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WisBiz In Depth: Could Wisconsin lose the Empire Builder?

By Gregg Hoffmann

After congressional hearings last week on the future of Amtrak, at least one spokesman for the railroad expects Wisconsin will keep its section of the famous Empire Builder train line. Other Amtrak employees were more pessimistic, not so much about the Empire Builder as other lines in the country.

The Empire Builder crosses the Mississippi River into La Crosse and runs for several hundred miles within Wisconsin. You can take it from Chicago all the way to Seattle and see beautiful areas of the Midwest, West and Pacific Northwest.

It has a great history. The Empire Builder celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, with celebrations in Chicago, Seattle and points in between, including Milwaukee and La Crosse.

Will the Empire Builder get a chance to continue this rich history for another 75 years or longer? Certainly, with gas prices recently hovering around $2.40 a gallon, and only likely to go up, alternatives to auto travel are needed.

Many people are tired of security measures at airports, cramped seats and late flights.

"Look at the room in these seats, and I can walk around," said Erica Skumsrud, who was making the trip from Minneapolis to Milwaukee during a trip that this writer also took on the Empire Builder.

"And, I didn't have to take my shoes off, or open my hand bag."

For small towns still on the route – such as Tomah, Portage, Columbus and their surrounding rural areas - trains provide about the only alternative to car travel. Greyhound cutbacks have eliminated bus routes to many small towns.

The train also offers a more relaxed form of travel in many ways. Even Union Station, where this writer caught another train to New York, and Penn Station in the Big Apple, were not as hectic as O'Hare or LaGuardia airports.

There are major disadvantages to overall Amtrak services. This writer took the Lakeshore Ltd. line from Chicago to New York after riding on the Empire Builder. With a coach seat, it's an 18-hour endurance test, and that's when the train is on time.

Work on rails along the line delayed the service by a couple hours. One employee joked the line should be renamed the Lateshore Ltd., because it is late so often.

Train travel, even when trains run on time, is not quick. You need to schedule an overnighter if going any distance across the country.

Losing Money

Despite selling around 25 million tickets, Amtrak loses money, a lot of it. Several employees, speaking on the guarantee of anonymity, said Amtrak can't afford to make repairs on some equipment. In fact, some new trains, intended to run in the busy Northeast Corridor of the country, were sent back recently because of brake problems.

Some employees said the service is top heavy at the management level.

Joe Vranich, formerly of Amtrak and author of the book, "Derailed," called the service "an experiment that has failed" and "the nation's nightmare" in hearings last week. The government pays about $1 billion per year for Amtrak.

In part because of these factors, the Bush Administration has talked about pulling the federal funding – the administration calls it a subsidy -- from Amtrak.

The train service could benefit from the advocacy of former Bush Cabinet member Tommy Thompson. The former Wisconsin governor has long been a train booster, even serving as chairman of Amtrak's board from 1998 to 2001, though he hasn't spoken out about the recent administration plans.

The administration would like to see the service privatized, but no railroad company is rushing to take over some of the lines.

In fact, Amtrak was started three decades ago because private railroads were losing money on passenger lines and wanted to concentrate on freight.

Some believe the country will not have a national rail system without government involvement.

"Subsidy is not really an accurate term," said Marc Magliari, who serves in the Amtrak public relations division out of Union Station.

"If you subsidize something, it indicates that it will survive without the subsidy. But, Amtrak would not do so. What the administration is trying to is bankrupt Amtrak."

Magliari added taking away a mode of transportation for the public, during a time of high gas prices and bankrupt airlines, seems "incredulous to a lot of people."

An optimistic Magliari said Bush's plan seemed dead on arrival. He felt a compromise plan incorporating the Bush plan, a congressional committee plan and an Amtrak board plan would more likely pass.

But, other employees were not as optimistic, saying they believe funding could be eliminated or severely cut this time.

The employees speaking anonymously said some lines like those in the Northeast Corridor could be run profitably. But, the Lakeshore Ltd., the only Amtrak line between Chicago and New York, will be a likely casualty, they said.

Turning back to the Empire Builder, the employees declined to speculate. But Magliari expects the line to survive.

"Many people think of the Empire Builder as a train people get on in Chicago and take to Seattle," Magliari said. "Some do that, but many take it from point to point to visit family and friends, do business, go for medical appointments.

"In the Chicago to Milwaukee to Minneapolis corridor, we provide what amounts to a commuter service for some people. We serve many different customers with the Empire Builder and hope to do so for years to come."

--Another version of this story ran as Gregg Hoffmann's Beyond Milwaukee column for OnMilwaukee.com.


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