A Broader Look At Passenger Rail Opportunities in Minnesota

I’ve spent a lot of time on mapping projects over the past several years, focusing in particular on rail lines through Minnesota and nearby regions. Since the state and national rail networks peaked in the 1920s, and have been shrinking ever since, a lot of that mapping has been a bit depressing. There have been a number of times when I’ve gone into OpenStreetMap to mark once-busy line as as disused, abandoned, or completely obliterated with virtually no trace left behind.

The size of Minnesota’s rail network has been roughly cut in half since since its 1920s apex, but there are still 4,444 route-miles of existing railroad in the state, according to MnDOT. That’s almost five times the size of the Interstate highway network in Minnesota (916 miles) and a bit over a third the size of the total trunk highway system (11,814 miles including Interstates, U.S. highways, and state highways, though that’s still a tiny fraction of the 143,000 total miles of roadway within the state).

Map of rail lines in Minnesota

MnDOT freight rail map from January 2015. Active lines are show in color or in black, while abandoned corridors have dashed gray lines.

However, even though Minnesota’s 4,444-mile network reaches most of the places you’ve heard of and many of the ones you haven’t, only about 375 miles (about 8%) of it is used for intercity passenger trains. Over 90% of the system is only used for freight traffic.

Here’s a map I created to show what we have for existing conditions for passenger rail in Minnesota and nearby areas. This primarily shows Amtrak’s Empire Builder, but Via Rail’s Canadian is also shown passing through Manitoba and Ontario to the north. I mapped a green segment coming out of Minneapolis showing the Northstar Line, and I also included a line out of Duluth for the North Shore Scenic Railroad (You can’t really go anywhere on that line, since they’re just excursions out and back from the Duluth depot, but it’s probably the most significant other rail segment in the region that regularly sees passengers travel over it).

Map of existing passenger rail service through Minnesota

Here’s the same map, but including markers for cities with populations of 5,000 or more (Stars denote capital cities, squares are used for the largest cities per state, and circles mark either the 10 largest cities per state/province, or cities over 75,000 when the state/province is large enough, such as with Thunder Bay in Ontario. Smaller places are noted with orange or yellow diamonds):

Map of existing rail service through Minnesota, with cities
Legend for rail mapsThe national Amtrak passenger rail system is an extremely skeletal network that sometimes has gaps of hundreds of miles between corridors, and most of the system only sees one train per day per direction.

We’re relatively lucky that Amtrak even stops in the Twin Cities. To our south in Iowa, Amtrak misses the state’s capital and largest city, Des Moines, by about 50 miles. The most-populated place in Iowa directly served by Amtrak is Burlington, the state’s 19th-largest city. (Iowa’s 7th-largest city, Council Bluffs, gets an honorable mention since it is a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, where Amtrak does have a station.) To our west, Amtrak doesn’t even bother serving South Dakota, even though the Sioux Falls region has a population of about 250,000 and Rapid City, near the Black Hills, has a metro population of 144,000.

Even though Amtrak only has six stops in Minnesota (Detroit Lakes, Staples, St. Cloud, Saint Paul, Red Wing, and Winona) and three others just across the border (Grand Forks and Fargo in North Dakota and La Crosse in Wisconsin), they can easily claim to serve more than half the state’s population, simply because the 3.1 million out of the state’s total 5.5 million population is concentrated in the Twin Cities region. I think we deserve a lot better than that, though.

Places like Rochester (3rd largest city in the state after Minneapolis and St. Paul) and Duluth (5th place, barely behind Bloomington) have no service, not to mention numerous other smaller towns.

One of my observations during my years mapping is that most places with populations of 5,000 and up still have freight rail service. This isn’t always true, but the rule holds pretty well for outstate Minnesota. From what I can tell, the only towns of that size outside of the Twin Cities lacking freight rail are Hutchinson (pop. 14,000, about 60 miles west of Minneapolis), and Stewartville (pop. 6,000, about 13 miles south of Rochester).

