Rail Train

Is Minnesota All Aboard for Intercity Rail?

After posting about potential rapid transit routes in the Twin Cities here and potential regional rail routes in the Twin Cities here, now is the potential for intercity rail in Minnesota.

History of Intercity Rail in Minnesota Post-Amtrak

Like most states, Minnesota had a large intercity rail network operated by private freight railroads. With the formation of Amtrak in 1971 this large system was reduced to a skeletal system of just a few routes, and then just one after 1985.

During the beginning of Amtrak only the Empire Builder served Minnesota. The Empire Builder, operating at most daily between Chicago and Seattle/Portland via the Twin Cities and northern North Dakota and Montana, has remained the same in Minnesota to this day except for a change of routing via St. Cloud instead of via Willmar in 1979 when the North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued. The North Coast Hiawatha, which began just a few weeks after the formation of Amtrak, operated at most daily between Chicago and the Twin Cities and continued west to Seattle via southern North Dakota and Montana three times weekly. The Arrowhead operated daily between the Twin Cities and Superior, Wisconsin from 1975 to 1978 when it was replaced by the North Star (not to be confused with the Northstar Commuter Rail). The North Star operated at most daily between Chicago and Duluth via the Twin Cities until 1981 when the route was shortened to Twin Cities-Duluth. In 1985 the North Star was discontinued due to lack of state funding, and since then Minnesota has had only one intercity train.

The main train stations of the Twin Cities were the Great Northern Depot and Milwaukee Road Depot in Downtown Minneapolis, and Union Depot in Downtown St. Paul. Pre-Amtrak the Great Northern Depot was a shared station with the Chicago Burlington & Quincy, Northern Pacific, Chicago & North Western, and Chicago Great Western. The Milwaukee Road Depot was shared with the Soo Line and Chicago Rock Island & Pacific pre-Amtrak, and St. Paul Union Depot was used by all the prior mentioned railroads. With the formation of Amtrak in 1971 the Milwaukee Road Depot and St. Paul Union Depot were closed, and all intercity rail operations served the Great Northern Depot until 1978 when the Midway Depot (half way between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul) was opened. The Great Northern Depot was demolished in 1978 and is now the location of the Federal Reserve Bank. The Milwaukee Road Depot was left vacant until being renovated as a hotel in 1999. While the Midway Depot may have been good in terms of parking, it was in a less than ideal location for access by transit, foot, and bike. In 2012 St. Paul Union Depot was renovated as a transit hub, and in 2014 Amtrak moved operations there.

Great Northern Depot, Minneapolis

The Great Northern Depot in Downtown Minneapolis. The road crossing the Mississippi River is Hennepin Avenue. While this area now serves as a parkway along the river, one has to wonder if the depot and tracks had somehow survived if this would be a massive transit hub today.

Intercity Rail Expansion Progress

There has been slow progress towards getting more than one intercity train in Minnesota. The most promising is the Northern Lights Express between Minneapolis and Duluth. The studies have concluded and its ready to be built pending funding. Stations are proposed at Target Field Station in Minneapolis, Foley Blvd. Park & Ride in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, Superior, and Duluth with four roundtrips daily. Whereas predecessors the Arrowhead and North Star were inconvenient, slow, and unreliable, the Northern Lights Express will have a convenient schedule, trains operating at up to 90 miles per hour, travel time similar to driving, and improved track capacity to lessen schedule conflicts with freight trains. The Northern Lights Express could be in operation as early as 2021.

Other developments in intercity rail expansion in Minnesota include a feasibility study conducted in 2008 on reintroducing the North Coast Hiawatha, but nothing has materialized since the study was finished. The West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, a group trying to establish privately funded and operated intercity rail service between St. Paul and Eau Claire and eventually extending to Chicago, has gained traction in recent years. Another proposed privately funded and operated service, this one a high speed rail line between Bloomington near the Mall of America and Rochester and eventually extending to Chicago, was short lived. Currently the only privately funded and operated passenger rail service in the United States is Brightline between Miami and West Palm Beach. Ridership has been better than expected, though it remains to be seen if the company can make a profit.

