“Derailed,” a new podcast from Wisconsin Public Radio, opens with what most people remember about a plan to build a high-speed-rail line between Madison and Milwaukee: Its swift demise. Shortly after his election to office in 2010, Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funding for the project, stalling a vision to connect Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago with a sophisticated rail network.
But as the hosts of “Derailed” will tell you, there’s a lot more to the story than Walker’s controversial decision to reject the money.
“I think that when people remember this story, they remember the ending,” said Bridgit Bowden, WPR special projects reporter and co-host of the show. “But going all the way back to the beginning has been really interesting.”
Bowden, along with fellow co-host and WPR Capitol Bureau chief Shawn Johnson, dive deep into the story of Wisconsin high-speed rail on “Derailed,” a limited-run podcast that will release its first episode on Wednesday.
The two say they decided to launch the project looking into high-speed rail since, as Bowden puts it in the first episode, it’s obvious that the topic still “makes people’s blood boil.” Across the show’s beat-by-beat retelling of the story — from how former Gov. Tommy Thompson championed a modernized transit system for the state starting in the 1990s, through Gov. Jim Doyle’s push for funding for a Madison-Milwaukee line in 2009, through the emergence of fierce Republican opposition to the plan — the two reporters said they wanted to suss out why the project continues to stir up a lot of emotion among Wisconsinites.
“What we found as we reported on it is, it still gets people talking. People still have strong opinions on this,” Johnson said. “So we just wanted to explore why.”
Bowden said that the decision to make a limited-run, documentary-style podcast had been a long time in the works, in part because of how perfectly the format suited her job, which focuses on in-depth, journalistic reporting. She also noted that the format is growing in popularity. Recent limited-run hits from journalistic outlets include “Believed” from NPR, to “Bear Brook” from New Hampshire Public Radio, and “Caliphate” from the New York Times.
For Johnson, the project has also been an opportunity to revisit a story that he had reported on as a Capitol reporter for WPR in 2010.
“It’s given me a chance to see what was going on beneath the surface when this was happening,” Johnson said.
As the two worked on the story, listening to archival materials and conducting interviews with the likes of former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Gov. Tommy Thompson, Johnson said he was struck by how much he didn’t remember about how high-speed rail became an emergent topic for Wisconsin in 2010. For example, he said he was surprised to find out that Thompson was a passionate advocate for connecting the region with a high-speed rail network.
The pilot episode, called “Tommy’s Train,” features clips of Thompson delivering speeches on the promise of high-speed rail. At one point, the governor cracks jokes about how easy it would be to watch the Green Bay Packers trounce the Chicago Bears by hopping on a train to Soldier Field.
“It’s something that I didn’t realize. Tommy Thompson was all in on this train,” Johnson said.
Through their interviews with Thompson, the two found out that that passion stemmed from a childhood spent around trains in Elroy, Wisconsin.
“It takes me back to my boyhood,” Thompson says on the podcast. “My boyhood of hopping freights – just like a hobo.”
The two also said they were struck by how the story touches on shifting political dynamics in the state. When Gov. Tommy Thompson touted high-speed rail, he said he didn’t get any pushback from GOP colleagues. And even after President Barack Obama carved out the funding for the Madison-Milwaukee line in the 2009 stimulus bill, said Johnson, there wasn’t a major pushback against the plan.
The gubernatorial campaign of Scott Walker changed that. The governor, along with conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, railed against the plan as an example of government spending gone too far, and of the unfair privileging of Madison and Milwaukee over the rest of the state.
“This transforms from an issue that Republicans maybe have reservations about, to an issue that they could never support,” Johnson said.
Bowden added that it’s fascinating to contrast the rhetoric over high-speed rail starting in 2010, to the way it was talked about 20 years ago.
“It’s so interesting to me. Tommy Thompson was a big-time Republican. It’s interesting to look back just 20 years ago, and we have a prominent Republican governor pushing passenger rail,” she said.
In the meanwhile, Johnson and Bowden are still in the thick of their work on the project. Still on their wish list: an interview with Gov. Scott Walker. “That’s the one we’re still holding out hope for,” said Johnson.
Johnson and Bowden said to expect new episodes to publish every Wednesday, starting Oct. 9. The show is available on Apple Podcasts, along with all other major podcast platforms.