The multi-state effort to add a second daily train between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago just got another major boost from the federal government.
The Federal Railroad Administration announced on Sept. 23, 2020, that the “TCMC” project – also known as the “Second Empire Builder” – has been awarded a $31.8 million Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) grant for final design and construction.
The FRA said the funds will pay for infrastructure improvements in Wisconsin and Minnesota on the Canadian Pacific’s Soo Line route serving Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, including upgrades to communication and signaling, extension of rail sidings and lead tracks in rail yards, grade crossing improvements, and the reconstruction and modification of new turnouts and mainline track.
TCMC service will also be an extension of one of Amtrak’s existing daily Hiawatha round trips between Milwaukee and Chicago.
This grant is the final piece of federal support needed to implement TCMC construction, Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials said in a Sept. 30 press release.
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said Minnesotans will benefit “by having access to a safe, reliable and affordable alternative to driving or flying. “This project will also help Minnesota create new jobs and generate economic growth in our communities and improve access to higher education facilities along the corridor,” she said (Kelliher is also Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s designee to MIPRC).
Wisconsin, Minnesota and Amtrak need to provide $21.2 million in non-federal matching funds in order to accept the award. Amtrak contributed $5 million to the match. Wisconsin DOT has bonding authority to cover its $6.2 million share, but legislative approval will be needed. Walz has proposed $10 million in state bonds for Minnesota’s share of the non-federal match, but legislators have yet to approve his request.
The first year of TCMC rail service is anticipated to begin in 2024. More information on this project can be found on the Wisconsin DOT’s TCMC webpage.
Earlier this year, the project won both a $12.6 million Restoration & Enhancement grant for operating support to offset the cost of the first three years of service, and a $26.6 million CRISI grant for trackwork in Milwaukee’s Muskego freight yard to remove the flow of freight trains through the city’s Intermodal Station used by Amtrak.
In 2019, Wisconsin DOT won a $2.7 million CRISI grant for signals and centralized train control for about two miles of track near the Intermodal Station, which has allowed trains to operate at higher speeds through the area. (UPDATE: See the current list of all Midwestern grant awards here.)
By providing a second daily round-trip in this corridor, TCMC service will be more valuable and useful for communities, residents and visitors because it will have a shorter travel time and greater on-time performance and reliability for regional trips, Wisconsin DOT officials said.
“The expanded service provides a much-improved connection between the Midwest economic hubs of Minneapolis/St. Paul, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Chicago,” Craig Thompson, Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary-designee said. “Just as important is the enhanced service for residents in the many rural communities. They will have increased travel options, with better reliability and on-time performance.”
The corridor is currently served only by Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Ore.), whose eastbound trains are frequently subject to delays from weather and/or freight train traffic. The second daily train will be set approximately six hours apart from the Empire Builder schedule and will make the same 12 station stops as the long-distance service between its endpoints of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago: Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota; La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus, Milwaukee and Sturtevant in Wisconsin; and Glenview, Illinois.
Both CRISI and Restoration & Enhancement grant programs were authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, which was due to expire this year. Congress approved a one-year extension of the act, which President Trump signed on Oct. 1.
Funding under this program was made available by the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, and the Consolidated Appropriations Acts of 2019, 2018 and 2017.