Despite the Chicago to Twin Cities market being heavily traveled, there is only a proposal for a second daily train on the Empire Builder route, and that wouldn’t be operational until 2022 at the earliest. There was a proposal to upgrade track for higher speed (110 mile per hour) service for the Empire Builder, but one state senator and representative rejecting the idea was all that was needed to halt that project in our state. Wisconsin legislators have not been open to the idea either. Those opposed to passenger rail expansion see the automobile, bus, and flying as better alternatives. With plenty of buses and flights between Minneapolis and Chicago there is a question of need for expanded intercity rail service.

Intercity Rail vs Intercity Bus 

Most intercity bus service in Minnesota is operated by Jefferson Lines. Greyhound and subsidiary MegaBus provide intercity service along the Interstate 94 Corridor between the Twin Cities and Chicago via Madison. Badger Bus also provides service between the Twin Cities and Madison.

When the Northern Lights Express opens it will be the first test to see how intercity bus service is impacted by intercity rail. Jefferson Lines operates three daily roundtrips between Minneapolis and Duluth with eight stops in between. The train will be faster as the train makes less stops and can travel faster, and the train is less impacted by weather and not impacted by traffic on the road (though it can be affected by train traffic, but assuming the freight railroads cooperate there shouldn’t be issues). Most bus stations outside the Twin Cities region are simply a parking lot with a gas station or restaurant, while the Northern Lights Express stations will be actual transit stations with park & rides and easy access into walkable downtown districts (except the Coon Rapids-Foley Blvd. Station). While the train has a clear advantage, does this mean the intercity bus service will disappear? In the United States there is clear rail bias, and no matter what you do to a bus people still have the stigma that a bus is unreliable, slow, and used only by people who can’t afford to drive or fly (you may have heard people call low-cost airlines such as Spirit and RyanAir the Greyhound of the skies). There needs to be a societal change for intercity bus service to have a better chance at succeeding both on corridors without intercity rail and with intercity rail. The two modes can complement each other by allowing a traveler to pick one mode going from Point A to Point B and the other mode going from Point B to Point A (e.g. train from Minneapolis to Duluth, bus from Duluth to Minneapolis). The bus may fit a person’s schedule in one direction, and the train fits their schedule in the other direction, or for budgetary reasons they pick one mode over the other. MnDOT studied the impacts of Northern Lights Express on intercity bus service, and while 4 to 6 percent of current bus riders are anticipated to switch to the train, Jefferson Lines can adjust their schedule to complement the Northern Lights Express.

Intercity Rail vs Essential Air Service

Essential Air Service (EAS) is a federal program to provide regional air service to isolated areas from medium and large hub airports. Just like Amtrak, there have been numerous attempts to cut EAS, but there have only been cuts to routes that lose more money than they’re allowed. EAS routes typically operate once or twice per day with jet or turboprop aircraft than can seat no more than 50 passengers. Cities can also subsidize air service or be an additional source of funding for EAS. St. Cloud Regional Airport provided subsidies to attract air service since Delta Air Lines cut their Minneapolis-St. Cloud service in 2009, but that subsidy and the air service provided by United Airlines to Chicago were short lived.

EAS Carriers

Air Choice One operates EAS routes including flights from MSP Airport to Fort Dodge and Mason City in Iowa, and Ironwood, Michigan.

“A community receiving subsidy during FY2011 remains eligible for EAS subsidy if:

  • it is located more than 70 miles from the nearest large or medium hub airport;
  • it requires a rate of subsidy per passenger of $200 or less, unless the community is more than 210 miles from the nearest hub airport;
  • the average rate of subsidy per passenger was less than $1,000 during the most recent fiscal year at the end of each EAS contract, regardless of the distance from a hub airport; and
  • it had an average of 10 or more enplanements per service day during the most recent fiscal year, unless it is more than 175 driving miles from the nearest medium or large hub airport or unless DOT is satisfied that any decline below 10 enplanements is temporary”
    Source (p. 2)

Minnesota airports with EAS and non-Minnesota airports with EAS to a Minnesota airport as of 2016:

