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High Iron

Local Issues, Science and Technology

The following is a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that will not be published, primarily because it punctures their beloved choo-choo train balloon. (I'm taking a risk here; if they publish it, I'll have to eat my words.) The letter was written by a close, long-time friend, Charles A. Bass, a former Chicago and Northwestern brakeman who has written and published a marvelous book on his experiences, Life on the Shiny Iron, which is presently available at certain specialty bookstores or on-line at (I don't get a commission.)

The commuter/high-speed rail business is just another government payback-boondoggle at taxpayer expense. (Remember, even federal largesse is taxpayer money.) To my knowledge, there is not a commuter train system in the country that is self-sufficient. The automobile is the most convenient, efficient and flexible means of transportation invented by man. Buses run a distant second. Commuter rail is way down the list. Passenger rail can be a useful and convenient means of transportation between metropolitan destinations, but even it is far from self-sufficient.

Chuck is an entertaining writer with a wealth of railroad experience and knowledge of the "shiny iron." I highly recommend his book.

The Letter:

I don't think you guys are pulling your weight. I have been a faithful subscriber for many years, even peddled the MJ in Madison in 1945. Because I peddled Nakoma, the toughest area with all its hills, I got the first new Schwinn bike from the Journal after WWII. But I don't think you are presenting the news in a professional manner in some cases.
This high speed rail thing is a boondoggle. I was a brakeman for a time and know a little about trains. In about 1958 we were hauling trainloads of Portland cement to South Beloit for the I highway system. There went passenger service from Chicago to Madison. Who's going to ride a train when they can drive I90 from Chicago to Madison in their own private cars and get to their destination without taking a bus or renting a cab. Bikes weren't a big thing in Madison then.
The high speed rail idea is pure nuts. In 1935 the Chicago & North Western refurbished some early 1900s heavyweight passenger cars and converted two 1929 steam engines from coal burning to oil. They called the train the 400 and it ran, over some sections of track, at speeds up to 100 mph. Chicago to St. Paul. 400 miles in 400 minutes. That's a 6.7 hour trip. That was 75 years ago and it wasn't subsidized. Railroads pay for their own equipment and rail beds.
In three years the new trains will run at 79 miles an hour. 79 MPH has been the standard streamline passenger train speed for as long as I can remember. The fact is the present Amtrak train Empire Builder can probably run that fast on today's rail or could with a little upgrading. In five years these high speed trains can go an incredible 115 miles an hour. Takes my breath away.
According to your editorial these new trains will encourage a lot of new development. That would be where it stops. Brookfield, Oconomowoc and that thriving city, Watertown. Watertown is slowly twisting in the wind. Oh, there will be a nice three level depot built at Watertown if anyone wants to get on or off there. Passenger trains don't encourage new development, freight trains do, which Watertown has. You may want to reconsider your statement, "The line is expected to spur growth at stops along the route. That growth could be a source of funding for operational expenses". Junior reporter's input?
Then there has to be some track "upgrades". It's single track from Milwaukee to Watertown so now there has to be a way for high speed trains and slow freights to share the same track. Remember, six trains a day from Milwaukee to Madison. That probably means six trains from Madison to Milwaukee. That's a potential twelve meets a day with freights, plus the two trips per day with the Empire Builder. So you have to upgrade the entire track plus add numerous very long passing tracks for the freights to go in the hole and wait for the not so high speed trains to go by.
[Milwaukee Mayor] Mr. Barrett says the upgraded track will increase freight traffic in and out of Milwaukee. No matter how much the track is upgraded, the freights will still run the same speed they do today, 55 MPH. The speed of freight trains not only depends on the condition of the track but also on the design limits of freight cars. How fast do you want to run a train made up of propane cars? Now figure in the time the freights are sitting on a siding waiting for passenger trains, freight train service will be reduced, not increased into and out of Milwaukee.
How are you going to find a way to balance funding between roads and rail? The roads are here and they will need the same level of funding, if not more than they are getting now. Rail is going to be a new cost over and above what we are now paying. Since trucks are what are beating up our roads maybe to save the roads you could figure out a way to carry trucks on the high speed rail system. Now you're talking real savings.
It's estimated that 338,000 passengers will ride from Milwaukee to Madison each year. Six trains a day is 2,190 trains a year. So on average, each train will carry 154 people for a total average of 926 people coming into Madison each day. That's a lot of people who have to figure out how they are going to get from the depot to their final destinations and conversely, how many of them will have to figure out how to get back to the depot for their return trip? Scott Walker can do better than the train with his 1998 Saturn. How many Saturns would 810 million dollars buy, which would not require any additional or ongoing costs? Of all the places we could spend almost a billion dollars the trains should be way down on the list.
In spite of a few lapses you guys do a pretty good job. No, I'm not canceling my subscription. Without your paper how would I spend a couple leisurely hours in my sun room every morning reading your paper and drinking coffee?

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