Intercity Rail Would Bridge Minnesota’s So-called “Rural-Urban Divide”

Amtrak Bike

Putting bikes on Amtrak: if it was a quarter of the price, it might be worth it.

A few months ago, I was privileged to be a guest lecturer for a colleague’s environmental sociology course at the UW-La Crosse. For those unfamiliar, La Crosse, Wisconsin is one of the larger small cities in the region. It’s a city with a metro area of about 130,000 people located in a magnificent spot on the Mississippi River, just on the north end of the Driftless Region, which is one of my favorite parts of the country. The city has a long and interesting history, an historic downtown, and an industrial legacy that makes it an interesting place to visit.

Best of all for this story, it’s one of the few cities anywhere on earth that is conveniently linked to Saint Paul by passenger rail. Each day, once in each direction, one of the few remaining Amtrak long-distance trains stops there on its way to Milwaukee and Chicago. The trip is a beautiful journey through the Mississippi River valley and, at the behest of my La Crosse friend, my wife and I went there and back on Amtrak, a distance of about 140 miles.

(We even brought our bikes on the train, just to see if it was possible. And, it was! The new bike-train policy is practical, inelegant, and convenient, but, at $40 per trip, much too expensive.)

My first reaction is, as always, that I love rail travel. God, how I wish we had better train service in our dumb country.

The other takeaway is that I think both Saint Paul and La Crosse would benefit greatly from a closer, more seamless rail connection between the two downtowns. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, like many of the smaller schools in cities outside the Metro, often struggles to attract faculty. Over the years, I’ve known many friends in the social sciences who taught in Duluth, Mankato, La Crosse, Northfield, or St. Peter. One huge drawback about these gigs is being condemned to drive back and forth from these far-flung places to the Twin Cities, where their family, cultural, and social connections are firmly fixed. This is equally true for younger people or older people who want to stay in touch with folks but don’t want to drive at night, long distance, or in the winter.

Minnesota 2010 Passenger Rail Plan Map

Minnesota Passenger Rail Plan (Courtesy MN DOT). See Mike Hicks’ excellent writing on this topic.

But reliable rail service isn’t just about nomadic academics; thanks to the neoliberal economics that have gutted economies throughout the Midwest, the growing parts of the regional economy are increasingly concentrated in the sectors located in the Metro Area. A lot of these jobs and careers require flexibility and travel, and I believe that the ability to take a train (and work while you are traveling) would do a lot to link smaller cities to the growth occurring in the Metro. Imagine the freedom of being able to work in a smaller city, but travel once or twice a month into Minneapolis or Saint Paul for meetings or to easily catch an airplane. All of a sudden, making a life for yourself in Mankato or Duluth seems much less isolating.

In particular, inter-city rail would benefit the historic downtown areas of smaller cities. All these places have historic-but-struggling downtowns, places with a lot of potential but that have struggled with changes to retail that have left the old main streets much less vibrant than they should be. Imagine if new housing, restaurants, and hotels began to pop up around train stations in downtown St. Cloud or Winona? Imagine how many more people might move to downtown Rochester if you could hop a train back and forth to Saint Paul in under and hour, multiple times a day?

Today’s urban-rural divide is often a code for lots of other issues around age, race, and economic differences. It’s certainly used as a cynical cudgel to rile up folks in rural areas, fueling the revanchist politics that seems to be swamping our democracy. (See also: the asinine Scott Walker move in the right-wing political playbook.)

Lax Coney

The Coney is not great, but downtown La Crosse is wonderful.

And yet I think there’s a great deal of common ground to be found in between our region’s historic cities. If we could link the cores of our region’s cities large and small, and allow people the freedom to live outside the Metro Area while staying connected to it, I believe it would catalyze a bunch of beneficial economic and social changes that would help decrease the divide between the Metro and the rest of the region.