  • Fort Dodge, Iowa-MSP Airport ($281 subsidy per passenger)
  • Mason City, Iowa-MSP Airport ($241 subsidy per passenger)
  • Iron Mountain, Michigan-MSP Airport ($131 subsidy per passenger)
  • Ironwood, Michigan-MSP Airport ($366 subsidy per passenger)
  • Bemidji-MSP Airport ($25 subsidy per passenger)
  • Brainerd-MSP Airport ($51 subsidy per passenger)
  • Chisholm/Hibbing-MSP Airport ($106 subsidy per passenger)
  • International Falls-MSP Airport ($93 subsidy per passenger)
  • Thief River Falls-MSP Airport ($504 subsidy per passenger)
  • Aberdeen, South Dakota-MSP Airport ($20 subsidy per passenger)
  • Rhinelander, Wisconsin-MSP Airport ($48 subsidy per passenger)

Since this data was published, EAS between Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and MSP Airport was added.

Is intercity rail a suitable replacement for EAS? That depends on the city pair. A certain number of people using these EAS flights are connecting to another flight at the hub airport, and therefore would likely not benefit from intercity rail. For Iron Mountain, Ironwood, and Rhinelander there is no direct rail access to the Twin Cities and they’re closer to other major cities, so intercity rail service to these cities would not be economical from the Twin Cities. Could intercity rail replace EAS in the other cities? Again, that depends on who is using the EAS flights. If most passengers are connecting to another flight then probably not, but if most passengers are origin & destination (O&D) then there’s a better chance. In Brainerd people who are going to the Twin Cities will drive or take a commuter train if one were available, so most if not all passengers using the EAS flights from Brainerd are going beyond the Twin Cities. In the case of Fort Dodge and Mason City, two cities with high subsidy per passenger and more likely to have passengers going to the Twin Cities, intercity rail could be a suitable replacement for EAS. One benefit of intercity rail over EAS is more than just one city pair can be served on a route (e.g. a train between the Twin Cities and Kansas City can serve people going St. Paul-Mason City, Des Moines-Albert Lea, etc.), which means more potential riders. However intercity rail service is typically slower (keeping in mind there’s security at the airport and airports are usually farther away from the city than a train station), and the longer the distance the more time it takes to reach a medium or large city and decreases the likelihood of people using the train. While intercity rail may not replace EAS on every route, it would provide an alternative mode of transportation from large towns (e.g. Willmar) and small cities (Bemdji) to medium cities (Fargo) and/or large cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul).

How does the EAS subsidy compare to intercity rail subsidies? Supposedly Amtrak manipulates their subsidy per passenger data to make their Northeast Corridor services look more profitable than their long distance trains, but I haven’t been able to find that data so I don’t know if that is true. Instead I looked at the farebox recovery ratios of Amtrak routes. Most routes have a farebox recovery of less than 50%, but six of the twenty-one routes with a recovery ratio of more than 50% are long-distance trains (long-distance trains operate over 750 miles, while corridor trains operate on routes less than 750 miles). This shows that its not simply shorter corridor trains losing less than long-distance trains, rather it depends on the characteristics of each route (number of stops, population density, population of each place with a station, travel demand, travel alternatives, etc.). The Empire Builder, the one and only Amtrak route through Minnesota, has a farebox recovery of 55% as of 2012. As you will see in the next section of this post, most of the top city pairs by revenue on the Empire Builder are long-distance trips where riders are paying more for a seat or roomette than shorter distance trips. The Empire Builder serves Glacier National Park in Montana and the Pacific Northwest, which brings in tourists from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, and Chicago. As long as the tourism industry is healthy then the Empire Builder, in its current state, can expect good farebox recovery compared to most of Amtrak’s corridor and long-distance trains outside the Northeast Corridor.

The Empire Builder

The Empire Builder operates one roundtrip per day between Chicago and Seattle/Portland (the train splits in Spokane with one section going to Portland and the other section going to Seattle). Station stops in Minnesota are Winona, Red Wing, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Staples, and Detroit Lakes. Stations near the Minnesota border are La Crosse, Fargo, and Grand Forks.

Like other long distance trains in the U.S., there have been repeated attempts to discontinue the Empire Builder. From those who don’t use or live near a long-distance train route there are questions of its necessity, their economic impact on communities, how many people use the train, why the train should be kept if it doesn’t make a profit, and if the majority of users are just train fanatics and/or people longing for nostalgia.

