The Minnesota Intercity Passenger Rail Plan – Getting Back On Track?

Chargerim2017030493mo 300dpi

Public transportation policy and funding in Minnesota over the past several years – if not decades – has focused on roads, bridges and airports.  As Minnesota’s population changes, these modes alone cannot satisfy all of our transportation needs.  The time has come for investment in a truly multi-modal transportation system.   Many Midwestern states have invested in intercity passenger rail and have seen tremendous returns in economic development, mobility, and environmental benefits.  This article explains why Minnesota should invest in more passenger rail as defined by MnDOT.

The Proposed Passenger Rail Improvements and Investments section of the overall MnDOT Rail Plan of 2015 outlines the plans for development of the Minnesota Intercity passenger rail network and a shows a map depicting the future environment, as envisioned in 2015.  The substance and progress of planning has changed over the past five years.  My intent is to update the status of relevant portions of this plan as they exist today and discuss requirements to fund the initial planned implementations.

The updated map we will reference has been prepared by All Aboard Minnesota, a 501(c)(3) passenger rail advocacy and education organization. The map has been updated to encompass current and future Minnesota intercity passenger rail corridors, within the over-all regional network.  It should be noted that the reference materials and interpretations of current plans are sourced from All Aboard Minnesota

INTERCITY PASSENGER RAIL – A DEFINITION

A clarification may be needed here.  Sometimes there is confusion as to what constitutes “intercity passenger rail”. Simply put, it is any passenger train route that serves two or more metropolitan areas.  In the United States these trains are predominately operated by AMTRAK . Examples are the Empire Builder which serves towns and cities from Chicago to the Twin Cities to Portland and Seattle, and the Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee.  A broader view of passenger rail would include “commuter rail” and “transit rail” (LRT and streetcar) which generally serve one metro area, and are not within the scope of this article.

Aamn 2020 Regional Map For 8 X 11 G01v01p2.white

Aamn 2020 Regional Map For 8 X 11 G01v01p2[1]closeup

The Midwest Region and a Closer Look at Minnesota

A VISION OF THE FUTURE

The maps depict the current routes and communities served in Blue.  Planned routes are shown in red, and communities which would be served in the future are shown in black.  I will comment on the development status of each of the Planned Routes, focusing on Minnesota.

BENEFITS – ACCESSIBILTY-MOBILITY-ECONOMIC-ENVIRONMENTAL

Note that over 30 outstate-Minnesota communities would receive new or improved passenger rail service. This provides the backbone of a robust public transportation system, integrating with local transit systems and shared ride services…eventually automated vehicles…for door-to-door multi-modal mobility throughout the State.  For an interesting perspective on this, see the recent post on streets.mn – Intercity Rail Would Bridge Minnesota’s So-called “Rural-Urban Divide”which also contains some informative links relevant to passenger rail development.

There are many economic, mobility and environmental benefits that more passenger rail service offers.   A recent study of the benefits of the proposed 2nd Train to Chicago  details categories of these benefits which “could generate total annual economic returns in the range of eight- to ten- times Minnesota’s annual net spending to support the service”.   Similar savings can be realized across the network.

There are many economic, mobility and environmental benefits that more passenger rail service offers.   A recent study of the benefits of the proposed 2nd Train to Chicago  details categories of these benefits which “could generate total annual economic returns in the range of eight- to ten- times Minnesota’s annual net spending to support the service”.   Similar savings can be realized across the network.

RELATED DEVELOPMENT

Before commenting on the Minnesota Rail plan status, it is worth noting that other Midwestern states have aggressively pursued improvements to their state rail systems…shown in blue…most notably Illinois, Missouri, Michigan and even Wisconsin which is increasing Hiawatha frequency to 10 round trips per day.  Both Illinois and Michigan (not pictured here) have converted large portions of their rights of way to 110 mph capability.  States in other areas of the country; including, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, California, Oregon and Washington are also building out their passenger rail infrastructures, largely for reasons of economic competitiveness, and have seen these new services fill up rapidly and generate economic development .

