity transports passengers from Chicago to Madison in vintage rail cars.

A train trip from Chicago to Madison could signal future service

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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It’s 6:39am and I’m on a train pulling out of Union Station one minute ahead of its scheduled departure. Behind me, the sun is just starting to rise behind the skyline as passengers settle into their seats and a waiter begins delivering juice and coffee. We’re about four hours away from our destination: Madison, Wisconsin, a city of cheese curds, sprawling farmers’ markets and New Glarus beer. Taking the train may not be the fastest way to travel, but its a far more scenic trip than a drive down a construction-ridden stretch of I-90.

I’m sitting in a lovingly restored 1987 dome car on the Varsity, a passenger train service running between Chicago and the second-largest city in Wisconsin. Organized by Pullman Rail Journeys, the excursion is the last of three trips scheduled to coincide with college football games, transporting fans to the stadium and back. Speaking with my fellow riders, it becomes apparent that the majority of the passengers in my car aren’t attending the day’s Wisconsin versus Illinois game at Camp Randall Stadium—they’re simply taking a day trip to Madison. 

For most of the journey, the train traverses rails that were once part of the Milwaukee Road, a railway network that runs through Madison and at one point connected the Midwest to Washington. The last passenger train to run between Chicago and Madison was discontinued in 1971, when the Rail Passenger Service Act went into effect and consolidated most private passenger services into a government funded entity that would later become known as Amtrak. In the 43 years since, many of the Milwaukee Road tracks in Montana, Idaho,and Washington have been abandoned, while the remnants of the line are used to carry freight.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why the demand for a train to Madison waned in the '70s. In the absence of traffic and construction, you can drive from Chicago to Madison in about three hours. At some point, a drive on I-90 became more convenient than a leisurely trip through the countryside on a passenger train. But that was long before gas prices topped $4 and millennials began shunning car ownership in favor of public transportation.

Today, there’s once again a need for a train service between these two Midwest hubs, but a bill called the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 is making it difficult for new routes to be launched. The bill states that for any train route less than 750 miles in length, the difference between ticket revenue and the cost of operating the train must be covered by the states it traverses. This makes opening a new train route a risky proposition—if it’s not profitable, the state has to pay. In 2010, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rejected $810 million in funding for high-speed rail lines because he claimed they would cost too much to operate. Budgets are already tight, so while states are perfectly willing to pour money into the nation’s aging highway system, most aren’t interested in allocating additional funding to passenger rail service.

Earlier this year, Iowa Pacific Holdings (Pullman’s parent company) attempted to buy a rail line and launch a daily train service connecting Tulsa to Oklahoma City. The proposed service would have covered roughly 106 miles in about two hours, charging $15 for coach passengers and $39 for a first class fare. The state of Oklahoma ended up selling the rail line to another company, but it’s not hard to imagine a similar service traversing the 150 mile journey between Chicago and Madison for a fare of around $20. With improvements to the rails that would allow the train to travel at higher speeds, the length of the journey could likely be cut down to less than three and a half hours—faster than a Greyhound bus.

After spending five hours in Madison, I boarded the Varsity and began the trip back to Chicago as the sun started to set. More than three hours into the journey, the train came to a complete stop near Wheeling as it waited fifteen minutes for a Metra train to pass before continuing toward the city. Such delays are an unfortunate side effect of leasing rails from companies like Metra, which controls the tracks between Union Station and Fox Lake that the Varsity uses. Still, the fact that the journey happened at all shows that there's a way for these disparate organizations to cooperate.

A few days after my trip I spoke with Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific Holdings and a co-organizer of Pullman’s excursion to Madison. “I have two railroads in England that I visit frequently. I take the train from London to Exeter in the southwest,” Ellis said, “Exeter is about the same distance from London as Madison is from Chicago, and there are 36 trains a day to London. The convenience isn’t so much about speed as it’s about knowing you’ll never wait more than a half hour for a train.” The train system that Ellis described sounds more like the El than the Amtrak, albeit an El that allows for intercity travel.

It’s hard to say if we’ll ever reach a point where we can catch a train to Wisconsin on a whim, like Exeter residents traveling to London. However, the hundreds of people who paid $100–$200 for a ticket to ride the Varsity prove that there’s a real demand for rail travel between Chicago and Madison. It’s going to take someone with the a vision and the ability to turn a profit to make new passenger rail routes a reality. I’m hopeful that it happens soon, because we could all use a relaxing day trip to Madison that doesn't involve weaving through orange barrels.

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