Amtrak and Milwaukee

Two items, commingled: Amtrak should be fully funded, and some photos from my recent trip to Milwaukee.

First, we took an impromptu day trip to Milwaukee to visit a friend who used to live in Chicago. We didn’t want to drive, so decided to take the train. What an absolute pleasure. We left our house 15 minutes before the train departed, purchased tickets from an automated kiosk1 and squeaked through the final gate just in time. Cannot imagine doing that flying. Either Chicago airport is 45 minutes or more away, plus security lines, baggage search, the seemingly interminable delays of departure, and mechanical failures.

Once we made it to our train, we stumbled into the so-called “Quiet Car” which was exactly that. We didn’t realize at first there was such a designation, but our snotty, aging car-mate loudly asked the ticket collector to enforce the rules. We were happy to oblige with the idea of treating the car as a library, actually, especially after changing seats to avoid looking at our nemesis. Quiet is good, no cell-phones, no loud conversation, perfect for reading the newspaper. The train car was exceedingly quieter than an airplane, and you could stand and stretch as necessary without airline stewards glaring at you with the stink-eye.

The train was nearly empty. On our return journey, we quizzed the train conductor, I could tell he wanted to talk a little. He had worked for Amtrak for 21 years, initially the Hiawatha was three cars long, then four, now five, and considering adding one more. The train used to travel over 100 miles an hour, but with the advent of cars, the signal system necessitated slowing the train down to a more stately pace of 80 miles an hour. Amtrak engineers have almost figured out how to reconfigure the signal system so the top speeds could be achieved again. Our conductor expected that to occur within a year or two, knocking 25% or so off of the travel time2.

Our ticket cost $44 round trip, each. Quick mental arithmetic confirmed this was slightly more expensive than taking the company car, but we didn’t want to drive in traffic, and our friend was picking us up anyway. I am baffled that the United States does not give Amtrak as much budget as it needs to run a first class national train system. Most people3 factor in costs of travel rather simply – how much gasoline would it take to go where I am going, how long will it take, or should I fly. Riding the rails should be encouraged – if the price of a train ticket was significantly lower than the cost of driving, more people would take the train, lessening the congestion on the highways, reducing pollution, reducing gasoline (and rubber, asphalt and whatever else is consumed by automobile travel), reducing the need to constantly repair highways, and so on. Good for the whole society in other words.

I am enough of a student of history to appreciate the role trains used to have in America, but most travelers don’t even consider riding Amtrak for local trips. I priced a trip to Denver, with a sleeping car, and it would cost nearly $2,000 for the two of us. Crazy. How about4 instead of government bailouts for investment bankers and pasta-forbid, Detroit automotive corporations, we invest in encouraging train travel? Increase staffing so the trains and stations are spotless, add WiFi5, add engineers, invest in tracks and signals so the train can go faster!

We both really liked Milwaukee, we are considering renting space there for a summer house. Though my sample size is small6 I think Milwaukee is way more interesting than the city often mentioned, Madison. Madison seems very small, with not much going on for non-students. Milwaukee has a more varied character – a loft district like where I live now, but cleaner, with more preservation of historic facades, a large park along Lake Michigan, and with a bonus that the Amtrak to Chicago is sleek and efficient.

Anyway, here are a few annotated photos from Saturday:

The Quiet Car

The Quiet Car

perfect for us introverts. We both brought plenty of reading material, spread out to adjoining seats, and before you realized, we were pulling into Milwaukee.

Amtrak Hiawatha Depot Entrance – Milwaukee
Depot Entrance - Milwaukee
Amtrak Station, Milwaukee.

View from the Hiawatha
View from the Hiawatha
The route took us through fields of resplendent fall folliage, nature preserves, and farms. I took a bunch of photos, using the wrong lens7 and with various other camera settings fracked8, most did not turn out well. By the time I realized my errors, we were almost in Milwaukee. Oh well, next time.

Factory of Rex
Factory of Rex
“Factory of Rex” – sounds like a band name.Historic Third Ward, Milwaukee. Their first EP could be called, “King of Bitter”.

Wedding Party – North Water Street
Wedding Party - North Water Street
The dresses look a lot like these dresses (at least to my uneducated, and unmarried eye):

I was wearing a light coat, but they had bare backs, arms. Must sacrifice for fashion, presumedly. I wouldn’t know.

Wisconsin Cold Storage
Wisconsin Cold Storage
I think the other side of the river is called the Fifth Ward.

Historic Third Ward
Historic Third Ward
as it claims: nearly every building seemingly has a historic marker on it (Registered on the National Registry of Historic Places).

Menomonee River, South – Third Ward
Menomonee River, South - Third Ward
or whatever it is called. Slightly modified in Photoshop to warm the colors.

Menomonee River – Third Ward
Menomonee River - Third Ward
or whatever it is called.

Fred Vogel Building
Fred Vogel Building
yet another historical marker in the aptly-named Historic Third Ward, Milwaukee.

Fifth Ward – Milwaukee, with biker
Fifth Ward - Milwaukee, with biker
As a billionaire, there would be a lot of buildings I would purchase in Milwaukee. This was one, for some reason. I’d turn most into art collectives – cheap studio space for artsy-fartsy types, an under-served demographic, and hire management to figure out logistics.

Moderne Aire
Moderne Aire
a coffee house and/or bar, didn’t have time to stop and check. Fifth Ward, Milwaukee.

I Threw Up
I Threw Up
luckily, I did not.Street art, Historic Fifth Ward, Milwaukee.

a quickr pickr post

  1. which in retrospect was a little too close: we were galloping through Union Station as the announcements called out, “Train 333 leaving in 3 minutes!” “Train 333 departing in 1 minute!” “Train 333 departing in :30 seconds!” []
  2. 90 minutes down to something less. I doubt the top speed could be achieved the entire journey – there are too many road crossings and stations. I am no expert however. []
  3. myself included []
  4. to use the rapidly becoming cliché phrase []
  5. there are already electrical outlets, which was pleasantly pleasing, though I didn’t bring any electronic devices this time, next time I’d bring a portable DVD player []
  6. I’ve been three times to Madison, Wisconsin, and three times to Milwaukee []
  7. not fast enough []
  8. maybe mistakenly pressed some buttons while in my camera bag, or else I’m just an idiot []

4 thoughts on “Amtrak and Milwaukee

  1. Katherine says:

    Great piece. I haven’t taken Amtrak to Milwaukee yet but a friend there has taken it to Chicago a couple times recently and recommended it. It’s probably not an option while Megabus is so cheap (I purchased 5 well-in-advance round-trips to Mke for $20 TOTAL). I do like Madison, but for some reason Megabus rates there are high (nothing under $20 ever, it seems) so I don’t know when I’ll see it next.

    I really liked the Amtrak to Denver, my first Amtrak ever. I didn’t price sleeping cars and I don’t think I will! Coach was as low as $95 one way–I haven’t figured out how the price structure works, tickets seemed to fluctuate from $95-119, then jumped to $149. As someone who’s spent many nights sleeping on Greyhound this year, Amtrak coach was a huge step up.

    Photos–you found one of my favorite buildings there (the one you wish you could buy), but I don’t think I’d noticed Factory of Rex. Cool! And my first Mke trip this year, we encountered 5 or 6 wedding parties getting shots around the art museum…at least it was a warm day then.

  2. Rod Durden says:

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