High Speed Rail to Rochester Moves Forward at Slow Speed

After decades of studies, high speed rail connecting the Twin Cities with Rochester continues to inch forward. Last June, Mike Hicks wrote a solid background piece on ZipRail ahead of the first Environmental Impact Statement public meetings. In it, he recalls going to a public meeting for an older Minneapolis-Rochester-Chicago study public meeting back in 1991.

Promotional rendering of ZipRail

Promotional rendering of ZipRail

Despite continued plodding and progress on the ZipRail planning front, the bonding proposal which emerged from conference committee last week does not include $15 million to finish this EIS process. It’s the same $15 million that was sought and denied two years ago. But an update from the study team to the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority earlier this month lends some clues on where this project is headed despite additional funding from the legislature.

High Speed Rail to Rochester would be a mobility game changer for our region. It would add value to public investments in good transit and walkable places on both ends. It would also set the stage for future expansion of true high speed rail onward to La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Intermediate plans would have 110 MPH “medium speed” rail from Minneapolis to Chicago along the current Empire Builder route, bypassing Rochester. But if true high speed rail is going to come to our city, those of us on the Minneapolis end need to advocate for it – for the line to move forward in general, and for the line to serve existing urban terminals specifically.

High Speed Rail would benefit the Twin Cities

St. Paul Union Depot

St. Paul Union Depot

ZipRail as studied right now would connect St. Paul with Rochester, a distance of about 75 miles on US Highway 52. Delta currently offers five flights per day connecting MSP and Rochester International Airport, mostly serving passengers connecting from other cities to Rochester via our airport. There are also private shuttles which carry Rochester travelers to MSP Airport, and there are commuter buses that carry Twin Cities residents to jobs in Downtown Rochester.

This investment would also pave the way for future high speed service to Chicago and beyond. Previous Midwest HSR studies have suggested the “river route” for 110-MPH service (basically a faster and more frequent Empire Builder) or an Eau Claire route for faster service down the road. But building new 220-MPH rail service from Minneapolis to Rochester would likely anchor future service to Chicago once we go truly high speed, resulting in greater benefits for both cities once onward connections are built.

Having an eye towards this future connectivity is critical if we’re serious about mitigating environmental impacts of MSP Airport. By my count there are 142 commercial airline flights today between Minneapolis and Rochester, La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. And 96 flights between Chicago and Minneapolis alone, averaging one flight at MSP arriving from or leaving to Chicago every 10 minutes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Let’s look to Europe for a comparison: Back in 2007, Madrid to Barcelona was the world’s busiest air route by passenger traffic, with 139 flights per day between the two cities (45% more than MSP-CHI) to cover a distance of 386 miles (11% less than the 434 mile distance MSP-CHI by way of Rochester). Two years later, after the opening of the AVE high speed rail line between the two cities, roughly half of the passengers between the two cities are arriving in 2.5 hours on a high speed train.

Rochester might see the primary gains from an initial line that ends there, but the Minneapolis region gains from leveraging this investment to connect onwards to Chicago down the line. Minneapolis would win due to lowered demand for air service in the corridor, thus mitigating environmental harms of our urban airport. And our city would also win in the long run because high speed rail stimulates demand for travel similar to how low-fare airlines actually create their own market segment. With more travel to and from Chicago and other Midwestern cities, we will be less of an economic island here in the Upper Midwest. The ZipRail proposal is critical in setting the stage for a complete network.

High Speed Rail should serve city centers before airports

I attended a public meeting for ZipRail about a year ago, and at that time the “universe of alternatives” for the route had dozens of possibilities. This has now been narrowed down to two choices for two segments of the line.


ZipRail alignments under consideration

The first choice is whether the majority of the route should be built along US Highway 52, or if it should be built along the abandoned Chicago Great Western railroad between Coates and Dodge Center before heading east into Rochester. This seems to be more of a technical decision, but I’m curious to hear if someone has a preference.

The second choice pertains to how the line would approach our city, and this is a critical decision that will be made relatively earlier in the process. This has the potential to do to ZipRail what the route decision did to Southwest LRT, costing a significant chunk of money and popular support later along the process. The line would either end at MSP Airport or at St. Paul Union Depot.

ZipRail, like all future regional/intercity rail lines, needs to connect to our urban cores. We’ve invested in our urban facilities: The $243 million renovation of Union Depot in St. Paul restored a masterpiece, and the $82 million Target Field Station just opened this past weekend. It would be irresponsible to build a third regional rail station at the airport. More importantly, a primary benefit of intercity rail is that it serves city centers – walkable, transit-connected places. Our downtowns fit that bill.

