With federal funding ready for a new high speed railway across Wisconsin, the next decade may see trains whizz between Madison and Milwaukee at top speeds of 110 mph. The rail plans are a matter of some debate today, but high speed trains were once taken for granted in Wisconsin. The new railroad, in fact, won’t even be that fast compared to the current leaders. State-of-the-art electric trains in China and France maintain average speeds from station to station as high as 175 to 190 mph, and can reach peak speeds over 200 mph. Wisconsin was not always so far behind.
From the 1930s to the 1950s — the golden age of the “streamliner” — railroad tracks in Wisconsin carried some of the world’s fastest regularly scheduled trains. Two companies, the Milwaukee Road (officially the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) and the Burlington Route (officially the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad), competed to race passengers between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
The Milwaukee Road was the first to reach record speeds. Its “Twin Cities Hiawatha” started north from Chicago through Milwaukee to Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, Winona, and at last Minneapolis-St. Paul. Introduced in 1935, the Hiawatha was a lightweight train powered by some of the fastest steam engines ever built. The Milwaukee Road class A locomotive could reach top speeds over 110 mph, and its 1939 successor, the class F7, could go as fast as 125 mph. This allowed the Milwaukee Road to maintain a regular station-to-station schedule of 58 minutes from Portage to Sparta, Wisconsin, a 78.3 mile stretch. That required a sustained average speed of 81 mph, meaning that the Hiawatha ran the fastest station-to-station rail trip anywhere on earth at the time. No steam engine ever surpassed the Hiawatha’s station-to-station records.1
The Burlington Route could exceed the Milwaukee Road’s record only with more advanced technology: combination diesel-electric locomotives cased in stainless steel. Burlington’s “Twin Cities Zephyr” sped west from Chicago across Illinois and turned north to follow the Mississippi River after East Dubuque, passing through Prairie du Chien, La Crosse, and Pepin before arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Like the Hiawatha, the Zephyr entered service in 1935. In the 1940s and 1950s, refinements in the route allowed it to overtake the Hiawatha’s regular station-to-station record along the smooth, level tracks in the Mississippi River Valley. The Zephyr required an average speed of 84.4 mph to keep its schedule between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The stretch from East Dubuque to Prairie du Chien was nearly as fast, averaging 84.0 mph. The Zephyr’s station-to-station average speeds through Western Wisconsin were the fastest in the world until 1957.2
- Scribbins, Jim. The Hiawatha Story. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. (originally published Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing Co., 1970). p 84.
- Scribbins, Jim. p 181.