Second Train to Chicago: Still Running Late

Last Thursday, after a delay of almost 2½ years, the Amtrak study for adding a second daily train between the Chicago and the Twin Cities was finally released. The agreement to begin the supposed nine-month study was signed back on May 3, 2012, and it finally arrived on July 2, 2015, thirty-eight months later. Cue your Amtrak jokes now.

The delay is bad. Even worse is the fact that this is just a feasibility study without any actionable output—just more data to put into another phase of study later on. The level of detail is pretty bare-bones, and fails to put this improvement in the context of any other projects in Minnesota’s state rail plan (Wisconsin doesn’t even have a rail plan, largely because of Governor Scott Walker). And of course, there’s no funding in place to do anything more at this point, so we’ll continue along the course of twiddling thumbs and wasting time.

I grew even more confused on Thursday and Friday as I saw news reports pop up that were literally pulling a little data from column “A”, a little from column “B”, and yet more from column “C”. The reports were based on the press release, which was based on the executive summary, which was based on the study itself, but apparently only a version that had been tossed in a blender first.

None of these documents alone are enough to understand what’s going on. The press release got Bob Collins confused. The study itself got me confused. You probably need to look at all three, and this is for a study that is relatively basic—something that should be routine and unremarkable.

The study conclusions, or rather, the conclusions put into the executive summary because the study itself drew no real conclusions, are themselves unremarkable and obvious, perhaps looking a bit preordained. Yes, adding a second train is a good idea. Yes, it would increase ridership along the corridor, and more than double it, actually. Yes, ending it in St. Paul is the cheapest, simplest option.

Is that the best option? Yes. Well, maybe. Um, er, just wait for the next phase of study when we actually bother to do benefit-cost analysis.

Kitten faceplanted into a cushion

Current status: Faceplant (source)

There is some helpful information coming out of the study from computer modeling of train ridership, operating costs, and getting an idea of the upgrades needed along the route to support the extra. It’s embarrassing that it took so long for the information to be generated, though.

The study looks at four main scenarios, all based on the Empire Builder‘s current travel corridor, but with the western endpoint somewhere in the Twin Cities or St. Cloud area rather than all the way out in Seattle and Portland. The options are:

  • Scenario 1: Run from Chicago to St. Cloud, with stops at St. Paul Union Depot and Target Field station in Minneapolis.
  • Scenario 2: Run from Chicago to St. Cloud, with stops at St. Paul Union Depot and Fridley’s Northstar station (bypassing Minneapolis).
  • Scenario 3: Run from Chicago to Minneapolis, still including a stop at St. Paul Union Depot.
  • Scenario 4: Run from Chicago and terminate at St. Paul Union Depot.
Route map extending from St. Cloud through the Twin Cities to Chicago

Pay no attention to the orange line. Or the black line. Or Sturtevant.

Obviously, “Scenario 4” is the cheapest to implement, since it’s the shortest route. It’s the one recommended in the executive summary, although that’s a short-sighted conclusion, if you ask me.

Each scenario was evaluated with three different alternatives based on different departure times from St. Paul, given the letters A, B, and C. These have a decreasing order of implementation cost—schedule “A” encounters the most rail traffic congestion and needs the largest number of improvements, while schedule “C” is least congested and therefore the cheapest.

Ridership is apparently the reverse, although only schedules “A” and “B” were evaluated in detail. Schedule “C” is assumed to have the same ridership and operating costs as “B”, which may or may not be a valid idea. You’ll only find schedules “A” and “B” in the study report itself. “C” is mentioned in passing, but you need to look at the executive summary to see it listed.

The executive summary (and the press release that was derived from it) quoted the capital cost ($95 million) from Scenario 4C, annual ridership (155,000) from Scenario 4B, and an annual operating subsidy ($6.6 million) that matches Scenario 4A.

Okay, I kind of get the first two, but what’s the deal with that subsidy number? For an era where we are obsessed with cost subsidies, why didn’t the study partners tout Scenario 3B/3C, which would extend to Minneapolis, pull in 22,000 additional passengers, and therefore only need $4.5 million in extra support annually?