There are more examples within the Twin Cities, particularly postwar suburbs, but even most of them are still within a few miles of railroad lines due to the denser network of tracks in the metro area. Woodbury, the state’s 9th largest state (pop. 68,000), is the biggest to not have direct rail service, but its neighboring cities of Oakdale and Lake Elmo do have tracks running through them.

I decided to try making a map to show how much of the state and surrounding area could be linked using existing track, and how much might need to be rebuilt or constructed on new alignments in order to make a suitable network. You might call this a “fantasy map”, but I prefer to think of it as a “mapping experiment”, since it’s mostly based around infrastructure that already exists.

Here’s what I came up with (still somewhat of a work in progress). Existing freight lines are marked in blue, while purple is used for routes that would need to be built new or reconstructed:

A potential rail map connecting cities over 5,000

Here’s the same map again, but with cities included:

A potential rail network connecting cities of 5,000 and up, with cities marked

The system that emerged in my map adds up to about 4,275 miles within Minnesota’s borders, including 3,475 miles of existing railroad (78% of the state’s freight system) and adding or restoring about 805 miles of other corridors to create a tighter mesh. If all of that was built for passenger service and other existing freight lines were retained, this would re-grow Minnesota’s overall rail network by about 18% to 5,250 route-miles.

Most of the purple routes follow abandoned rail lines, but a few, including connections for the off-network towns of Hutchinson and Stewartville, plus segments of the line to Thunder Bay, Ontario, use alignments that I invented.

My population threshold of 5,000 was fairly arbitrary—it’s probably a lower population than most transportation planners would think of connecting by rail, but cities of that size can still generate quite a bit of traffic.

My hometown of Byron is currently estimated to have a population of about 5,300 people, and according to the Census’s OnTheMap tool, 1,785 people who live in Byron are employed in nearby Rochester. If each one of those people decided to drive to work at exactly the same time, the line of cars would be nearly 7 miles long standing still and would stretch to 100 miles if they were moving at 65 mph with a 3-second trailing distance—not so good considering that Byron and Rochester are only 10 miles apart. Plus, that’s purely a measure of commuter traffic—there are always additional trips for dining, shopping, and other activities to consider too.

I wish there was more transportation thinking happening on this scale, since I think it would massively improve our chances of meeting climate change goals in the transportation sector. If this network existed, it would be much easier to have a car-free or car-lite life, even in a rural small town. Cities of 5,000 and up account for 70% of the state’s population, and an extensive network like this would also dramatically improve public transportation access for the remaining 30%.

MnDOT has a passenger rail plan with some of these routes included in it (the image below is from the 2010 version of the plan), but their system always struck me as a bit flawed since it was entirely centered on the Twin Cities and it didn’t give much priority to the lines to Sioux Falls or straight south to Albert Lea (toward Des Moines). The latter line has since been upgraded to a higher priority, but that’s not saying much considering the slow pace of planning for these routes.

Map of possible passenger rail lines from the 2010 state rail plan

In my opinion, MnDOT’s passenger rail plan is the minimum we should be aiming for, but they’ve had insufficient financial and personnel resources to even execute that vision. Their plan would reach most cities over 20,000 in population (at least outside of the metro area), but for now it remains little more than an idea.

Planning for the Northern Lights Express service to Duluth continues to trundle along, though the planned speed and frequency of service has been cut back. Formerly fast-moving plans for high-speed service to Rochester have been shelved due to lack of funds and the emergence of a private company that claims they’ll build the line instead, but it’s not clear whether that organization will move forward either.

It’s been like pulling teeth to get any movement on a mere second daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago, and plans for faster and more frequent trains on that line have been held up because of an obstinate government in Wisconsin.

Something significant has to be done to shake us out of the rut of car-dependent transportation planning across the state. In a previous post, I suggested implementing a statewide 1% sales tax that could be applied to both urban transit and intercity projects like this, estimating that it could generate about $740 million per year, enough to fully fund the equivalent of at least one 150-mile Northern Lights Express project annually.