From Amtrak’s 2017 State Fact Sheet on Minnesota there were 139,091 boardings and alightings in Minnesota (approximately 381 per day). Boardings and alightings by station were:

  • Detroit Lakes – 4,667
  • Staples – 5,676
  • St. Cloud – 10,325
  • St. Paul – 92,271
  • Red Wing – 8,557
  • Winona – 17,595

Amtrak spends on goods and services in the state as well as provides jobs, so Amtrak does have an economic impact in Minnesota.

So where are people going on the Empire Builder?

Empire Builder Ridership

Ridership by trip length on the Empire Builder. Source: Rail Passengers Association

Traveling by train can be more advantageous than flying for trips up to 500 miles, and for the Empire Builder that length makes up just over half the trips. After 700 miles ridership drops off, but what is most interesting is that the number of trips jumps for more than 1000 miles, accounting for a quarter of Empire Builder trips. The main user of these trips are tourists, such as going between Chicago and Glacier National Park, or between St. Paul and Seattle. However there are people who use the Empire Builder for other purposes such as getting between college and home, or choosing the train over flying (rare in most parts of the country, but it does happen, including me). Perhaps fear of flying, not wanting to deal with airport security and jet lag, the train station is closer to their destination than the airport, or the fluctuating prices of air fare while Amtrak has more stable fares are a few reasons why people would choose Amtrak over flying.

Top city pairs on the Empire Builder

Top city pairs on the Empire Builder by ridership and revenue. Source: Rail Passengers Association

Despite the train being less advantageous than flying for trips over 500 miles, there are three routes over 500 miles among the ten highest ridership city pairs, and all but one route are over 500 miles for highest revenue. People on trips over 500 miles are more likely to book a roomette and purchase food on board, which means more revenue for Amtrak.

However, there are several issues with long-distance trains. There could be numerous host freight railroads to deal with, and each railroad responds differently to passenger rail despite being required to give passenger trains priority over freight. Long distance trains have to cover over 750 miles of route where slight delays can add up to a very long delay by the time the train reaches its destination, and any issue along the route such as a derailment or broken track could mean a cancellation of the train on the rest of the route without a replacement train available. Numerous locomotives and rolling stock including dining cars and sleeping cars are needed, which also adds up in cost for purchase and operation. For example the cost of locomotives and passenger equipment for the reinstatement of the North Coast Hiawatha is estimated be at least $330 million. Long distance trains typically only have demand for one daily train, and where the train operates overnight its likely inconvenient for people to use and will receive less ridership than if the train operated during the day. City pairs that should have multiple daily trips end up with only one. All of these issues apply to the Empire Builder. You can’t expect good ridership on highly traveled corridors that have only one train per day, and you can’t expect many people to depend on that one train when its coming from over 1000 miles away. Improvements are needed, especially on the city pairs that need corridor services.

Chicago-Twin Cities Market

The Twin Cities-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago route is a heavily traveled market. St. Paul-Chicago is the top city pair in terms of number of trips for Amtrak’s Empire Builder, and as of the second quarter of 2018 there were 3,127 daily O&D (origin & destination) passengers between MSP Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports (data can be found here). There are also numerous intercity buses offered daily, yet there is only one daily train on this whole route (minus Madison, which has no intercity rail service). Chicago to Milwaukee has the Hiawatha Service, which operates fourteen times daily. There were plans to extend some of these trips to Madison under President Obama’s high speed rail funding, but Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rejected the funds with concerns that the service wouldn’t be successful and a boondoggle. Before any upgrades can be made to intercity rail service from Minnesota through Wisconsin, there needs to be political change in Madison with a government more open-minded to intercity rail. Ditto for Minnesota, as we can barely get funds to keep MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office open.

What should intercity rail look like between the Twin Cities and Chicago? Bullet trains, maglev, or hyperloop are not the answer for at least 40 years and even then I have doubts with maglev and hyperloop as they currently have not been proven to be financially viable transportation modes. Multiple intercity rail routes with at least a couple routes offering higher speed rail service (up to 125 miles per hour) is the near and perhaps even long term answer.

Connecting the State and Upper Midwest

Minnesota Passenger Rail Map

Full build-out of a regional and intercity rail system in Minnesota.