Right now, there are a lot of regional rail proposals sitting waiting for political vision and action. The lowest hanging fruit, to be sure, is the second Amtrak train that would run from Saint Paul to Chicago, stopping in Red Wing, Winona, and La Crosse on its way eastward. The good news is that the long-standing anti-investment politics in Wisconsin have changed; Scott Walker is out, thank god, and the one thing that Wisconsin’s new Governor and Republican-controlled (and gerrymandered) State Assembly have agreed on is funding for this added train line. It’s up to Minnesota politicians now to make sure we take advantage of this opportunity to improve our connections and rail mobility while we can. The state legislature should fund Governor Walz’s proposal to invest in this train. (Ideally, they’d ask for even more…) Doing so will show how we can link the Twin Cities to the cities that lay just a few hundred miles away, places like Duluth, Rochester, La Crosse, Mankato, and others that have a ton of potential to be better connected. It’s “one Minnesota” after all… and, that’s true for Wisconsin too.

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30 thoughts on “Intercity Rail Would Bridge Minnesota’s So-called “Rural-Urban Divide”

  1. Elizabeth Larey

    Great article and thank you!! I’ve always existing train tracks are underutilized, and it makes so much sense. Light rail is far too expensive and too far into the future to help immediate transportation needs. I would think the affordable housing advocates would agree also. Those cites have housing that is a fraction of the price. This makes so much sense!

  2. Risa Hustad

    Love this piece and its vision for our transportation future.

    What can be done about the flat-rate fee for bikes on Amtrak? I’ve thought of breaking my bike down and packing it in an over-sized backpack just to spite them.

      1. Ian R BuckModerator  

        If you have your own box, it’s $10. If you don’t have a box, you can buy one from Amtrak for $15.
        And if you’re transferring from the Empire Builder to other Amtrak lines, the box option becomes even more appealing; roll-on service isn’t available on all lines, and even if it is, it costs $20 for each transfer, whereas if it’s in a box it costs $10 for the whole trip.

  3. Mark Brigham

    Totally agree! And I’ll add: It would be great to have regional intercity rail, especially electrified as they’ve done through much of western Europe. Powering electric trains can & should increasingly come from non-carbon-based sources. Furthermore, your point about bikes on Amtrak is spot on. It’s a ridiculous fee. Cross-country Amtrak trains will probably take much longer to electrify, but one way Amtrak can help reduce carbon footprints is to encourage, not punish, travelers who bring along a bike. The Cyclists’ Touring Club of the UK figured this out in the 1950s (or earlier?), and got a bike car on intercity rail trains in England. Not sure how widespread they were, but why not have a dedicated bike car on every Amtrak, for a nominal fee ($5-10). Encourage train/cycle travel! The other problems with Amtrak is they only have a limited number of reservable room for bikes, and some of the smaller town stops are not “luggage stops,” so I’m told you couldn’t even load or unload your bike it towns like Red Wing etc., which is ridiculous. If they had a bike car as advanced as the UK had in the 1950s, it wouldn’t be an issue. For a visual of how UK did it, check out this wonderful 15-minute video on the CTC. That’s a Sunday ride we all should have!

  4. Steve Subera

    I enjoyed taking the train to Chicago, which I think is the perfect trip for it. I would even settle for always reliable over any increase in speed. Maybe a second Amtrak will do the trick, but I’m skeptical. I really want the Hyperloop and a 45 minute ride to Chicago. One can dream…

    I wouldn’t consider Duluth, Rochester, or La Crosse rural. Of course, it’s all relative. I had a co-worker visit from London once and I mentioned living in the city (St. Paul) and he laughed. It’s not a city, he said. It was more like a small suburb.

    Bill, are you saying that the smaller towns in between Rochester and Duluth, etc. would benefit? I don’t see how providing rail service to a professor living in Duluth for twice a month trips to Minneapolis has anything to do with the Minnesota Urban-Rural divide.

    There was a high-speed rail plan once (now dead?) from the Cities to Rochester. I thought that had great potential.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Mentions of “hyperloop” are banned on this site, FYI.

      Joking aside, a train that hit the speeds we once had in the 1930s would do wonders. Elon Musk boondoggles should stay at very distant arms length.

      I know a few people that would love to work in Duluth or Mankato 3 days a week, live in Minneapolis the rest of the time. (Or something like that.)

      1. Steve Subera

        Are mentions of the Northstar line also banned? 😃

        I haven’t read anything lately about plans to extend it to St. Cloud. Should it be a priority to spend the energy, money, political capital to get it connected from Big Lake? Would that success help other connections? I don’t know enough (or remember enough) about the Northstar right now to have any opinion.