It would take a few decades to build out a system as big as what I’ve suggested, and such a scale might not be fully attainable given future lifecycle costs, but some back-of-the-envelope calculating suggests revenue from a 1% sales tax (assuming about half of that went to urban transit and the other half was for intercity links) would make it possible to build out and sustain a system of at least 2,000, putting it somewhere in between MnDOT’s suggested system and my concept.

What do you think? Where would you draw the line for intercity service?

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at http://hizeph400.blogspot.com/

43 thoughts on “A Broader Look At Passenger Rail Opportunities in Minnesota

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I am curious how this proposal would play out against the current political conversation about metro vs. outstate Minnesota. You’d think that a proposal like this could transcend that divide because it would connect so many outstate cities. It would be fun sometime to trace one of these routes, visit potential stops that could be along the way.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      Yes, that’s a big reason why I decided to work on this map. I often think about how well the Empire Builder does considering its route through some of the least-populated areas in the country, many of which are below the 5,000-person threshold I used. It’s a subsidized service, but it has better farebox recovery than many if not most urban transit systems.

      Personally, I also think we need to have an interconnected system that mixes local transit options in with longer-distance ones. Focusing only on city and metro regions doesn’t work out as well as we might hope, since most of us have friends and family in other towns and cities across the state and country.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Obviously I’d disagree with you that “Something significant has to be done to shake us out of the rut of car-dependent transportation planning across the state”. More and better roads is what most people outside of the core cities seem to want so that’s what should continue. I’ve never heard anyone around me say “Gee, if only they’d stop building new roads and build a train to Hutchinson instead”

    As far as Byron, do you know how many people work and shop in the downtown area and could conceivably take the train, assuming there was some kind of shuttle from their house to the station? And how many say work at IBM or shop at Menards?

    1. jeffk

      People also want a personal freeway to their doorstep and ice cream for dinner. Doesn’t make it a good investment.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Nothing like strawmen. If the majority of the people want something the government can provide then the government should, regardless of whether it fits your personal opinion of what a good investment is.

        1. jeffk

          It’s not about opinion. Our road network is fully built out and then some. Building more just induces demand. We already can’t afford to maintain it. It’s very definition of a bad investment.

            1. Janne

              One thing strets.mn is trying to do is to moderate comments just enough to ensure a robust — AND respectful — discussion. Personal attacks and judgmental and loaded terms undermine that, and per policies, may be deleted. [This is not the language of the policy, but it captures the spirit.]

              I haven’t looked into this instance in detail, but I suspect that there may have been language or framing that was deemed disrespectful, inappropriately loaded, or a personal attack.

              1. Monte Castleman

                One of the moderators contacted me about this. I guess some of the loaded terms that are used by other people are OK, but a loaded term I used was not. So now that I know that’s not allowed here I will not use that term in the future.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I’d say that poverty is a pretty big challenge for many outstate communities. There are many people who used to find work in town but now commute 20-30 miles to a nearby regional center town by car, but the cost of owning a car for every working adult (and even teenager if they have to drive to a high school in the next town) becomes a huge burden on household finances – even though driving is a desirable thing! And while we fight for safer roads in the metro and core cities, driving on rural roads is statistically the most dangerous way to get around in this state, by quite a bit – increasing by many times the odds you take a major financial hit in vehicle repair and medical expenses (to say nothing of the risk of dying). So yeah, I’d say that while many (most?) outstate Minnesotans are not actively clamoring for a train to Hutchinson, connecting some of these towns with regular train service may be among the best things we could do for both their pocketbooks and safety.

      I don’t know. It’s kinda hard not to have at least a little knee-jerk reaction to people outstate who can’t fathom the idea of bootstrapping themselves by downgrading to a bike for travel in town (yes! even in the winter!) or suffering the potential indignity of having to take a train to work or to visit friends in other towns or to visit the metro for whatever…. who then tell us how the metro (and certain low-income populations served by state programs) are welfare queens. All the while LGA and road money pour from the metro to outstate (https://streets.mn/2015/01/14/map-of-the-day-state-highway-taxes-vs-state-highway-spending/).

