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'Second Empire Builder' project wins a $12.6 million Restoration & Enhancement grant
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'Second Empire Builder' project wins a $12.6 million Restoration & Enhancement grant

The multi-state effort to add a second daily passenger train between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago got a big boost when the Federal Railroad Administration awarded the project a $12.6 million federal grant.

The Restoration & Enhancement Program grant to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation – the lead agency on the “TCMC” project, a.k.a. “the Second Empire Builder” – was the biggest of just three announced May 5 by the FRA. Authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015, these grants are designed to initiate, restore, or enhance intercity passenger rail service around the country.

“The TCMC has been in the works for several years, and it’s heartening to see all their effort pay off in receiving the largest R&E grant to date,” said Laura Kliewer, MIPRC’s director. “Many Midwestern states are in the planning stages of establishing new or restored passenger rail service, as well as adding frequencies. In the years to come, they’ll be needing help with the first years of operating costs, and we are grateful that the federal government created the Restoration and Enhancement grant program to assist them.

“We look forward to Congress increasing funding for this important grant in the next surface transportation reauthorization,” Kliewer said, noting its total authorized funding over the past five years was only $100 million. 

The corridor is currently served by Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Ore.). Amtrak’s normal schedule has eastbound trains departing St. Paul’s Union Station at 8 a.m., arriving at Milwaukee’s Intermodal station at 2:07 p.m. and Chicago Union Station at 4:01 p.m.; westbound trains depart Chicago Union Station at 2:15 p.m., arriving in Milwaukee at 3:48 p.m. and St. Paul at 10:09 p.m.

The second daily train will be set approximately four to six hours apart from the Empire Builder’s schedule and will make the same 12 station stops between its endpoints: Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota; La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus, Milwaukee and Sturtevant in Wisconsin; and Glenview, Illinois.

“This additional train will provide travelers with more reliable service at convenient times between Saint Paul and Chicago, as poor on-time performance from the eastbound Empire Builder currently results in unreliable daily passenger service from Saint Paul,” the FRA’s announcement said.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials said they’re “excited” that the TCMC project won, as a second daily train in this corridor enhances its value to residents and visitors alike, said Arun Rao, passenger rail manager in the agency’s Railroads and Harbors Section.

“The TCMC project has received broad support from rural and urban communities across Wisconsin,” Rao said. “In addition to the transportation benefits, these communities have emphasized that the TCMC will provide an important tool to attract and retain jobs, businesses, residents, and visitors by connecting communities to the economic epicenters of the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

“The TCMC will improve multimodal transportation options and connections in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. By proactively applying for and receiving this grant, the states now have more cost certainty for the proposed TCMC service and reduced costs for the start-up period,” he added.

“From Minnesota’s perspective we are pleased to have been selected,” said Dan Krom, assistant office director and freight and rail planning section manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations. “With the strong partnership with Wisconsin, we will continue to develop the project with commencement of service in the near future.”

Continuing work includes refining operating and capital assumptions, and discussions with the Canadian Pacific, which is the host railroad, Krom said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has proposed $10 million in state bonds for TCMC. That money would be the state’s matching funds for future federal grants to advance the project.

Wisconsin DOT has won several recent federal grants for Milwaukee-area projects related to both TCMC and expansion of the state-supported Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha service from 7 to 10 daily round trips, including a $26.6 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant in March, and a previous $2.7 million CRISI grant in 2019.

R&E grants provide operating assistance to initiate, restore, or enhance intercity passenger rail transportation through eligible projects that may include adding frequencies to current services, extending current services to new markets or station stops, offering new on-board services, initiating new service, or restoring a previously operated service.

“This funding will make a significant contribution to passenger rail-related operating assistance projects in our communities and ultimately make a big difference in people’s lives,” FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said.

The other winning projects were:

  • $5.4 million to the Southern Rail Commission for restoring intercity passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. The project restores service previously provided by Amtrak’s thrice-weekly Sunset Limited long-distance service. Amtrak suspended service between New Orleans and Orlando, Florida, in August 2005, due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • $4.4 million to the Connecticut Department of Transportation to add two daily weekday trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, on the state’s CTrail service’s Hartford Line, which began operations in June 2018.
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