THE ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT

By way of contrast, progress on the Minnesota Passenger Rail plan has been lagging for years.  The principal reason is lack of funding.  The current funding environment in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and at the Federal level …pre-Covid-19…appears to be much more favorable during the current legislative session. The impact of the pandemic remains to be seen, but could drive more infrastructure spending.

  • In the Minnesota Legislature, the Governor’s budget request and bi-partisan bills for passenger rail funding have been combined into a House Omnibus Capital Investment bill HF2529 which provides $40 million for MnDOT passenger rail projects and Northstar commuter rail extension to St Cloud. The Minnesota Senate has not yet acted on a bonding bill, but held a hearing on transportation infrastructure funding to create jobs and maintain a healthy multi-modal transportation environment.  The mood seemed very favorable to significant funding.
  • On the National level, the Federal Railroad Administration has released $325 million for grants to improve railroad safety and infrastructure. In general, there is more Federal grant money available and good prospects for additional funding.
  • Wisconsin funding for their share of the TCMC infrastructure is progressing in their legislature and several Federal infrastructure grants for station and track improvements have been obtained.

Conditions on the freight railroads are also more favorable to accommodating passenger trains.  Shipments of oil, fracking sand and coal have greatly diminished since 2015.  Passenger traffic is recognized as one opportunity to monetize excess capacity.  In addition, many of the necessary infrastructure improvements, such as Positive Train Control and double tracking, have been completed by the railroads in the intervening years.

PROJECTS TO IMPLEMENT THE PLAN

Development and implementation is being done within the framework of Private-Public-Partnerships among the States, active freight railroads and Amtrak.  When implemented, the freight railroads maintain tracks and operating infrastructure, Amtrak maintains equipment and operates the trains. The State provides funding for required upgrades and equipment, and covers operating shortfalls, offset by matching funds provided by the Federal Government.

In the 2015 plan, projects in active development were classified as Phase 1. If not in active development projects were considered Phase 2, which have recently been re-classified as Emerging Corridors.

Phase 1 – The following plans are in currently in active development

  • 2nd train to Chicago – Currently named the TCMC (Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago). The Initial phase is to add a single daily round trip frequency on the existing Empire Builder Route from St Paul to Chicago. The project is in the final stages of completing the service plan and environmental approvals.  It will be “shovel ready” this summer.  Current status:
    • The Governor and House have submitted a bonding request for $10 million to provide the state match for Federal funding. The State Senate has not yet submitted its bonding bill
    • Similar funding is also moving forward in Wisconsin to fund their portion of the infrastructure investment. AMTRAK is also providing support..
    • Minnesota and Wisconsin have jointly requested Federal grants for the first three years of operating expense offset.
    • Wisconsin has received $41 million in Federal grants for infrastructure and equipment to fund the Hiawatha and TCMC .
    • It appears that the TCMC will be an extension of one of the 10 daily Hiawatha round trips, on a 4 hour offset schedule to the Empire Builder.
    • Provisions for transfer to Rochester from La Crosse or Winona stations by bus are included in the project plan.
  • Twin Cities – Duluth – The Northern Lights Express has been “shovel ready” since 2018.  The plan calls for four round trips daily between Target Field and Duluth/Superior. Current Status:
    • The House omnibus bonding bill provides $25 million for track improvements to handle combined Northstar and NLX traffic.
    • Current activity includes negotiations with BNSF and AMTRAK to finalize routing, infrastructure and equipment funding requirements.
    • Improvement of transfer routes between St Paul and Minneapolis is being studied to allow NLX and other trains to more effectively serve both cities.