      And it may be lost on you, but having a reliable, frequent transportation service anchoring the center of a town may be just the thing that helps shift the type of land use imbalance over the next 50 years that forces driving even for mundane trips to the grocery or hardware store. It’s hard to not be a Europhile, but shucks, it’s not hard to find towns of 10k people that are served by 12 trains a day in France and Germany. Which isn’t to say that *no one* will drive – plenty of people drive in those European towns! Just that they drive less often, and shorter distances, and have the ability to be a 1- or 0-car household if they live there.

      Or, yeah, Walmarts and Menards by the highway interchange for life!

      1. Monte Castleman

        So then if the goal is to get poor people from their homes in Byron to Rochester, wouldn’t a bus make more sense at a tiny fraction of the cost?. It could stop several places in Byron so people wouldn’t have to be outside much in below zero weather, stop several places in Rochester rather than just downtown, say downtown, the mall, IBM, the rapidly growing area around Menards?

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          I thought buses were smelly and dirty?

          In any case, sure! I think we could make a good case for a system of regional buses operating on highways making stops in downtowns – potentially even outside the town core if there’s a significant population, shopping, or job pull (thinking a college or mall) – with feeder routes within those communities to the major regional lines. Maybe the cost savings would outweigh the ride quality, capacity, and potential speed benefits trains can have over buses. Be nice to see them all laid out, rather than just saying “people want more and better roads,” no?

          1. Monte Castleman

            Yes, buses are slow and stinky. But your concern seemed to be the poor in Byron. If we’re worried about the middle class and above getting to their office jobs, then a train to attract the people that won’t ride buses with a park and ride lot at the end of town (since they have cars they can drive across town to the lot) would be better.

            But really, if the poor in Byron have to commute to jobs in Rochester, isn’t this a larger problem than transportation? That there’s inadequate affordable housing in Rochester and/or inadequate entry level jobs in Byron?

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              Why do you assume all middle-class (or wealthier) humans are like you, both desiring – and physically able – to drive an automobile for their daily routines?

              1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

                How would intercity rail do a better job at connecting people to their daily routines than intercity bus? Unless we have very high traffic volumes, a bus is more flexible and more adaptable than train service, and it uses existing infrastructure that, for better or for worse, we’ve already built. (A bus can much more easily stop at a few places in town if needed, especially if those places aren’t on existing rail corridors.)

                I’d be hard pressed to see a study where buses would be more expensive than rail in connecting most of outstate Minnesota to each other. There’s not enough density to make the higher cost worthwhile, and without heavy investment in improving the tracks the train is going to be much slower than either driving or having the same communities served by intercity bus.

                1. Rosa

                  that very flexibility works against it – buses get cut or rerouted or defunded all the time, it makes people less willing to rely on them or plan around them.

                  And then there are all the people who think buses are stinky and for poor people but like trains just fine.

                  1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

                    Agreed that bus service gets cut more quickly than rail service. However, rail service can still be cut or reduced if the funding isn’t there or if there’s a large political will to do so.

                    While the rail bias is real, I’m not sold we should spend substantial amounts more to cater solely to a rail bias where a bus can provide an equal trip time and equal (or better) frequencies.

                    In my opinion, before we consider doing rail service we should have a proven ridership with bus service first. Our public dollars are nowhere near infinite. If given a choice between funding for one greater Minnesota rail line and that same level of funding to improve greater Minnesota intercity bus service, I’d almost certainly take the bus option and improve coverage and frequency. I see very few intercity routes in greater Minnesota that have enough frequency and ridership to justify the upgrade in capacity that rail will offer. I think it’s a much more responsible use of funds to use rail as mainly an upgrade that’s used when bus service gets well used enough that additional capacity is required or additional speed is needed to make the market more competitive.

                    I also think that having a solid network that allows people to get across greater Minnesota via bus without having to go out of the way significantly would more than outweigh a rail bias that may require routes to use a stronger hub-and-spoke model. I’d argue that someone going from Wadena to Willmar would rather take a bus that goes direct down US 71 than have to use existing rail lines that would almost certainly require a transfer in the Twin Cities. It’

    3. Mike Hicks Post author

      This network wouldn’t be intended to stand alone — it would be best for it to integrate into local public transit networks and taxi-style services wherever they are. Rochester has a local bus network, though the city sprawls a lot and it isn’t practical for getting everywhere.