Long-distance trains would operate one roundtrip daily, and most of the corridor services would have at least two roundtrips daily. In addition to the Twin Cities-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago route, the Twin Cities-Fargo-Grand Forks-Winnipeg and Twin Cities-Des Moines-Kansas City/St. Louis routes should also have infrastructure upgrades to support higher speed rail service.

A regional rail system would complement the intercity rail network by providing connections to more destinations and allowing intercity trains to skip more stations and increase their average speed.

Siemens Charger

The Siemens Charger appears to be leading the way in modernizing intercity rail in the United States. With a top speed of 125 miles per hour and complying with the EPA’s Tier 4 emissions standards, this is a suitable locomotive for expanding Minnesota’s intercity rail network.

Minnesota, and the rest of the country, needs to focus on corridor services where we know there is demand, before starting any new long distance services. As was already mentioned, operating long-distance services can be complicated and expensive. However with successful implementation of corridor services in Minnesota, there are at least two long-distance routes that should be established: the Spine Line between the Twin Cities and Texas, and the North Coast Limited between Chicago and Seattle.

Intercity Rail Hubs

St. Paul Union Depot, with its proximity to Downtown St. Paul, light rail connection, future BRT connections, and room to expand if needed, will be an important intercity rail hub despite lacking usage today. What is less certain are locations in Minneapolis despite Target Field Station being marketed as a transit hub. So far Target Field Station is a glorified light rail station with two separate platforms right next to each other, and one commuter rail platform served by only six trains per day. There are no buses directly next to the light rail and commuter rail platforms, so people must walk at least a quarter mile to reach buses. With the booming development in the North Loop it has created a bigger potential ridership base, but it has also squeezed the narrow railway trench owned by BNSF Railway and used by the Northstar Commuter Rail.

MnDOT’s 2015 State Rail Plan (p. 3-12) acknowledges that a second station in addition to Target Field Station may be needed. There are cheap ways and expensive ways to solve this issue. The expensive options are either tunneling under the North Loop and building underground platforms for regional and intercity trains in addition to the existing Target Field Station, or tunnel under Downtown Minneapolis and have some or all trains serving the underground central business district station. The cheap option is move to a location where its cheap to build a rail hub and with room for expansion if needed, however it would require passengers to transfer to light rail or bus to access the central business district. There is one plot of land that fits this criteria: Lyndale Junction just west of Downtown Minneapolis and the future site of the Basset Creek Valley Station of the Green Line Extension.

In terms of location the expensive options are the best as it requires less time to access the Minneapolis Central Business District. However there would be a very high cost for tunneling and underground platforms. In terms of saving money and having room to expand the relocated station is the best option. However with the Green Line Extension sooner or later being built, its expected that the area around Basset Creek Valley Station will be developed. There is also the Basset Creek Valley Master Plan, which appears to not even acknowledge the fact that there is an active freight rail corridor through it, or if it does the rail corridor is shown as a barrier and inconvenience rather than an opportunity to utilize it for regional and intercity rail service. The Metropolitan Council may get the development they wanted along the Green Line Extension, but they’re putting themselves in a catch-22 not leaving room for regional and intercity rail.

While a location in or near Downtown Minneapolis is debatable, another intercity and regional rail hub does have a rightful place near the University of Minnesota. Just to the north of the Green Line’s Stadium Village Station are the East Minneapolis rail yards, allowing plenty of room for a rail hub, good transit connections, and convenient access to the University of Minnesota.

All Aboard?

While the current political landscape in Minnesota and Wisconsin hasn’t shown much openness to intercity rail expansion, there is support from both urban and rural areas. However, in rural Minnesota Republicans have control, and there are few if any Republicans advocating for any type of passenger rail expansion. They’re focused on the negatives of it possibly being a boondoggle, not being used a lot, or not receiving any benefit. Rural constituents who support passenger rail need to make their voices heard to rural politicians that think there is consensus against passenger rail expansion. For half a century these rural areas have relied solely on the automobile to get anywhere, and Amtrak is seen as a waste and offering poor service. With the Northern Lights Express hopefully opening in the early 2020s, this will show Minnesotans what intercity rail truly is: reliable, fast, and convenient.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.