While a bit confusing there are currently two trains by the same name of Hiawatha which Amtrak operates; the Hiawatha itself is a regional run that connects the Twin Cities with Chicago while the Hiawatha Service is a commuter-like between Chicago and Milwaukee. The heritage of these trains dates back to the railroad which first inaugurated them in the 1930s, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific better known as the Milwaukee Road. The Milwaukee kicked off its new streamliner as the regional Twin Cities Hiawatha serving the same corridor as Amtrak does today. The train became so popular that it forced the railroad to split it into two different versions operating daily. Today, both of Amtrak's Hiawathas are one of its most popular services and it still sees several departures daily. There is hope for the trains to cruise at speeds, just as their predecessors once did but thus far this remains only a dream.
What today operates as Amtrak's Hiawathas began in 1935 with the aforementioned Twin Cities Hiawatha from the Milwaukee Road. A year earlier the streamliner craze had hit the railroad industry and the CMStP&P was hoping to cash in on the new fad itself. However, instead of purchasing new equipment the railroad built its own and named the train after the great leader of the Iroquois. For power the train featured a 4-4-2 Atlantic type steam locomotive that was streamlined and could operate at speeds well above 100 mph. This high speed of travel, alone, made the Hiawathas legendary, as were the railroad's "Reduce to 90" signs along the right-of-way. The trains could carry an average speed of 60 mph and make the run from Chicago to the Twin Cities in just seven hours covering an astounding 421 miles during the journey!
The train's livery was a beautiful two-tone orange, created by noted industrial designer Otto Kuhler. It was also Kuhler who designed the interior layout and colors of the train. Perhaps its most striking feature was the one-of-kind Beaver Tail parlor-observation car, quite radical for the time as nothing like it had ever been seen before (at the time the now-common round-ended observations were still quite new in appearance). In later years the Hiawathas were powered by 4-6-4 Hudsons and during the diesel era EMD E8s and E9s were typically used. As the regional service became more popular the Milwaukee Road broke up the operation as Morning Hiawathas and Afternoon Hiawathas to properly meet demand. During its heyday the trains incredibly featured Super Domes for maximum viewing as well as the vaunted Skytop observations where the back of the cars were a glass solarium.
Interestingly, when Amtrak began on May 1, 1971 it retained the Hiawatha name for use as the Milwaukee's old transcontinental train although it was renamed as the North Coast Hiawatha and rerouted over the Burlington Northern out west to Seattle. A year later it revived the original regional train, although truncated to only Chicago and Milwaukee, and known as the Hiawatha Service. Additionally, it inaugurated the Hiawatha at the same time for through service to the Twin Cities just like the original. This setup remained until 1979 when the long distance North Coast Hiawatha was dropped in favor of the Empire Builder, which left the two regional trains. It still remains this way today although the carrier has been able to improve the trains since their early years.
The Hiawatha Service did have a brief respite between 1976 and 1989 when Amtrak dropped the name in favor of its new French-built Turboliner trainsets that were used instead. However, these were transferred to a different region allowing the original name to return on the October 29, 1989 timetable. Today, because the corridor is only 86 miles in length travel time is only about 1.5 hours with seven round trips made everyday except Sunday (with just six trips). Train numbers dispatched over the line include 329 through 342. In addition, passengers can take through bus connections to several nearby cities such as Green Bay, Oshkosh, Marquette, and Wausau. Being such a short route, trains operate with about a half-dozen Horizon Fleet and Amfleet coaches (combined), which include either standard coach or business class accommodations.
However, upgrades to the line are very close to being completed. In 2009 the state of Wisconsin purchased two Spanish-built Talgo trainsets, which now has a plant located in Milwaukee. This 14-car consists will operate in push-pull service, have Wi-Fi ability, a bistro/cafe car, and carry tilting technology which will allow the trains to operate at speeds over 100 mph once the high speed upgrades are applied to the route. As of February, 2012 the trainsets were nearing completion and should be in operation before the end of the year. If you may be interested in riding these trains or would simply like to learn more about them please click here to visit Amtrak's official Hiawatha Service website. You can also check out Amtrak's official website to read even more about the trains and what they offer.