The price tag is higher for building service to Minneapolis or beyond, of course. Here are the estimated capital costs and ridership estimates for each scenario’s “C” alternative (using “B” ridership figures, of course):

  • Scenario 1C: $210 million, 185,100 annual passengers
  • Scenario 2C: $194 million, 180,300 annual passengers
  • Scenario 3C: $114 million, 177,600 annual passengers
  • Scenario 4C: $95 million, 155,500 annual passengers

Scenarios 1 through 3 all have lower operating subsidies than scenario 4 because of those extra riders, but the higher construction cost is a big barrier. The cost per passenger is lowest for scenario 3, but only modestly lower for the numbers above ($904 vs. $910).

A construction scene showing land being graded in preparation for adding a second track

Planned and in-progress projects like this addition of a $63 million second main track from Big Lake to Becker make the study’s cost estimates out-of-date already.

However, the cost savings grows if you include the added cost of new rolling stock (add $46 million to all scenarios), and remove the cost for improvements already planned for the route to Minneapolis (subtract $8 million from scenarios 1 and 3). It’s possible to subtract a large chunk of cost from scenarios 1 and 2 to St. Cloud too, since BNSF Railway already has a $63 million project underway to add a second track in a gap that exists on their line between Big Lake and Becker.

The cost of extending the train to Minneapolis, at least in terms of the basic rail infrastructure, could be paid back in less than 10 years due to reduced operating losses. Admittedly, the feasibility study only considered the tracks and platforms, and ignored things like a new waiting area, but that could/should be carved off into a separate project, especially considering how it would be shared with the Northern Lights Express to Duluth, an eventual extension of Northstar to St. Cloud, a second daily train to Fargo, and other projects that have been on the drawing board for years already.

Southeast of the Twin Cities, Canadian Pacific Railway also has improvements planned, including a third main track near the Amtrak station in La Crosse. It’s not clear whether that’s included in the current figures or not, as the study only gave a singular high-level cost estimate for the whole distance between St. Paul and Milwaukee—a big amorphous blob of millions of dollars with zero detail given.

Great. Thanks.

The fact remains that adding a second train between the Twin Cities and Chicago is a good idea and has been for a long time. Over the long term, the per-passenger cost (including capital and annual subsidy) is comparable to or less than the price to fly the route, and the train connects eleven cities rather than just two.

This is the type of improvement that should take less than a month to decide on and less than a year to implement. It doesn’t take an airline three years to choose whether or not to add one more flight on a route that’s already in service. It doesn’t take a freight rail company three years to decide whether to run another oil train from a productive area. But somehow, adding one daily round-trip between the Midwest’s two most prosperous metro areas has already taken at least that long and is probably on track to take at least that long again.

Perhaps what this report needs is to be fed through an anger translator. A second train should be started tomorrow. Another train should be added after that. And another after that. Other places should be connected too, but they might take a little while. How about we give it nine more months?


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15 Responses to Second Train to Chicago: Still Running Late

  1. Matthias Leyrer
    Matthias Leyrer July 6, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    I woke up this morning and said “today is the day Mike releases his article on the second Amtrak train, it will be a good day”

    You delivered. Great read.

  2. Matt Steele July 6, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    Great article. It’s ridiculous how long this is taking. Everyone knows this is needed. We may not know the specific subsidy level, or specific details. But at some point it is more efficient to try-and-measure rather than to guess-and-predict. I’m sure there’s extra Amtrak rolling stock to be found somewhere — start it with heritage equipment for all we care. But get it going!

    Imagine if we spent this much time analyzing $100 million in road improvements in the St. Cloud to Chicago corridor… That wouldn’t buy a thing.

  3. Nathanael July 7, 2015 at 6:41 am #

    Thank you for this.

    The train should have been running the day Union Depot reopened.

  4. Ken Avidor
    Ken Avidor July 7, 2015 at 7:27 am #

    Good article.

  5. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig July 7, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    Why just stop in the Metro or St. Cloud? I’ve heard rumors that North Dakota would like a second train to at least Fargo, if not Williston, due to their oil boom.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele July 7, 2015 at 9:20 am #

      Part of the appeal is that an eastbound train originating in STC or MSP would deal with the delay issues. I refuse to take the Empire Builder again until this is fixed. Originating the train in MN would ensure eastbound reliability, and reliability has a significant impact on ridership.