  5. Eric Ecklund

    If only we didn’t have to spend so much time and money just to study these proposals. It should not take as long as it has just to get a second train to Chicago and restarting intercity rail to Duluth.

  6. John AbrahamJohn Abraham

    Agree to all of this. My wife and I have taken several trips out east on Amtrak and it’s hard to quantify (though you do well here) how much better overall it is than any other kind of transportation. (not to mention the less emissions, beautiful scenery, etc). And that’s at it’s poorly funded modern era. Still functional.
    So you’re right, the first thing needed is funding like crazy (taking the subsidies away from the fossil fuel companies that are literally killing us all would be a start, and using that to fund lines like you suggest here), and then expanded service and an entire re-think of transportation needs. But thanks for thinking the larger picture here and seeing what this could look like if we could ease our minds out of the vise-like grip of the car only transportation model.

  7. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    One of the special advantages of living in Philadelphia is access to a wide-reaching commuter rail network that stretches as far as Trenton (where you can then catch New Jersey Transit to New York City), Atlantic City, and Newark, DE (Home of the University of Delaware). We also have Amtrak service up and down the Northeast Corridor, (to NYC, Boston, Washington D.C., and Richmond), a once-daily train to Pittsburgh, and the Keystone Amtrak service to Lancaster and Harrisburg, which is electrified and runs fourteen trains per day in each direction.

    In the past two weeks, I’ve traveled on Amtrak, once for work and once for a weekend away. It’s a wonderful experience, it barely feels like long-distance travel because the trip is so easy and comfortable.

    Minnesota would need to make a lot of investments to improve inter-city travel, but the possibility is there. Electrifying the routes is really the most expensive hurdle that is also completely worth it.

    A train that ran through all of the 20k-size towns; Rosemount, Farmington, Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna, and then turned to Rochester would be a huge success, I think. The existing railroad ROW to make that trip is reasonably straight, so high speeds are possible, and stations are located in central locations. Because of the frequency of stops, electrification really would be important for that route.

    A train to Duluth would also be wonderful, but it needs higher speeds because of the distance and would be more costly to do well.

    1. Nathanael

      Service from the Twin Cities to Northfield should have been built LONG ago. Back in the 1990s, it was rated the second-highest-ridership project in the state, after the St Paul – Minneapolis Green Line and ahead of the Hiawatha Blue Line!

      But it was stopped by two extremely crooked and criminal state legislators, one of whom is still in office, who prohibited the Metropolitan Council from even talking about it. Unbelievable evil.

  8. Scott

    Good post.

    Wonder whether additional Amtrak service to St. Cloud and/or Fargo/ Moorehead would make sense. Linking other regional cities like Souix Falls and Eau Claire to MSP seems like a no-brainer too.
    Those regions lie within that distance that make rail competitive with flying and driving…

    Disagree that all those rail connections should be through St. Paul, though. Minneapolis is much more the center of the metro in terms of population and economic activity. Love the Union Depot, but it’s not that convenient for many of us on the other side of the river. 🙂

    1. Ian R BuckModerator  

      And the airport isn’t that convenient for those of us on this side of the river. Let St Paul have something we can hold over your heads for once! 😛

  9. Alex

    Rail is great and the network you mention makes sense as the eventual backbone of an intercity transit network in Minnesota. But the first step is improving the state’s dismal intercity bus network. Moving to the Pacific Northwest, one of the first things I noticed was the significantly better rural transit, despite much lower rural population density. Minnesota could support a tighter bus network in the south-central part of the state & along I-94. MnDot should have a grant program for county transit agencies to establish fixed-route services (Oregon has this) — this will build ridership to justify rail service between MSP & rural centers.

    1. Allen

      Thank you, Alex. For every train line, we could operate a dozen bus lines with the same money. If the economic development and societal benefits are truely the goal, we should be maxizing it by goign this route.

