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Slow going for Minnesota fast rail

More than 2 million people a year board flights between the Twin Cities and Chicago, making that air corridor the busiest in the Midwest. Not coincidentally, Minneapolis-St. Paul is on track to surpass Detroit — it probably already has done so — as the region’s second largest metropolitan economy.

In 2001, Detroit’s metro economic output was $183 billion, compared with our $142 billion. By 2008, the most recent year for which figures from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis are available, the gap had been closed to $200 billion for Detroit, $193 billion for the Twin Cities. Auto-industry bankruptcies practically assure that Minneapolis-St. Paul will be No. 2 in the Midwest behind only Chicago when 2009 statistics come out.

All of our air travel to the region’s economic hub on Lake Michigan both reflects the Twin Cities’ surge and is a major contributor to it. But there might be a better way of connecting Minnesotans to the Windy City, a way that’s more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and so devoid of airport and parking hassles that it’s preferred over airline travel by four out of five people who have tried it.

We’re talking fast, frequent, modern intercity passenger trains, a staple in much of the developed world but absent from Minnesota for the past 40 years. Sure, there’s an Amtrak train to Chicago now, but a one-way ticket will cost you as much as some round trips by air and deliver you more than 8 hours later, longer than it takes to drive. And there’s just one train a day, the 7:50 a.m. out of St. Paul.

Long-time dream; new obstacles loom
Improvements — six round trips a day, a 2-1/2-hour drop in travel time, state-of-the-art rolling stock — may be on the way, thanks to Washington’s renewed focus on passenger rail. But this has been a dream of Minnesota leaders across the political spectrum for more than a decade with little progress made, and new obstacles are looming.

Conservative office-seekers in Wisconsin are vowing to send back an $810 million federal grant to build fast rail from Milwaukee to Madison, a link that’s indispensable for Minnesota’s connection to Chicago. Never mind that 100 times more travelers choose existing slow rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago than go by air.

Meanwhile, some railroads (none in Minnesota so far) are resisting money-making deals to put fast passenger trains on their right of way. They fear that increased passenger service would clog the tracks and cut into their even more lucrative freight business.

Notwithstanding Rochester’s lobbying for a new rail link to the Twin Cities, existing tracks through either La Crosse or Eau Claire in western Wisconsin represent Minnesota’s best hope for 21st century passenger rail service in most of our lifetimes. Those routes would limit train speeds to 110 miles per hour, up from a maximum of 79 m.p.h. now, but the brand-new right of way needed to go even faster faces steep costs and NIMBY political obstruction. If you don’t believe it, look no further than the dueling controversies in Rochester itself over more and longer coal trains through the city and the equally unpopular alternative of new tracks around it.

A rail-oriented federal government
To be sure, even retrofitting railroads for fast passenger service could cost hundreds of millions of dollars for the Minnesota portion of the route alone. The good news is that a newly rail-oriented federal government is stepping up to shoulder most of the load. And it’s not as if continuing to do nothing will mean that money won’t be spent on other, already overcrowded transportation modes.

A new report [PDF] from the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund projects that a fully developed eight-state Midwest fast passenger rail system would create 57,000 permanent jobs in addition to 15,200 jobs building it out over 10 years. Total economic benefits are projected at $23 billion, half again more than the full system cost. By 2020 the trains would reduce car trips by 5.1 million and plane trips by 1.3 million each year. This means significant cuts in fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, plus big gains in comfort, convenience and wireless productivity for the travelers.

Yes, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing for four decades, but it won’t be cost-free. The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to spend $15 billion on trunk highways over the next two decades, still falling $50 billion short of what it needs to meet its goals for congestion-busting, safety and pavement quality. A 20-year expansion plan for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where 8 percent of the passengers are headed to Chicago, is estimated to cost up to $2.4 billion.

Numbers like that make investments in fast intercity rail look cheap. Minnesota has a comprehensive rail plan to re-establish passenger service to most of its regional centers over 20 years, with good access for 85 percent of the state’s residents. But the full success of the plan depends first and foremost on getting the trains running to Minnesota’s No. 1 destination — Chicago.