Emerging Corridors – formerly phase 2 developments in the 2015 plan.  $5 million has been included in the House Omnibus bonding bill for initiating or reinstating route planning for the following:

  • Twin Cities – Fargo/Moorhead – this is currently seen as an extension of the TCMC and could be easily implemented after TCMC completion.
    • Would provide daytime service on a proposed schedule offset to the Empire Builder, which transits this route in the late-night-early-morning hours.
    • Infrastructure has been upgraded significantly since 2015 which would minimize investment.
    • No additional rolling stock required
    • Could complement Northstar service to St. Cloud and add service to Little Falls and Wadena.
  • Twin Cities – Des Moines –this route would connect the Twin Cities and Southern Minnesota Communities which are not presently served by adequate public transportation.
    • Would serve Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna and Albert Lea
    • Opens the possibility of extending service to Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Dallas-Fort Worth
    • An AAMN field study showed that rights of way and many stations are in good condition for passenger operations.
  • Twin Cities – Sioux Falls – this route would connect the Twin Cities and Southwest Minnesota Communities which are not presently served by adequate public transportation.
    • Would serve Shakopee, St Peter, Mankato, St James, and Worthington
    • Opens possibility of extending service to Sioux City and Omaha with connections to Denver and the West Coast
    • Would require significant infrastructure upgrade.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

If the past is prologue – not very far.  A streets.mn piece from 2015 “Second Train to Chicago: Still Running Late” expresses the frustration in lack of progress two and one half years after the second train study was initiated.  Here we are another five years along and still looking for funds to get the 2nd train on track.  The same can be said for the NLX…two years after the project was declared shovel ready…with only minimal funding and little progress made toward implementation.

It is time for the Minnesota Legislature to act. If monies are appropriated, the state can apply for Federal Matching Grants that would fund capital costs in a range of 70-80%, and there are Federal grants available for operating costs in the first three years of new services as well.  But, the state needs to put up money first.  Wisconsin and many other Midwestern States have moved forward to invest in passenger rail as part of their multi-modal transportation networks, and have realized significant benefits.  Minnesota needs to do the same to stay economically competitive in the Midwest, creating jobs, moving people efficiently, reducing greenhouse gasses, reducing wear and tear on highways, improving safety, by improving and utilizing the existing rail infrastructure.

Getting Back on Track?  The Governor and House have proposed funding for Passenger Rail.  The Senate is formulating its Capital Expenditure Bill… Boarding Scene2…Time to get back on board to fund the multi-modal transportation future!

 

Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

, , , , , ,

30 Responses to The Minnesota Intercity Passenger Rail Plan – Getting Back On Track?

  1. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig May 6, 2020 at 9:13 am #

    I’m going to be bluntly honest here: in a non-COVID world, this article would be spot on. But in the midst of the COVID pandemic and the later-on fallout of it which will significantly impact both long-distance travel and urban areas, your timing may not be the greatest. We’re at least a year out, if not longer, on realistically having a chance to do anything.

    • Eric Ecklund May 6, 2020 at 10:32 am #

      Better to start talking about this now so when the time comes to actually do something we’ll be ready. The present situation we’re in with this pandemic won’t be forever.

      • Mike Davis May 8, 2020 at 10:00 am #

        I agree, Eric. You don’t stop planning because of something that might last 12-18 months. That is just 12-18 months lost.

    • Monte Castleman May 7, 2020 at 8:11 am #

      Yes. Right now it’s going to be hard to overcome the “we have more important things to be doing” and “people are going to be too afraid to ride trains and transit ever again” viewpoints. The middle of a tornado isn’t a good time to start your new home improvement project.

      • Pete Barrett May 9, 2020 at 4:20 pm #

        Trust me, it will never be the right time. There will always be “other priorities right now.”

        We call it the ever receding horizon.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 6, 2020 at 9:21 am #

    I feel like we would have funded the 2nd Chicago train this year if not for COVID. 🙁 Pretty sad.

  3. Ben May 6, 2020 at 9:59 am #

    Great article, I love the status updates for such an important project. I’d love to know what action items we can have for projects – what can we do to push the legislature to move forward with these projects?

