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Madison depot could clash with freight service (UPDATE)

By Darryl Enriquez

As many as eight daily freight trains sharing a track with a passenger service near Monona Terrace is a recipe for gridlock rail officials want to avoid.

“We do have some reservations about that corridor, and we want to make sure passenger trains and our freight trains don’t create a bottleneck,” said Ken Lucht, director of public affairs for Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, which owns the track near Monona Terrace and carries freight to Chicago.

State Railroad Commissioner Roger Breske said he is not sure a bottleneck actually would happen, but project planners should answer the rail company’s questions.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of concerns brought up at future meetings,” Breske said.

Beyond the potential for increased rail traffic in Madison, Wisconsin & Southern fears passenger use of its rail lines may cut into freight business growth, Lucht said. The railroad has a train yard in the vicinity of Monona Terrace, and Wisconsin & Southern does not want passenger service to clash with yard operations involving switching and storing train cars and engines, he said.

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has said the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is working on a study to answer the questions that surround the passenger service.

The exact location of the depot, which would need an 800-foot long passenger platform, according to the state, has yet to be determined. The Monona Terrace depot would replace plans for the Dane County Airport as the Madison stop for intercity rail between the capitol and Milwaukee.

The Terrace site was lauded by many local officials who contended it would boost the economy of downtown Madison and is a more practical drop off and loading point for passengers than the distant airport. The state estimates the Monona site would attract about 60,000 more customers to the rail service that is already estimated to carry about 500,000 passengers a year.

An $810 million federal award is fueling the rail service between the state’s two largest cities and would finance many of the expected track upgrades. The passenger train is expected to launch in 2013 and be fully up to speed by 2015 with a half dozen daily round trips and stops in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown.

Getting passenger rail operational on the Wisconsin & Southern tracks between Watertown and Madison will require upgrading to more comfortable passenger track, Lucht said. That means replacing wooden ties with concrete, installing heavier rail lines, upgrading train bridges and improving safety at more than 50 crossings, he said.

“It would all be for the safety and comfort of the passengers who would want to use their laptops and drink a cup of coffee,” Lucht said, “which they couldn’t do if they’re swaying and rolling on a freight-grade track.”

Breske said Wisconsin & Southern would have to reroute its freight business to other rail lines while the Watertown to Madison track is upgraded.

The railroad supports increasing passenger service, Lucht said, and understands the promised benefits of a depot close to the state Capitol, downtown businesses and a major convention center.

But, he said, Wisconsin & Southern also understands there are questions that need answers.

“We want to see passenger railroad proceed,” Lucht said, “and we will continue to work with the parties involved.”

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