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All aboard? Green Bay train decision expected this month

Posted at 2:19 PM, Nov 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-16 22:09:18-05
  • A decision is expected this month on whether passenger train service to Green Bay will take the next step toward possibly
    becoming a reality
  • An application for the route says the train would stop in Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Appleton, too
  • Watch the video to see what the new option would mean for a northeast Wisconsin mother

Northeast Wisconsin could learn this month whether passenger train service to Green Bay will take the next step in its development.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) applied under a federal program for the train that currently ends in Milwaukee to be extended north, stopping in Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Appleton before reaching its destination of Green Bay. NBC 26 reported on the idea earlier this year.

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An Amtrak train is pictured at the downtown Milwaukee train station. WisDOT applied to extend passenger train service north from Milwaukee to Green Bay.

The route would mean Chicago could be reachable by train from Green Bay, and would be another travel option for families like David Roehrig’s; for whom time in the Windy City has become a family tradition.

“I’ve used it as a time to bond with my daughter, we usually do our Christmas shopping,” said Roehrig, who works for the Village of Ashwaubenon and helps organize charter bus trips to Chicago.

The federal government is expected to announce this month whether it selected WisDOT's application to extend Chicago to Milwaukee passenger train service (known as the Hiawatha route) north to Green Bay. If the application is selected, the federal government would pay for $500,000 of initial planning; subsequent development steps would be mostly, but not fully, federally-funded.

"WisDOT has an annual state appropriation that currently funds the Hiawatha service and improvements. This appropriation is envisioned to support this corridor's development into the future," WisDOT wrote in the application.

According to the WisDOT application:

  • Initially, the train would run three times per day in each direction on the route.
  • Estimated travel time between Green Bay and Milwaukee by rail is 2 hours and 50 minutes.
  • Amtrak will likely operate the service.
  • Development of the route could extend into year 2030.

Factors in the potential timeline include the necessary collaboration with the railroad that owns the tracks and when funding for the project becomes available, said Lisa Stern, chief of railroads and harbors for WisDOT.
The addition of passenger service would mean adding more trains onto tracks that are privately owned by the railroad, Stern said, and requirements for passenger trains are different than freight trains.

For example, the maximum speed for freight trains is generally 59 miles-per-hour, while passenger trains can travel at 79 miles-per-hour, Stern said.

State support and options for the route north

"WisDOT is committed to providing the required state supported service matching amounts for operating and capital costs for this service when it is implemented," the application states.

The route could mostly follow the Canadian National Railway (CN) existing track on the route from Milwaukee to Green Bay.

WisDOT wrote that CN has heavy freight traffic and the railroad's major freight yard in North Fond du Lac will "have to be considered."

CN did not respond to an inquiry from NBC 26.

Another option for part of the route, according to the WisDOT application, is to use an old railroad which is now the Eisenbahn State Trail, which goes through the Eden area of Fond du Lac County.

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Part of the Eisenbahn State Trail stretches through Fond du Lac County. The old railroad route is part of one possible path for a passenger train to reach Green Bay from Milwaukee, according to the WisDOT.

"I walk the trail just about every day," said Randy Bernath, an Eden resident who does not want the train to use the trail route.

"I would hate to lose [the trail], because then you're reduced to walking on the highways."

Eager to travel by rail

“I would do that in a heartbeat,” Anna Burnette said of riding the train south to Chicago.

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Anna Burnette has helped organize charter bus trips to Chicago for the Service League of Green Bay. She would take the train to the Windy City "... in a heartbeat."

Burnette has helped organize charter bus trips to Chicago for the Service League of Green Bay.

“I have a couple small children, and I think that it's something that they would really enjoy, too.”

Passenger train service has not been available to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Appleton, or Green Bay for more than 50 years, according to the DOT's application for the service.