Wisconsin’s High-Cost, Low-Speed Rail

Wisconsin was the fourth-highest (after California, Florida, and Illinois) recipient of federal high-speed rail money, receiving $823 million to initiate Milwaukee-to-Madison service. The state’s application proposes to use this money to operate six trains a day between the two cities as a continuation of service from Chicago to Milwaukee.

The proposal does not call for high-speed (faster than 125 mph) or even moderate-speed (faster than 80 mph) rail. Instead, the top speeds will only be 79 mph until even more money is spent improving signaling to allow for “positive train control” (which insures trains will automatically stop when necessary even if the engineer fails to stop the train).

With three stops between Madison and Milwaukee, the average speed will be just 58 mph. That’s a bit higher than the current Badger Bus, which averages 42 to 52 mph depending on which bus you take. But the rail route is longer than the bus route, which means the train will take longer (1 hour 40 minutes) than the fastest bus (1 hour 30 minutes).

In addition, the bus stops in the middle of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, while current plans call for the train to terminate at Dane County Airport on the edge of town, with transit connections to downtown and the university. This gives even the slower (1 hour 50 minute) buses a huge competitive advantage.

Badger Bus operates on the same frequencies — six round trips per day — as proposed for the rail line. The state’s application estimates that rail fares will range from $20 to $33 compared with current bus fares of $17.50. It appears the state is chasing the snob market, that is, people too proud to ride a bus.

Considering that this is an 81-mile rail route, the price tag of $823 million (a small portion of which will go for improving Chicago-Milwaukee service) is roughly $10 million per mile. This is nearly three times the amount estimated by the Antiplanner for improving service to 110 mph. The high cost is due to the fact that the tracks between Madison and Milwaukee haven’t seen passenger service in many decades and some of them are in very poor shape.

A 47-mile segment owned by the Canadian Pacific is currently used for freight trains going up to 60 mph and by Amtrak at 79 mph. The state estimated it would cost $274 million, or nearly $6 million per mile, to bring improve these tracks and add enough sidings for 6 more trains per day. A 34-mile segment owned by the state of Wisconsin is in such poor shape that freight trains are limited to 10 mph. The state estimates it will cost $317 million, or more than $9 million per mile, to improve these tracks to 79 mph standards. (This doesn’t include the costs of locomotives, stations, rail cars, a maintenance facility, or environmental mitigation, which bring the total cost to $773 million or just under $10 million per mile.)

The state estimates that, in the fifth full year of operation, the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison route will carry about 536,000 more passengers than the Chicago-Milwaukee route carried in 2008. Generously assuming that all of these new riders will be on the Milwaukee-Madison line, that’s an average of 734 trips each way per day, or about 122 people per train — roughly three bus loads (figuring two-thirds occupancy).

Amortizing the $773 million capital cost at 7 percent over 30 years results in an annualized cost of $61.7 million. The state also estimates it will need operating subsidies of $7.5 million for a total of $69.2 million in annual subsidies. That is a subsidy of nearly $130 per passenger trip.

The state estimates the rail line will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a little more than 7,000 tons per year. This represents a cost of $9,700 per ton of greenhouse gas emissions abated. Considering that the price of carbon offsets currently ranges from $6 to $28 per ton, something that costs $9,700 per ton is a huge waste.

Of course, the rail line is also expected to reduce some other pollutants, but so too would any other action that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The trains are actually projected to emit more particulates than the cars they take off the road, and if the state has overestimated ridership, the trains will probably produce more of other pollutants as well.

The state claims the trains will help relieve congestion, but they aren’t a very cost-effective way of doing that either. Out of 7.8 million annual auto trips in the corridor, the trains will take only about 208,000 off the highway, or about 2.6 percent. There are far better ways of relieving 2.6 percent of congestion at far lower costs.

The environmental assessment estimates that 19 percent of rail passengers would otherwise take the bus, which means Badger Bus will lose 23 passengers per trip. If you believe the state’s numbers, this will probably put Badger Bus out of the Madison-Milwaukee market, and at least will force it to reduce its service to two or three trips per day.

What if, instead of six trains per day, Wisconsin increased bus service to 24 round trips per day? That would be a bus every half hour during peak periods. Some buses might stop at intermediate towns while others would be express. I estimate this would require about a dozen new buses costing about $6 million, or less than 1 percent of the cost of the trains. Of course, the environmental assessment for the rail line did not consider a bus alternative; it just considered “no build” and alternative rail routes. But I suspect the far greater frequencies of the bus alternative would compensate for the snob factor and attract all or nearly all of the riders who would take the trains.

The National Transit Database reveals that privately operated buses cost an average of about $5 per vehicle mile to operate (see column AI). Running 18 round trips per day would therefore cost less than $5.5 million per year. Compared with the projected $7.5 million operating loss from the trains, the state would save money even if no one rode the buses.

Of course, eventually the state hopes to spend a few hundred million more to increase rail top speeds to 110 mph. This will result in trip times as short as 69 minutes, for an average speed of 73 mph. That’s still not enough to justify the cost, especially since buses can still be competitive when you consider the additional time required to get from the airport to any destination in Madison.