      I was extremely disappointed in the city when they allowed Menards to build their site way out on the fringe of the city like they did. There has to be some better landuse planning, but a network like this would enhance the motivation to do that.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          It’s Menard’s job to figure out where Menard’s should go.

          It’s not the City of Rochester’s job to spend millions of dollars on local freeway ramps that are 1. duplicitous, 2. against MnDOT wishes, and 3. a direct subsidy of Menard’s, a few other interchange-adjacent land users, and nearly nobody else at the extreme expense of taxpayers.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Man, I hate it when a freeway ramp lies to me… 😉

            I don’t know anything about the situation, but Google Maps seems to think there used to be a Menards closer in, around 55th St. NW, which would seem like a potential location.

            1. Steven Harper

              There was a Menards near 55th. When the new interchange was built at 65th Menards built their new store and closed the one by 55th.

          2. Monte Castleman

            And Menards figured out that they want to go where they are now. Maybe the city could of offered them money for the inconvenience and lost business of shutting down while they rebuilt on the same site. But they didn’t. And if they did, where would Furniture Superstore go? Where Menards is now?

            1. Mike Hicks Post author

              I imagine the company is just trying to maximize their return on investment by building on the cheapest land they could find within (what they consider to be) a reasonable distance of town along a corridor that sees a considerable amount of traffic.

              However, that has a big social cost with all of the extra driving people do to get there, and many big-box companies have restrictive contracts and leases that prevent reuse or redevelopment of their old sites.

              There’s tons of room within Rochester to build new structures or upgrade or replace what’s already there.

    4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      Most Outstate people may want “more and better roads”, but they’re also against increasing the taxing streams that would pay for them. If they can’t even agree to a gas tax that is already Constitutionally dedicated to roads and highways, I highly doubt they’d be in favor of the 1% sales tax that Mike suggests in this post.

    5. Janne

      I hadn’t read this comment until just now. I DID hear someone say, “I wish they’d stop building new roads and build a train to Northfield instead,” just this morning. I suspect there’s a lot of diversity in the state that none of us is privy to.

      I wouldn’t argue for one or the other, rather balance. Currently, as someone who’d love to take ANY viable form of transit to a few frequently-visited greater Minnesota locations, I’m struggling with the excessive focus on building freeways that don’t serve me.

    1. Eric

      Because it’s Wayzata. They don’t want visitors nor becoming a tourist destination even though it’s too late to go back.

      And yet they complain about traffic.

    2. Thomas Mercier

      Historical Side Note:
      Commuter trains from Wayzata used to exist. Frederick Noerenberg used to travel from his gentleman’s farm on Lake Minnetonka (he was one of the first non-native year round residents) to Wayzata by horseback and then ride the train in to Minneapolis to get to his brewery.

  3. Eric

    Not sure if you saw but there is a rail corridor between Wayzata and Hutchinson. It’s the Dakota Rail Corridor, which was abandoned in 2001 and converted into a trail. I’d like to see passenger rail service there because it goes through the towns on Lake Minnetonka and would be really popular with tourists in addition to serving commuters.

    1. Thomas Mercier

      My guess is that Mike realizes that both that route and the Luce Line which also runs to Hutchinson would be politically difficult to reclaim as rail corridors.

      1. Mike Hicks Post author

        Yes, I decided to go for a shorter invented route that connected Hutchinson to its nearest relatively large neighbors rather than using the old right-of-way. I figured that would give a bit better bang for the buck, since there are probably a lot of residents out that way who would be just about as interested in getting to/from those towns (Litchfield to the northwest and Glencoe to the southeast) as they would be to go all the way into the Twin Cities and back.

        But, that’s just a guess on my part. There would need to be some amount of corridor-by-corridor study for all of the lines I’ve suggested in order to figure out which options would be most effective. The abandoned corridors in particular tend to have had obstacles built in the way, such as new buildings or highways, so there needs to be an evaluation of whether it would be good to plow straight through those or pick a bypass alignment that gets around them.