    • Kevin Roggenbuck May 8, 2020 at 9:47 am #

      Ben, I’m glad you asked. Please contact the chairs of the House and Senate bonding committees, Rep. Mary Murphy and Sen. David Senjem, in support of the TCMC Second Train. Tell them the Federal Railroad Admin awarded a grant for $12.569 million to be used toward operating costs and Amtrak will contribute $5 million toward final design and construction. Wisconsin DOT, La Crosse Area Planning Committee and the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority have funded the studies to develop the project. Time for Minnesota to step up!

  4. Marty May 6, 2020 at 10:38 am #

    This plan leaves out the very obvious improvement of rerouting the Empire Builder through Owatonna and Rochester. Yes, it cuts out Red Wing, but it also puts trains on much less active lines and serves tens of thousands more people. And it would open the option of commuter rail from Rochester to the Cities as well.

    • Monte Castleman May 7, 2020 at 8:08 am #

      This is contingent of the St Paul route being selected over the Minneapolis route for “the line formerly know as Dan Patch”. There’s a good chance of that happening due to better track conditions and more political support, but it’s a bit preliminary to make that call. I don’t think there’s wherewithal to improve tracks from Northfield to both cities, and I don’t see St. Paul tolerating being removed as a stop nor do I see Amtrak willing to route from Northfield to Minneapolis to St. Paul and then back on the same tracks to Minneapolis again.

    • Mike Davis May 8, 2020 at 10:03 am #

      That route would require tremendous spending to upgrade the infrastructure. A better plan would be to vastly improve bus service from Winona/La Crosse and the Twin Cities, or even Owatonna if the route south is ever upgraded.

    • Alex Nagel May 8, 2020 at 6:43 pm #

      That would be a viable option if the former CGW mainline route south of the Twin Cities had been railbanked and left alone instead of torn up by successor CNW. What really needs to happen here is that CPRS needs to get the River, Tomah and Watertown Subs double-tracked again to allow for extra capacity for new passenger service.

  5. Scott May 6, 2020 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks for this well-written and informative article.

    Seems that a robust, regional passenger rail network will be even more desirable post-COVID19. The airline industry is likely to be severely scaled back, which might include cuts to flights particularly in smaller cities like Fargo/ Moorehead, Duluth, Sioux Falls and Rochester. It’s even possible that a lot fewer people will be able to afford to drive due to the economic fall out. But, who knows? It’s also possible the State and Feds pour money into expanding roads and implement policies that encourage even more private auto use.

  6. Jeff Dehler May 6, 2020 at 12:23 pm #

    There is still a very good chance for funding at the MN legislature this year for expansion of passenger rail. Funds are included in the Governor’s bonding proposal, and there are strong advocates in both the House and Senate. When bonding bills are released, conference committee legislators should be reminded of the importance of offering transportation alternatives, especially when track and signal improvements will also benefit freight operations.

    I appreciate points of view concerning transportation during the pandemic as well as after. It’s hard to predict what the world looks like after the pandemic, as surely many of the things we’ve taken for granted will change. One thing that will continue: people will want to travel between the Twin Cities and Chicago and points in between.

  7. Jerry May 6, 2020 at 12:41 pm #

    Marty-Train to Rochester is great idea- but no tracks so cost is really high.
    Ben-What you can do is contact your Senator and Representative now to simply tell them you support the MNDot rail plan. Senate is on the fence right now.
    Adam & Bill-Why now? Wisconsin is ahead of us and was approved for 4 federal grants in 2019 & 2020 worth millions. Great way to help with their recovery by building infrastructure. MN can do this- let your elected officials know. They like to hear from their constituents.
    All transit from planes to trains to buses to light rail are suffering now. As Scott said, feds are giving up on their subsidies to aircraft to small towns that Amtrak covers.

