PORTAGE, Wis. — At the Amtrak station in Portage, about 35 miles north of Madison, the Empire Builder rolls through town twice a day.

What You Need To Know

  • Amtrak service between Chicago and Minneapolis is soon set to double. 

  • Train stops take place in Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, and La Crosse. 

  • Service could begin as early as late 2023.

  • Smaller cities hope it will contribute to the economy. 

One train is bound for Seattle, the other for Chicago. On a warm afternoon, the train stops in town en route to Chicago as a half dozen or so passengers hop aboard.

It is a scene that has played out for decades. However, things could soon change.

Amtrak Spokesman Marc Magliari said increased service between Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul could begin as early as later this year.

Right now, Amtrak’s Empire Builder has one departure in each direction daily. Soon, a second daily train is expected to be added.

In addition to Milwaukee, the train would make intermediate stops in other Wisconsin cities currently served by the Empire Builder, including Portage, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse.

Magliari said any time train frequency is increased, it usually bodes well for total ridership, as the chance of a train fitting a passenger’s schedule increases.

“The more opportunities people have to ride, the more the train matches the schedule to meet their need, rather than match their schedule to the trains, the better we are connecting all across the middle of Wisconsin,” said Magliari.

The prospect of increased service is exciting for many in cities along the route. In Portage, local business already see more visitors in the city because of the train service.

With increased departures, they said they hope it will draw even more people to town.

Sharon Wade owns Beautifully Blemished, a store downtown where she restores vintage furniture.

Wade said in just the last few days, she had a group from Illinois come to the store because they were getting ready to board the Empire Builder.

Wade said she hopes the increased service will make an impact.

“As downtown business owners, we have been working really hard at creating some additional events like that to bring people in. So this part of the Amtrak is going to be really exciting to have additional people coming in as well,” said Wade.

Steven Sobiek is the director of business development and planning for the city of Portage. He said he is very excited about the growth of the Amtrak service.

Sobiek said right now about 8,000 people a year use the Portage Amtrak station, something he expects to see grow.

“By doubling the number of trains per day from one to two, that is going to really be a game-changer,” said Sobiek. “You have the potential of doubling that 8,000 per person figure to bring more people into the I-39 corridor.”

Sobiek said being an Amtrak-served community can be a big selling point for attracting new residents to the area, and even bigger for companies looking to expand into Portage or other parts of Columbia County.

An exact date for when the increased service will begin has not been set. An official name for the new train has not been decided, but Magliari said it will likely be called the Great River Service.