        Of course, the options can be endless, which is why I stuck to existing or former corridors most of the time.

  4. James WardenJames Warden

    Re: Jeffk

    I don’t see how intercity rail would be a good investment either. A comparison with intracity transit – which I very much support – highlights why that’s the case. Intracity transit is necessary for three main reasons:
    — Scarce capacity: Cars eventually fill the roads.
    — Scarce space: Land is finite. Building new roads takes land away from tax-generating properties. Building more roads also can simply encourage more people to drive.
    — Scarce alternatives: Absent government intervention, people who can’t drive due to income or physical ability have no way to travel more than a short distance from their homes. The private options available – taxis, car-sharing services and ride-sharing services – are beyond their reach for regular use.

    None of this is true for intercity transportation:
    — Capacity: Minnesota’s rural roads are relatively congestion-free aside from construction zones and limited periods when people are heading up to their cabins before and after a weekend. There have actually been articles here and elsewhere about grossly irresponsible overcapacity.
    — Space: Land is abundant and comparatively cheap in Minnesota’s rural areas. Even if capacity were an issue, adding a lane would have minimal impacts outside of cities.
    — Alternatives: Private bus services already carry non-drivers between cities – cheaper than Amtrak, with more-frequent service and to more cities.

    Consequently, I really don’t see what problem intercity rail is trying to solve. It seems more like rail for rail’s sake. There are just too many competing priorities to justify this, and you’d be leaching away billions in capital and operating expenses from programs like Greater Minnesota intracity bus service that are hugely inadequate today and actually do help people in need.

    So why place a big bet on a public investment when the private sector is handling it adequately? Because buses are less enjoyable than trains? Because in an ideal world with a fully built-out system many decades in the future rail might theoretically be marginally more convenient than what we have right now? You’d be gambling that you could turn a good-enough system into a perfect system when we don’t even have enough money make failing systems adequate. That’s not a bet I’m willing to make.

    Re: Alex’s comments

    There is definitely an issue with people who can’t find work nearby commuting 20-30 miles to a nearby regional center. But when you double down on infrastructure investments into a town that clearly can’t support itself, all you’re doing is incentivizing people to live far away from where the jobs actually are. That’s true whether you’re talking roads or rail. If you place a commuter rail stop 20-30 miles from town and make it easy to commute that far, the next thing that’s going to happen is a developer is going to build a large subdivision nearby, exacerbating the problem. (I’ve also argued it’s true with LGA: https://streets.mn/2015/12/29/minnesota-needs-more-ghost-towns/.) If your objective is to minimize people’s commutes, the cheapest and best option is to stop paying them to commute regardless of how they commute.

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      I would dispute that the private sector is currently doing an adequate job with intercity transportation. Much of it is inconvenient, expensive, or simply nonexistant. The only intercity services I had back in Sauk Centre was an airport shuttle which was over $100 round-trip to the Cities (and didn’t easily offer any intermediate point service) or a once-a-week bus to St. Cloud through the transit agency on a dial-a-ride basis. There’s plenty of room for investment on intercity bus service within Minnesota as well as intracity.

      1. James WardenJames Warden

        Could it be better? Sure. But there are 66 stops in Minnesota just for Greyhound. You can go to from St. Paul to Lacrosse for $25, $4 cheaper than Amtrak’s $29 base fare. It would be a generation before rail could ever come close to that. But I’m absolutely fine with public transit agencies filling in the gaps where service isn’t adequate. I just don’t think rail is the way to do it.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          For me, the reason why rail-to-city-centre is alluring is because it rebalances the land use incentives away from car-only land uses. Anyone who has been to nearly anywhere in Europe or Asia, or old commuter rail suburbs in the Northeast or Chicago, knows that the dominant land use within a walkshed to a rail system is quite different than the dominant land use next to pick-your-new-interchange-e.g.-65th-St-NW-in-Rochester.