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 10/01/2010 - 08:11 am.

    Aside from issues that others will bring up, here is the practical problem with rail service:

    Right now, as I am looking at the Southwest Airlines website, if I needed to make a one-day trip to Chicago on Monday, October 4, I can do a round trip for a total of $161.40. Arrive at Midway at 10:15 am and depart from Midway at 7:50 pm and be back in Minneapolis around 9:30 pm. Long day? Sure, but I can do the trip in one day.

    Now, let’s look at Amtrak. Leave here on Monday at 7:50 am, arrive in Chicago at 3:55 pm. I’d have to stay overnight. Add $200 (ballpark) for a modest room in the Loop. Get up, do work and then depart for MSP at 2:15 pm on Tuesday and arrive at the Midway station at 10:30 pm on Tuesday. Round trip ticket cost? $134.00–$27 less than Southwest, but add $200 plus food for trying to do Amtrak.

    It’s going to take a dedicated MSP to CHI route with multiple departures to even try to compete with the airlines. Airlines have more flexibility to add and subtract flights as demand changes. Or change the size of the aircraft to accommodate changes in demand.

    Is rail a good idea? Sure. When I travel to the east coast for work, I always rely on rail service to get to and from my destinations whenever and wherever possible. But I will not see a high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul in my lifetime. That’s reality.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 08:28 am.

    Finally, one of the posters asks who would take the train instead of aircraft?

    Well, compare:

    Up to 8 hours on a train, in a comfortable seat, with lots of room, where you can get up and move around easily, where there is plenty of room to work; leave from downtown, and arrive downtown; arrive rested and happy.

    Three hours getting to the airport, going through security, waiting to board, and boarding;
    sitting on the tarmac cooped up with your knees jammed against your elbows in a narrow, uncomfortable seat, in a claustrophobia-inducing tube for 45 minutes waiting to take off;
    spend 45 minutes actually flying;
    spend another hour getting through the airport and into town; and
    arrive tired and irritated.

    It might take longer by train, but it is far more comfortable, it is far easier to work productively, and you don’t have to put up with security nonsense.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 10/01/2010 - 10:10 am.

    I’m not disputing that there are people who would take the train. I know people who have traveled to the same meetings I have had to attend and they have chosen Amtrak. They added a day on either side of their itinerary to accommodate it. It was their choice and they could do it. I could not.

    A handful of Amtrak trains in the Northeast corridor have onboard wireless internet access. Unless you have your own mobile wireless internet service through Verizon, AT&T, etc., you aren’t going to be have internet access on the current Empire Builder.

    If I could do a one day round trip in those instances where I only have to be in Chicago for a short period of time during the normal business day and then return to Minneapolis/St. Paul on the same day (even late), I’d consider doing it.

    You cannot do it on Amtrak. Not now, anyway.

    I’m not going to argue about the quality of the seating in coach on a commercial airline, but the rest of the timelines presented are worst-case scenarios in my experience flying between MSP and MDW.

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 11:20 am.

    I agree John. Time constraints will be the deciding factor when choosing a means of conveyance. Now that SWA has a foothold into ATL, travel there will undoubtedly will be more affordable as SWA has done so to MDW.

    SWA and JetBlue are my two favorite domestic carriers and for good reason. They have brought the cost of air travel down for the traveling public.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 10/03/2010 - 09:07 am.

    “It might take longer by train, but it is far more comfortable, it is far easier to work productively, and you don’t have to put up with security nonsense.”

    Right on, Richard. And when fast rail service went on from Paris to Brussels, Air France simply quit its service.
    Even though it is slow and erratic, I have used the Empire Builder several times in recent years.

  6. Submitted by John Olson on 10/04/2010 - 07:02 am.

    For what it is worth, it would be interesting to see if a rekindled “Hiawatha” could be viable again between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul on existing right-of-way.

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/04/2010 - 01:16 pm.

    If we used Japan’s Shinkansen technology, high speed rail could take us between Chicago and the Twin Cities in about 3.5 hours, central city to central city.

    The Japanese use dedicated tracks and all-electric trains, but they finished their first line 46 years ago and continue to build new ones.

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