Progress on service to Madison WI

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Is this service going to be a branch of the existing CN route that the Empire Builder uses? Are they planning to run through trains to the Twin Cities or just terminate in Madison? Looking at open Railway Maps, it seems that there's a branch line that turns off the Empire Builder route at Watertown, approaches Madison form the northeast, runs through the Isthmus, and then heads west croiss country along the Wisconsin River to Prairie du Chien and the tracks along the Mississippi, where it can turn north and rejoin the Empire Builder route at La Crosse.

No trains would run just MSP-Madison. There are to be CHI-MKE-MSN trains which terminate in Madison, while others run CHI-MKE-MSN-MSP via Eau Claire or (potentially) La Crosse.

Westbound the trains will follow the CP tracks from Chicago to Watertown (same as the Empire Builder) where they will branch off toward Madison on the Wisconsin and Southern line. Then heading out of Madison they would run north on CP tracks and rejoin the Empire Builder's route just east of Portage. Heading northwest prior to Tomah it will branch off at Camp Douglas onto the UP track through Eau Claire toward MSP. It's also possible as some point a CHI-MKE-MSN-MSP train could stay with the CP tracks and follow the Empire Builder routing through La Crosse and northward into MSP, but MSN-MSP via Eau Claire is the near-term plan.

The Empire Builder and the second TCMC starting soon between St Paul and Chicago will both rollow the CP route and bypass Madison with a Columbus stop.

From the WI state rail map 2023

I’m sorry, but I have to strongly disagree. There is virtually no universe in which having Madison Airport be “the” station for Madison makes any sense. As an additional “suburban” stop, a la MKA, maybe. But for the main/only stop, no way. If you’re going to serve the state capital and the city with the largest university, you need to serve the city itself. If people have to rent a car when they get there, having traveled all the way from…Milwaukee (or wherever), then there’s no reason for them to even take the train in the first place. As for the idea that Madison Airport would ever offer any meaningful multimodal connectivity, name one city you can easily fly to from Madison that doesn’t have just as many (or probably a lot more) flights from Chicago, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis/St. Paul, which are cities that the passengers would mostly be coming from/going to.

The supposed main benefit of intercity rail, the one that advocates keep selling, and the one that really offers the best value, is that it travels from city center to city center, vs. flying which gets you out somewhere toward the edge. If it’s going to serve an airport, it should do so to replace a regional connection to a longer flight. Taking someone to an airport that would mostly fly those regional connections to other hubs really defeats the purpose.

You make a good point about train/plane connections at the Madison airport not being that important.

As for car rentals, it may not be a big part of the customer base for the trains, but I can certainly see someone from MSP or CHI wanting to take the train and the drive the last bit. Just people going to Epic in Verona could be a big market. And Madison certainly has other large employers not in the city center too.

The airport location with its existing parking and proximity to the interstate still makes it a good choice for a suburban stop. Although it has been eliminated for now, I think ultimately when there is a MSP train running right past it, the airport will make a good infill station for a suburban stop.

I agree that city center to center is the best value of train travel. Which is why I don't understand the 1st Street and Oscar Mayer options still on the table. Neither are walkable to the city center. They might be nice places to build a community around a train station. But they don't serve the major projected passenger generators (government center or University) any better than the airport location. Hopefully one of the downtown locations is chosen.
I doubt there'd be any backing involved in serving a station on the Isthmus at or near Monona Terrace. A train with an engine at each end, or an engine at one end and a cab car at the other, would come into Madison station from the north and simply change which end of the train is controlling. Brake test and a few other checks, maybe 15 minutes, not ridiculously long for an important stop especially if passengers are getting on and off as control is transferred from the south engine/cab to the north. Metra trains do it dozens of times every day.

I hope a CHI-MSN-MSP train would not swap ends of the train mid-ride in Madison. Many people (my wife for one) cannot ride backwards on a train or they'll get motion sickness.
I hope a CHI-MSN-MSP train would not swap ends of the train mid-ride in Madison. Many people (my wife for one) cannot ride backwards on a train or they'll get motion sickness.
Swapping ends is a lot less time-consuming and disruptive than a wye. And half the seats in the Venture cars face each way. I'm sure some people will sit with their traveling companion(s) in a four-seater with a table, get up at Madison to stretch their legs, and sit back down facing their preferred direction.