          1. James WardenJames Warden

            I’m skeptical that intercity rail is sufficient to rebalance land use within cities. I lived in Germany about seven years total and have traveled throughout Europe. There are some pretty crappy land uses around some of their rail stations, too, although it’s much rarer. We also have plenty of Amtrak stations in car-centered areas. For that matter, there’s ample crappy land use around LRT and BRT in the U.S.

            So it seems to me that rail (of any type) doesn’t rebalance land use on its own so much as governments already interested in good land use can use rail as a force multiplier that accelerates other smart land use decisions. The European cities that everyone here loves aren’t great just because they have trains. They’re great because they have great land uses that integrated trains (and streetcars and buses and cars) smartly into the built environment.

            We could make an expensive bet that cities all up and down a proposed rail line will be able to make good use of a rail investment even though we haven’t been that great at it in recent history. Or we could use our limited resources on areas that a) face bigger shortcomings and b) are more likely to see success. That’s why I think intracity investments make much more sense (and, as noted above, investments in intercity bus where there are private sector gaps).

    2. Mike Hicks Post author

      Like Jeb said, I don’t think the existing operators are serving the state as well as they could. The airport shuttles are relatively fast and frequent, but don’t make many intermediate stops (if any). Jefferson Lines covers much of the state, but some of their routes only run on alternating days and (from what I can tell) sometimes run in huge directional loops rather than being straight out-and-back services. Regardless of whether it’s buses or rail, something should really be done to improve the service frequency, though that’s politically challenging right now since Charles Zelle had been CEO of JL until his appointment to MnDOT commissoner, and he’s still on the company’s board.

      I have many reasons for focusing on rail, including the fact that we need some pretty significant safety improvements to the statewide freight system anyway, and I’m not entirely confident the freight companies will make sufficient changes on their own. The major national railroad companies are required to install new positive train control signaling on most of their networks, but that’s been an unfunded mandate from the federal government.

      The good thing about PTC and the related infrastructure improvements it needs is that it helps automate more of the system, which can help make the train crews more productive by getting trains moved through switches and sidings more quickly. However, it does cost a lot, and I’m pretty concerned we’ll see a lot of freight lines become abandoned in the next few years as railroads decide they aren’t worth the investment to keep them in operation. Considering that 38% of freight moves by rail in the U.S., that could have a significant impact on our highway systems.

      If we invest in repairing the existing tracks to facilitate passenger-quality speeds, that also means that a lot of the bumps and kinks in the lines are evened out to make freight roll more smoothly and safely. Improving freight speed also helps get trains through grade crossings more quickly, which reduces their traffic impacts. And there are plenty of grade crossings that should be eliminated, either by just closing little-used crossings or by grade-separating the busier ones.

      There’s also a lot of investment that could be done to free up movement of trains through major junction areas. Many rail junctions are entirely at-grade, requiring snaking moves that block traffic on multiple tracks to get from point A to point B. Just like with highways, sometimes it’s a good idea to add bridges, tunnels, and ramps/flyovers to make the system more freeway-like and allow trains to move through busy areas without needing to stop.

      That’s one of the defining characteristics of true high-speed passenger rail where it exists, though freight can benefit from many of the same fixes. But since American railroads have been fighting with cheap travel on heavily subsidized highways for several decades, those types of improvements have been few and far between, and much of the freight system has been operating like the equivalent of a rutted old rural highway system composed of narrow gravel or potholed asphalt roads, without any equivalent to the freeways that now snake across the whole U.S.

      We definitely don’t need the whole rail system to be brought up to HSR standards, but we really should make sure that what we do have is able to be operated as safely and smoothly as possible, and I think focusing on improvements that would allow passenger service would go a long way toward reaching that goal.

      Besides, with some reasonable amount of investment from the state government (and likely the feds too), many of the railroads’ own project ideas gathering dust will become more financially feasible. I’m not certain how to avoid rent-seeking behavior on their part, but we’ve seen a number of cases in recent years, such as restoration of the freight line through the Devils Lake area in North Dakota (which had been threatened by rising water in the lake), where railroads can be convinced to invest some of their own cash if there’s also investment from the state or a passenger rail operator (Amtrak in that case).

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