What is really going on is a very different kind of snob factor: Madison wants trains because trains are supposedly cool, not because anyone in Madison will ever really need to ride one. It especially wants trains if someone else will pay for them. When a unsubsidized bus ride costs $17.50 and a train ride (including amortized capital costs and operating subsidies) costs $150, it is hard to imagine that anyone really thinks the train makes sense.


18 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s High-Cost, Low-Speed Rail

  1. OFP2003

    Great analysis. Did you factor in the loss of tax revenue from the reduced business of the bus company? Did they?
    The report sounds like economist malpractice!

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    > It especially wants trains if someone else will pay for them.

    I presume that would be the capital cost.

    Has anyone figured out who is going to fund the operating deficits which will result from this project if it gets built?

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner also wrote:

    > But I suspect the far greater frequencies of the bus
    > alternative would compensate for the snob factor and attract
    > all or nearly all of the riders who would take the trains.

    Speaking of the snob factor, there was an interesting article in the L.A. Times about a woman who started taking the L.A. MTA bus instead of her car (amazing that the Times’ article was not touting rail):

    Riding the bus changes her view: A self-described ‘snob’ makes the switch to public transit. Though frustrating, it proves enriching in ways she never expected.

  4. Scott

    No benefits. Just supposed feel-good crap with make-work jobs & political favors.

    I lived in Madison one summer & took the bus, once, to Milwaukee.
    It was not a terrible experience, as many seem to claim for buses.
    The proposed rail would not have been easier.

  5. the highwayman

    OFP2003 said: Great analysis.

    THWM: O’Toole is a highway lobbyist, so what ever “analysis” he does on trains & transit is going to be worth shit!

    The outcome was PLANNED before he even started!

  6. Spokker

    “I felt like I was too good for the bus,” said Carr, recalling her virgin voyage last October with a mixture of embarrassment and marvel. “I think there’s a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don’t have money. There’s a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that.”

    Clearly the stereotype doesn’t apply anymore now that she’s dirt poor and riding the bus.

    What a condescending article.

  7. Scott

    Did you even understand the article? It was about how expensive this slight rail upgrade is & that there is no time advantage over bus & that there are very few riders anyway?

    Please show how O’Toole is a highway lobbyist. And, if so, relevance.
    Please show if, anybody paid by the highway industry, is talking to officials to build more roads.
    Why is the highway industry bad, especially considering that over 80% of adults drive?
    Who & why is against highways, without being a hypocrite?
    What companies & types of businesses compose the highway industry?

    Show the points in the analysis that are mistaken.
    It should be very easy for you, since you said it was crap.

    Oh, you are using several fallacies, as per your normal procedure, mostly the guilty by association.

  8. MJ

    The decision to terminate the line at the Dane County Airport seems strange. Not only will this depress ridership, as most travelers to Madison would more likely be headed to the campus or capitol areas, but it is hard to understand why anyone would take a train to the airport to fly in or out of Madison when there are larger airports within a couple of hours with much better service (Milwaukee/Chicago).

  9. the highwayman

    Scott said: Please show how O’Toole is a highway lobbyist.

    THWM: Wow are you ever moron, on top of being a despotic asshole!

    Did you think O’Toole travels around attacking trains and transit as a hobby?

  10. Scott


    You have failed to show any support from highway construction interests.
    Being a moron does not give any reason for a person to have not seen any documentation on O’Toole’s paycheck & that that leads to any faulty reasons in critiquing public transit.

    And even if so, have failed to show any underhandedness or fabrication.
    Highways exist regardless of public transit. Of the fewer than 3% who solely use transit, very few of them would like no highways.

    The analysis is based upon economics and effectiveness, among other things.
    That happens all of the time for many issues, and certainly does not have to for being paid by a business. In other words, if facts or analysis are being twisted.

    You never fail to uphold any of your assertions or the “whatever” points.

    According to you, any criticism that a person gives is because other interests are paying. So, if a person bashes Microsoft, he/she must work for Apple.
    Or, that a person being paid, cannot criticize anything in partial competition. So, a UAW member cannot give an valid analysis for any motorcycle.

    I’m not sure why I even bother trying to discuss with you, since you make all these blatant, unfounded accusations, and don’t address any specifics, and cannot properly counter any objections. You never have any backing for you points; no evidence. Occasionally you spout random facts, which don’t lead to any conclusion.

  11. the highwayman

    Scott said: Roads exist regardless of public transit.

    THWM: Roads exist regardless of automobiles for that matter, they are after all the epitome of your beloved socialism.

    Scott: I’m not sure why I even bother trying to discuss with you, since you make all these blatant, unfounded accusations, and don’t address any specifics, and cannot properly counter any objections. You never have any backing for you points; no evidence. Occasionally you spout random facts, which don’t lead to any conclusion.

    THWM: Scott, you don’t give a shit & you want to be close minded.

  12. Pingback: Not So Fast for High-Speed Rail » The Antiplanner

  13. Car84

    One side says there will be riders. The other side insists there won’t be riders.

    Here’s what should be done. The state should sell seat licenses for the trains, just like what is done for new sports stadiums. If all those riders are out there, they would happily buy a seat license. And we’ll get a true picture of the demand.

    Greenies who don’t intend to ride the train could still buy seats just to show how much they support it. (Don’t hold your breath.)

    In the unlikely event overwhelming support materializes, the cash would be there at the front end.

  14. Pingback: We Want High-Speed Rail, As Long As It Is Free » The Antiplanner

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