  10. Jay A Severance

    Thanks for your article. I am a member of All Aboard Minnesota, , an advocacy and educational organization promoting the development of the MnDOT passenger rail plan for the state. We have been working on grass roots efforts around the state to promote the plan, which would bring the advantages you note eventually to as many as 30 outstate communities. We have held well-attended meetings in Redwing, Winona, La Crosse, St Cloud, and Fargo/Moorhead and found that there is great interest and need for additional passenger rail service.
    You’ve accurately described the work that has been under way for several years. The projects to provide a 2nd train frequency to Chicago, and the renewal of train service to Duluth are essentially “shovel ready”. The Governor has included $10 million in his bonding request, which will provide the state match for Federal funding of the Minnesota portion of the 2nd Chicago train. An additional $20 million in bonding is being proposed in bi partisan legislation to provide matching funds for the Duluth route and starting to develop additional routes to Fargo/Moorhead and cities to the Southern part of the state and on to Des Moines, Kansas City and Omaha.
    If you believe that better rail transportation is important not only to the Twin Cities but the many rural communities that will benefit, write, email or call your legislators to support funding for the MnDOT passenger rail plan. And, if you would like to know more, or help with our efforts, please come to the Rally for Rail on March 11, 9 to 10:30 am in Room 316 of the State Capitol Building. See our website for more information.

    1. Nathanael

      Also, campaign to make the state legislature remove the “gag order” on studying rail service to Northfield. It would be the most heavily ridden route in the state, according to all studies done before the gag order.

      1. Allen

        Also, campaign to make the state legislature remove the “gag order” on studying rail service to Northfield. It would be the most heavily ridden route in the state, according to all studies done before the gag order.

        If it’s been studied, why worry about studying it again?

  11. Monte Castleman

    Although I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d personally use it (especially with new cars having features like adaptive cruise control and lane centering that vastly reduce fatigue on on long road trips) as a member of society I support added investment in rail. Having said that I think urban rural divide is a lot more than not having train service and a few college professor types being able to live in La Crosse aren’t going to change rural Minnesota socially or economically.

    But if it becomes more than that and does change it, I’m not sure changing rural Minnesota that way is desirable. There’s of course strong opinions on what is desirable socially and politically, but I’m not convinced a bunch of people from the cities settling down in rural Minnesota is a good thing economically either. If you’re subsisting on minimum wage working at Subway or Walmart the one saving grace is that housing is also cheap because there’s little demand for it. More people in the area stopping at Subway isn’t going to increase your wage but they are going to cause your housing costs to skyrocket.

    In the end though the benefits of having train service will probably outweigh the effects even if we view them as undesirable.

  12. Ian R BuckModerator  

    I desperately want a comprehensive regional rail system because it’s one of the few solutions that enables me to bring my bike to remote areas. Coach buses go to a lot of destinations, but if I can’t bring my bike, I can’t get around once I’m there.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      That’s been one of my issues keeping me from trying Jefferson Lines. I’d like to take the bus with my bike to Hutchinson for a day trip on the Luce Line Trail and come back in the evening but they don’t have space for bikes or if they do you have to pay extra.

  13. Scott Walters

    I had to get from Cooperstown NY to Baltimore a while back, and researched all the flights from Albany to BWI or DCA. No dice. Then I checked Amtrak. It was AWESOME. The ride down the Hudson to Manhattan was absolutely stunning. Then I switched to the Acela for the ride to Baltimore. It was also great. I see no reason (except Republicans) why we can’t have decent rail service in the midwest radiating out from Chicago to Saint Paul, Omaha, St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, and maybe Green Bay.

    The train was super comfortable, on time, fast, I had a duplex outlet (this was before outlets on planes), and cheap. Not only did the person in front of me not recline into my lap, I couldn’t even reach their seat from mine without learning way forward.

    1. Allen

      I see no reason (except Republicans) why we can’t have decent rail service in the midwest radiating out from Chicago to Saint Paul, Omaha, St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, and maybe Green Bay.

      Money. Can you not see money?

  14. Jason

    I went to UWL as an undergrad and I, like anyone that spends any time there, love La Crosse. I will definitely say that “The good jobs in La Crosse could be done by people living in the Twin Cities” is a major bug, not a feature. La Crosse needs those people living in La Crosse, spending money but also contributing to the local culture.

  15. Allen

    5% of Minnesota workers already are telecommuters. If this were going to lead to people living outstate, we should already see it. Not having a train for a monthly drive isn’t going to stop these people from living in Montgomery instead of Minneapolis or Winsted instead of West St. Paul.

    Has this been happening?

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