    • Mike Hicks July 8, 2015 at 8:00 am #

      There is a line to Fargo in the Minnesota state rail plan, so it should happen eventually. I’ve been surprised to see how much air travel there is to Fargo, so that should be a pretty popular service once it finally happens.

      If it was an extension of this service, the train would have to leave Fargo pretty early and arrive there pretty late at night, though the schedule would be considerably better than the current Empire Builder timing.

      I’m sure capital cost worries factored in too, since the price to fix the gaps of single-tracking between the Twin Cities and Fargo would be pretty significant. But just like that gap between Big Lake and Becker, BNSF is already filling them in, and the line should be completely double-tracked by the end of 2016.

      I’d never thought of continuing on to Williston — that might be a good idea, though I think the area with the worst rail congestion around Williston and Minot, so there is a strong possibility of trains getting delayed as things stand today (hopefully things will be better once the major rail upgrades are completed). A Williston train could also improve prospects for a route to Winnipeg, which would have to branch off at Grand Forks.

  6. Joe D July 7, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but what is so wrong with the train ending at Union Depot in St Paul? We have this fancy new LRT line that connects St Paul to Minneapolis. Travel time can’t be much more transferring to the LRT instead of continuing on an AMTRAK train…

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele July 7, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      It’s great that it could serve an existing suburban station, but it should also serve a station in Minneapolis.

      • Daniel Herriges July 8, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

        “Suburban”? Union Depot? You need to get across the river more, man… St. Paul is neither a suburb nor any more suburban in its development pattern than Minneapolis is. It’d be ideal to also serve a Minneapolis station, sure, to be convenient to that many mote people. But Lowertown is walkable and increasingly lively… hardly an unacceptable place for a regional rail hub.

  7. Matt Brillhart July 7, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    At only $19MM to extend from Union Depot to Minneapolis/Target Field, that seems like a no brainer (if I’m reading the numbers correctly). As for the projection of 22,000 additional annual passengers over stopping only at Union Depot…maybe? I’m guessing a fair number of theoretical riders would be shifting from Megabus or Greyhound. Some might shift from driving if they live within walking distance or a short cab/bus ride of TFS.

    In the scope of federal transportation projects, $19MM is approximately zero dollars, and is therefore very hard to oppose. However, the Green Line runs every ten minutes from those exact endpoints, taking 45 minutes end to end. The Amtrak train would beat that by what, 15 minutes under a perfect operating scenario? No real mobility gain there.

    The real reason I’d oppose extending it to Target Field Station is that it would add confusion to the Amtrak schedule, as (presumably) the existing daily Empire Builder train would *not* add a stop in Minneapolis, continuing to stop only at Union Depot. Assuming that, why unnecessarily complicate the schedule, especially when the Green Line is RIGHT THERE. Save the $19MM (for now anyways) and add those extra riders to the Green Line’s farebox recovery and ridership numbers (presumably more than 10k and less than 20k additional annual Green Line rides).

    • Mike Hicks July 8, 2015 at 8:04 am #

      Yeah, though 22k riders is a tiny blip for the Green Line and would barely nudge its financial performance. By extending this train, the projection is that it would boost farebox recovery from 55% to 66% and save more than $1 million in annual operating losses.

      You might be right that people would be happy to take the Green Line, but for every person who doesn’t, the Chicago train wouldn’t just be losing the $2 it takes to carry a passenger between the downtowns, it could potentially be losing the $60+ that passengers would pay to go from Minneapolis to Chicago.

  8. Archiapolis July 7, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Wait…people still take that slow Amtrak train that stops in every podunk town between here and Chicago?! They don’t *really* call it “Empire Builder” do they?! I assume people only call this “Empire Builder” as an ironic joke about Amtrak/slow rail then correct? Thanks for protecting the tax interests of the rich Governor Walker, it sure would suck to be able to take high speed rail between here and Chicago!

    • Peter Bajurny July 7, 2015 at 1:35 pm #

      Your snark dial may be stuck on 11 😉

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