    • Marty May 6, 2020 at 12:53 pm #

      Jerry… That’s why I suggested going through Owatonna. There is currently Canadian pacific tracks that goes south out of the cities through Owatonna and then turn east and head right through downtown Rochester and continue on into Winona. The Amtrak currently runs on CP tracks along the Mississippi on a much more congested and at risk route. So they may be interested in seeing less traffic on the Mississippi route, and more traffic on a important but underutilized set of tracks that already exist.

      • Jerry May 6, 2020 at 8:20 pm #

        Marty,
        I am aware of that option and my recollection is one issue is crossing the river – needing a bridge to MSP, Target Field, and SPUD. I also believe that track is in poor condition and thus more cost. Eventually a train to Rochester might happen but the second train will open the flood of people into SPUD right away and is on existing ready to use track (Builder uses it now). Note Jay’s map above as it is really the MNDot Rail plan and there are numerous routes on it including extending the second train to Chicago on to terminate in Fargo. It also is on existing GREAT track and will not need more equipment. I would love to have all the trains on that map tomorrow, but believe we need to walk before we can run or take one step at a time. Check out the AllAboardMN.org site for more information.

      • MIke Davis May 8, 2020 at 10:09 am #

        The UP’s line south from the Twin Cities through Owatonna is much better shape than the parallel former Milwaukee Road route CP has, much of which hasn’t seen a train in years north of Owatonna. Once at Owatonna, CP’s former C&NW/DM&E track is better than some, but would need to major upgrades. While it can handle freight at up to 30 mph or more in places, it is not capable of running passengers at 79 mph (Amtrak’s maximum outside of the Northeast Corridor.) We are talking Light Rail corridor-like costs for a lot fewer passengers.

        • Marty May 8, 2020 at 10:17 am #

          Interesting, I didn’t realize that DM&E Line was in such bad shape. I think near Rochester light rail level passenger levels could get going as there is such high employment density in downtown Rochester (Mayo is two blocks from the CP/DM&E Tracks), and the towns along the same route (Kasson, St. Charles, Dodge Center, Byron) are some of the largest small towns in Southeastern Minnesota. But, it works best if it could be a reroute for Amtrak and that sounds far away.

          • Mike Davis May 8, 2020 at 10:36 am #

            I wasn’t suggesting light rail. I was suggesting getting that corridor up to the condition needed to handle Amtrak trains of at least 79 mph would require investments similar to what it is costing to build much shorter light rail lines in the Metro area. While the corridors are there, the track infrastructure is not good enough for fast passenger trains.

          • Allen May 8, 2020 at 2:39 pm #

            Marty, sorry to split hairs but CP’s old DM&E line is just fine. It is not in bad shape. It just isn’t at a level, an FRA classification, that would support passenger trains at the speeds being looked at.

            Either way, that line is in good shape compared to the connection to Sioux Falls. I’m not sure how anyone would find that money. Is that all even connected? I’m pretty sure that line from Worthington to Luverne is not only a 10mph short line but, IIRC, had it’s connection to Sioux Falls broken decades ago. Unless that right of way is fully intact, good luck trying to build something from scratch there.

            • Mike Davis May 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm #

              If anything were to go to Sioux Falls (Unlikely in any scenario), you would likely use BNSF off the Marshall line though the junction at Garretson, SD, not the old C&NW line from Agate west through Adrian and Luverne. But all that is so far down as a priority as to be needlessly debated at that point. But I do like going down the Ex-Rock Island Spine Line south from Metro thru Fairbault Albert Lea, Mason Cityto Des Moines and south on to KC. That allows you to connect with Calif. Zephyr at Osceola or somewhere nearby or with the SWChief at KC without having to go all the way east to Chicago before going west/SW. Running passenger down the old Omaha Road/CNW thru Mankato, Worthington and Sioux City and on to Omaha and then KC accomplishes the same thing. Of course, the fly in the ointment is either route is owned by UP, which likely would fight either plan. A lot of money needed to get track up to 79 mph for passenger, along with need for station upgrades. There are depots at Faribault ((privately owned) and Albert Lea (UP owned) on Spine Line. On the other, depots at Shakopee (private biz), Mankato (private biz), St. James and Worthington (UP owned ), Sheldon, IA, (privately owned and in restored/ Vacant the last time I saw it.)

