The little rail link from Milwaukee to Madison is generally recognized as dead, and in the long run, that may be good for the future of high speed rail in the USA. By itself, it wasn’t very economical, and not a big advantage over driving a car. It was competitive when all the expenses of car ownership are amortized over mileage a car is driven. However, most car owners don’t think that way when planning a trip.
The huge up-front capital costs or monthly car note payments are already a given. The only question is, with that chunk of money gone, does it cost more or less to take the train? Often, the answer is more. Parking can tip the scales the other way, depending on how much it costs, and how hard it is to find. A good commuter rail line from Oconomowoc to downtown Milwaukee could be a money-saver, compared to the cost of daily, weekly, monthly, parking, and the time and trouble to find it or get in and out.
Many critics of high speed rail point out that in Europe and Japan, population is much more densely packed into much smaller areas. This plausibly supports the logic that with cities so far apart, rail isn’t a feasible form of transportation for North America. It is true that no train could be run economically stopping every ten miles from Chicago to New York. But somehow, it is economical to drive cars these long distances, and to fly planes.
High speed rail for North American dimensions needs to be engineered for the routes and distances people need to travel. Flying is fast, direct, and for major markets there are plenty of options every day. There is no reason rail can’t be designed to compete on that basis, especially with the time consuming nature of getting in and out of airports, increasingly onerous security procedures, etc.
Right now, Amtrak runs at most one train per day over long distances: Chicago to New York, Chicago to Washington, D.C., Chicago to Seattle. All points in between are at the mercy of a 24-72 hour schedule. Residents of Cleveland and Cincinnati, for example, can almost never get on or off the train except around midnight, or in the wee hours of the morning, going east or west. Pittsburgh isn’t much better: 5:00 am eastbound on the Capitol Limited, midnight westbound.
It is technologically feasible to run a train from Chicago to New York in ten hours. If there were a nonstop train leaving each city in the morning, and in the evening, a day train and a night train each way, it would be competitive with flying. Advantages include disembarking downtown, close to urban rail systems, shorter cab trips, near hotels.
What about the cities in between? With the tracks laid for high speed trips, Trains could leave Cleveland for New York (and for D.C.) ever morning, turn around, and come back by the same evening, while another train made the same trip at the same convenient times the other way. Another could leave Pittsburgh for Chicago, and Chicago for Pittsburgh.
Get the travel at convenient departure and arrival times, sometimes with extra options (the Pittsburgh trains stopping in Cleveland and vice versa), and people would choose to ride. Smaller stops can be accommodated, at much more convenient times, by the shorter-route trains.
The same could be applied for the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis line. Eight hours from Chicago to Minneapolis is by no means out of reach. Run two a day each way, one starting in the morning, one in mid-afternoon. Run additional trains out of Madison, one to Chicago, another to Minneapolis, also starting at convenient times for people from those cities. The combination will give several options a day to people at points in between. With options and convenience, people will ride.
With more people travelling longer distances, the fare for short-hop riders will go down substantially. Chicago to Milwaukee and Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison trains can be added. Tomah, Eau Claire, and La Crosse will get their stops too. Racine and Kenosha might do better with a separate KRM line, because that will serve the densely populated concentration that critics point to in Europe.
There are ways to do it right. It may be just as well that we aren’t going to start off doing it half-assed. The inital investment in a reliable high speed track, or better a magnetic-levitation rail, will be huge. It would have to be amortized over many years to make sense. But that is the kind of boldness that built the interstate system.