Some say an airport station makes sense to facilitate rail to airplane connections. But service to airports should be considered supplementary, not a primary purpose of intercity rail travel. Such connections can work well: Newark and Baltimore have airport stations on the Northeast Corridor, or Charles de Gaulle Airport has a station on the French TGV. The German ICE connects passengers to Lufthansa flights at Frankfurt Airport. But these all supplement primary service to city centers which existed first and still serve the vast majority of users. Can we imagine the Northeast Corridor ignoring Manhattan’s Penn Station because there’s a station out at the airport? Or the TGV lines ending at the Paris airport rather than ending at four of the city’s urban rail stations? It is critical that intercity rail goes to our city.

In general, it makes sense for rail to approach either St. Paul or Minneapolis depending on how easy the approach is. Rail to Rochester or Chicago makes sense to connect at St. Paul Union Depot. The proposed Northern Lights Express to Duluth would logically terminate in Minneapolis since it would use BNSF tracks which approach Minneapolis via Coon Rapids. Passengers can then use transit such as the Green Line or the 94 bus to reach their destination if they are heading to the other downtown. But in the long term, it would be smart for us to “through-route” all heavy rail trains (commuter rail such as Northstar, regional rail to places like Duluth or Mankato, and high speed rail to Rochester and beyond) via both St. Paul and Minneapolis. I have some technical details for how we can make that a reality, but I’ll save those for the transportation forum over at UrbanMSP.

Getting from here to there

Will Rogers once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Those of us who are transportation and land use advocates in Minneapolis need to join with advocates in Rochester to make this project move forward. First, it’s critical we move forward on the right track, which is a line to St. Paul (and someday Minneapolis) rather than the MSP airport. Second, we need to actively push for this line at critical moments – such as upcoming legislative sessions – to make this a reality.

We can’t just sit here in our current framework of car- and airplane-dominant intercity transportation options. The rest of the world is passing us by with a travel mode that is much more compatible with building quality walkable cities with compelling public spaces and connected amenities.

13 thoughts on “High Speed Rail to Rochester Moves Forward at Slow Speed

  1. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

    In the near term, I think it’s going to challenging to get momentum for this project in a region traumatized by Northstar Rail’s difficulties but I do like high speed rail for offering a time advantage over the freeway and cutting down on air traffic like you said which is a major greenhouse gas driver. Rochester seems like a good fit since it not only serves Mayo Clinic and a metro area of almost 200,000 but also would be a building block for a line to Chicago.

    Usually the excuse for the lack of regional rail in the U.S. is our spread out population but I think Saint Paul to Chicago via Rochester is an area with enough density to support rail , and hopefully high speed rail which competes better with airports. A Saint Paul to Chicago is especially viable when factoring in the rising costs of owning a car relative to the purchasing power of the middle class. From Chicago you’d hopefully eventually have highspeed rail to the eastern seaboard New York/Philadelphia/DC.

    Plus people in the futuristic movie Her rode trains not planes. QED. https://streets.mn/2014/02/04/the-smooth-solipsistic-city-of-spike-jonzes-her/

  2. Zach

    Increasing mobility between places generally tends to benefit the larger of the two cities more than the smaller. Connecting Rochester via high speed rail to the Cities will benefit the Cities more than Rochester. Connecting the Cities to Chicago will benefit Chicago more. I use the word benefit here to mean more Twin Cities people will take trips to Chicago for business or recreation than Chicagoans will take trips to here for business or recreation. That combined with the fact that to my knowledge there have only been a handful of profitable HSR lines, and that the Carbon emissions emitted in the construction of a High Speed Rail line from scratch is immense, makes HSR a somewhat dubious proposition for me.

    That is not to say I dislike HSR; I think its cool as ****, I’m just somewhat worried about it.

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    I am missing any discussion of cost, or of priorities. I.e. if you had the $2B this would cost, what would you do? Is this the first, or second, or 150th thing you would spend it on?

    If a private company comes to the table and offers to build a HSR between Rochester (or Chicago) and St. Paul, if we just give them some right-of-way and permits, that would be great. (See Florida or Texas for possibilities). Until that day comes, you are proposing to spend a lot of money to replace existing private transportation operators (airlines and bus companies) with something requiring a huge public subsidy.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      True, and I do want to see more of a discussion of cost. And I’d like to see a private company come in and fight for the chance to run rail service – didn’t SNCF do a private study of the Midwest market a few years ago?

      Anyways, existing private transportation operators and individual users are heavily subsidized as well. Airlines benefit heavily – the FAA, TSA, etc consume general fund dollars, we had the Air Transportation Stabilization Board that lost taxpayer money on a few deals, airlines are exempt from certain pension rules etc. Not to mention that the commercial aviation industry’s existence, development, technology pipeline, etc is heavily subsidized by defense spending.

