ON THE VARSITY – Passenger rail service returned to Madison this weekend and offered a glimpse into what could have been — and what could be.

The more than four-hour excursion from Union Station in downtown Chicago to a parking lot on the south side of the Kohl Center in Madison was slow at times but overall smooth, comfortable and carrying passengers with a love of trains and disdain for big-city traffic.

Gideon Keating, 3, was one of the youngest on the trip. He had his face pressed against the window watching the Chicago suburbs whiz by as the Varsity, a two-engine, five-car train sped along the Metra tracks at 79 miles per hour.

“He loves trains. He’s obsessed with the trains,” said his mother, Christa Battaglia, 35, of Chicago. “And we like trains.”

Battaglia and her husband, Brendan Keating, 35, had been planning to visit friends in Madison. But when they heard about the Varsity, they ditched the idea of battling traffic and road construction in their car. They instead shelled out $100 each for round-trip tickets to ride coach.

Others who craved a more luxurious ride paid $200 each to sit in 1950s-era glass-domed train cars with tables covered in white linens, complimentary drinks and a meal of wild rice, chicken, pasta, salad and dessert.

By comparison, a round-trip bus ticket from Madison to Chicago is just north of $60 but doesn’t offer the space, ambiance, history or freedom from traffic jams.

“My only regret is that I didn’t wear a suit and tie,” said Richard Schierloh, 82, of Sun Prairie. He caught a bus early Friday to Chicago with his son, Peter, 42, to make the 2:30 p.m. train departure back to Madison. “It’s been wonderful. I only hope there are more trips like this.”

The excursion is part of a weekend of train travel between Madison and Chicago by Pullman Rail Journeys, which has been providing passenger rail service between Chicago and New Orleans for the past year. Earlier this year, the company also had trips from Chicago to Spring Green and another to Prairie du Chien.

Pullman is a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns freight and passenger railroads across the country. This winter the company, which uses Wisconsin & Southern Railroad track in Wisconsin, will board an estimated 200,000 people on nine Polar Express trains around the country, including one that will run from Middleton to Cross Plains.

This weekend’s service featured a train Friday from Chicago to Madison with about 70 passengers who were scheduled to return Sunday morning. On Saturday, the train took more than 130 people from Madison to Chicago.

Some attended the Badgers’ football game in Evanston, Illinois, against Northwestern University while others explored Chicago before the train was scheduled to return Saturday night.

This Saturday, a round-trip train will haul University of Illinois fans from Union Station to Madison for the Badgers’ football game at Camp Randall Stadium.

Regular passenger rail service for Madison ended in 1971.

“Being able to get on the train in Madison and just not worry about (traffic) and have something to eat and drink and look out the window is a pretty pleasant alternative,” said Ed Ellis, Iowa Pacific’s president. “People obviously picked up on that because we sold more tickets than we thought we were going to.”

Ellis was seated in the club car of the train Friday afternoon as it rolled toward Madison. The car, built in 1917 and converted to a parlor car in 1947, features a large dining table and lounge chairs in a semi-circle at the very rear that offered views of the track through a back glass door.

Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, was on board, too. He sees government spend billions of dollars on state and federal highway projects but little in comparison that would help passenger rail service expand.

Had Gov. Scott Walker not rejected $800 million from the federal government, Amtrak would be running between Madison and Milwaukee with train stations in downtown Madison and in Watertown, Harnish said.

“I’ve been very frustrated for many years,” Harnish said. “It’s really unfortunate.”

Among other things, for a Chicago-to-Madison route to occur on a regular and economic basis, tracks in Wisconsin would have to be improved to allow trains to go faster, Ellis said.

Most people on the train didn’t talk politics or money. Instead, they asked about the restaurants and attractions in Madison, took pictures and played cards. Most were staying Downtown and were ready to see the city.

Longtime friends Susan Czesak of Chicago and Mike Evans of Woodstock, Illinois, both 34, had a room at the Inn on the Park on the Capitol Square.

They sipped Jack Daniels and played gin rummy, which they couldn’t do if they had driven.

“We’re just passengers today,” said Evans, who spends three hours on a train during his daily commute. “I’d spend a little more if I could ride in something like this every day.”

The train crossed into Wisconsin at about 4:15 p.m., going around 30 mph. It slowed to 10 mph as it wound through Janesville but then picked up speed as it cruised through Milton, Edgerton, Stoughton and McFarland.

The two engines, built in 1950 for the Chicago & North Western, slowed as the train neared John Nolen Drive, crossed Monona Bay and then backed into its spot for the night just past the former Milwaukee Road depot on West Washington Avenue.

Eric Breese and his husband Mark Stolt reserved a room at the Fluno Center at UW-Madison while Chip Howard and his husband Doug Ferguson had reservations for two nights at the Arbor House, a bed and breakfast on Monroe Street. On the train, the 40-somethings commandeered a table with a view to the northeast and talked about restaurants they planned to try during their stay.

“If there was regular train service, we might come to Madison more often,” said Ferguson, an attorney.

Barb Zellmer, 60, of Madison, had taken a bus from Madison to Chicago last week to see Fleetwood Mac at the United Center with two girlfriends.

The retired Department of Natural Resources employee took the train back to Madison Friday but planned to return by train Sunday with her husband to explore the city for a few days before busing back home.

“This isn’t exactly high-speed, but it’s a train,” said Zellmer, who sat in a coach car converted from a 1948 sleeper car. “It’s not fancy, but it’s nice enough and comfortable. It just feels a lot more relaxing than a bus.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.