              • Alex Nagel May 8, 2020 at 6:47 pm #

                Even as someone who is a long-time CPRS employee and knows both the River and Marquette Sub mainlines like the back of his hand, I agree that the UP’s ex-CNW/RI “Spine Line” mainline is the perfect fit for new passenger rail service down to KCITY. The big question now is will UP be agreeable to it?

              • Allen May 13, 2020 at 9:41 am #


                If anything were to go to Sioux Falls (Unlikely in any scenario), you would likely use BNSF off the Marshall line

                ~ Mike Davis

                I don’t disagree. Nevertheless that is not the All Aboard Minnesota proposed route.

  8. S May 7, 2020 at 11:09 am #

    An east-west connector through Rochester would help access from all directions. I’m sure the Mayo Clinic would appreciate that. I think a service from the Twin Cities to Marshall and beyond could be very useful. I would also like to see an eastern route through Wisconsin to S. St. Marie through Canada to ultimately Boston/New York, but that’s far-fetched.
    I don’t think a second train to Chicago is enough. There should be at least two express trains with far fewer stops and one or more locals that stop in all towns. Stopping in Portage and Columbus and Wisconsin Dells slows the train too much.

  9. Ian R Buck May 7, 2020 at 8:50 pm #

    Where do we go from here? If the past is prologue – not very far.

    Oh Jay, you break my heart. 😞

  10. Allen May 8, 2020 at 2:31 pm #


    No additional rolling stock required

    I’m not sure what you mean to be saying. You can NOT add more trains or extended existing routes without adding more rolling stock.

    • Mike Davis May 8, 2020 at 4:51 pm #

      I wonder if they mean running the train set for the second Chicago-Twin Cities train on to Fargo and then back. That could be done in about 10 hours thus just adding one train set to the existing Empire Builder, which because it is a two-plus day trip to/from West Coast requires at least four complete train sets – one each day each way.

  11. Nathanael May 9, 2020 at 1:19 am #

    Just get the damn train from the Twin Cities to Northfield built. It was supposed to be built in the 1990s. I’d be taking it at least once a year and I live on the East Coast.

  12. John Dillery May 10, 2020 at 10:42 am #

    Friends, if you really want to be credible and attract more passenger train supporters, please stay positive. Be good students of history so you can keep the COVID pandemic in perspective. It is wrong to allow relatively short-term tragedies affect plans for the coming years. Focus on the pragmatic. I try to and that is why I am a member of All Aboard Minnesota, the National Rail Passengers Association and High Speed Rail and also urge you to resist falling into a box in your thinking. I took the bus from Minneapolis south to catch the westbound California Zephyr in 2018. Jefferson Lines midday express made a fast and good connection, even though I had to hassle a transfer in Des Moines to get to Omaha, only because Jefferson doesn’t make a 5 minute diversion to the train station in Oceola, Iowa. This is a missing inter-modal opportunity to add Jefferson Lines to the AMTRAK Thru-way Map! This would be cheap. Friends, let us all get intermodal in our thinking: Promote Thru-way bus connections everywhere on the All Aboard Minnesota Map to then prove the market for restoration of passenger trains in that corridor. If you want to win the race, be sure you can walk well before you run! If you stay positive, I will read your messages. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize and help save the world. Thank you.

Note on Comments

streets.mn welcomes opinions from many perspectives. Please refrain from attacking or disparaging others in your comments. streets.mn sees debate as a learning opportunity. Please share your perspective in a respectful manner. View our full comment policy to learn more.

Thanks for commenting on streets.mn!