      Road users, whether individuals or private companies, are heavily subsidized as well. The Elk Run project alone was roughly $35 million, over twice the bonding request for ZipRail, and it’s an interchange to nowhere. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading Hwy 52 – some of it is well spent and will increase safety, but much of it is misguided attempts at “economic development by road.” Furthermore, the state bonded nearly $100 million for parking in Rochester alone. Not to mention all the direct and indirect subsidies of automobile-oriented land uses in the corridor that make car travel artificially cheap and appealing.

      The reason why I wrote this article is because I want to be for some projects, not necessarily just against everything. I’m against most car infrastructure, unless it’s tolled or otherwise priced. I’d love to see Hwy 52 tolled, and it would be great if Rochester could charge for more parking rather than having the public subsidize car storage habits. In general, I think we need to starve the car-subsidizing transportation beast in order to return to economically viable transportation investments and supporting land uses. The result would be more walkable places, better transit, and probably an environment where things like ZipRail are much more appealing to a private investor than today’s situation where they are competing against massive public subsidy. But sometimes it’s nice to advocate for a transformative investment rather than just complaining about misinvestment like I do frequently with road projects or sprawl-friendly transit projects like SWLRT.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Which also require huge public subsidy, but we’ve already spent a lot of it.

      I like HSR in theory, but I’m not at all sure that St. Paul to Rochester is the place to start with it.

  4. Keith Morris

    Seems to be a HSR version of the failed Northstar: an expensive rail line to nowhere, expect this nowhere has the Mayo Clinic. It’s definitely not nearly as compelling as a line to Chicago which would be extrenely compelling. A partial line to Rochester would only guarantee low ridership to “prove” an extension should be taken off the table. In any case, An HSR is plain stupid. We could probably get non-HSR rail lines to Duluth, Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Fargo, and Sioux Falls for the price of this one. I prefer mobility to luxury.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      HSR isn’t as big of a win as regional rail from a regional mobility standpoint, but it actually has a compelling factor in attracting choice riders to the concept. Similar to what the Hiawatha Line did for transit. Many folks would never take a 5 hour train to Des Moines but they’d take a high speed train if available. I agree with you that we should also rebuild regular intercity service to Duluth, Des Moines, etc. In the short term, those are clearly more beneficial from a mobility perspective. But ZipRail is still a long ways off, and we ought to keep the process moving along so it is ready once the investment becomes more viable and palatable.

      You’re right that Northstar has been a failure, but that’s because of its design and service orientation rather than its mode. Northstar is a glorified express bus line serving park & rides in corn fields. It bypasses actual places (towns like Elk River and Big Lake) and it terminates in the middle of nowhere. It would actually make more sense to rebrand Northstar as our traditional regional rail service, with a few trips per day between Mpls and St. Cloud – we’d actually have a much higher utilization rate of our expensive trainsets which sit unused most of the day. But that’s a topic for another post.

      1. Keith Morris

        I do think Northstar could be a success just like HSR could be, but if we cut off HSR to a worthy destination like we did with Northstar we can expect to see it too used by conservative republican (redundant, I know) pundits railing against (ha! see what I did there?) any sort of rail transit.

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  6. Monte

    I know some people seem think that anyone that uses a car is evil, but the reality is people are going to want to park and ride to this, and park and rides might increase ridership and make it more feasible, so maybe have two extra stations- one in the southeast suburbs (which could connect with a shuttle bus to the airport), and one in northwestern Rochester (which is fast growing) where parking can be accommodated. If I was going to Rochester there’s no way I’d go to Union Depot, but I would drive to a park and ride in Inver Grove Heights or some such place.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      I don’t see the need for a station in NW Rochester – it’s literally a 5-10 minute drive to downtown where the station would be. I think a suburban station on the Minneapolis end has a little more merit, but I bet the gain in ridership wouldn’t offset the expense of adding a station and the loss of ridership due to the slower running time.

  7. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    The costs and benefits of HSR aside (I’m not convinced) – I take some issue with your airport vs. St Paul characterization of the route choices. To some extent it is a St. Paul vs. Minneapolis conversation (which introduces different issues/unground axes). From downtown Minneapolis, it would take 40 to 60 minutes to reach the Union Depot, while we know it takes less than 30 minutes to reach the airport from Nicollet Mall on the Blue Line. The St. Paul route also must go further north and through more densely developed areas, both of which probably lengthen travel time on HSR.

    Connecting to the airport also makes it much more likely that this route would replace air travel between MSP and Rochester, something you identify as a goal. Given the choice between flying from MSP to Rochester, or spending an additional 20 minutes on a bus to downtown St. Paul, then getting on HSR, what are most travelers likely to choose?

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