Beyond 2030: Looking at Intercity Rail in Minnesota

With the Biden administration announcing $80B for passenger rail, Amtrak subsequently announcing their vision for 2030, and the MN legislature gearing up to fund the Twin Cities Hiawatha and the Northern Lights Express, I think it’s time we start looking at what comes next. Specifically, taking another look at the four routes outlined in these bonding bills, all starting in Minneapolis and/or St. Paul and ending in Albert Lea, Mankato, Eau Claire, and Moorhead. They also mention a dedicated Minneapolis and St. Paul connection, but as that will probably be operated as a commuter extension I’m choosing to leave it out for now.

Map of future rail projects in Minnesota
Credit: MNDOT

These routes are recognized as Phase I routes by the 2015 state rail plan, which are to be implemented by 2035. However, most of the planning dates to the 2010 plan (available by special request on MNDOT’s website) which is now outdated as freight traffic has changed and railroads have improved their infrastructure. There’s also what I feel are some strange routing choices. For example, both the Mankato and Albert Lea alignments go from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and then to their respective destinations when they both have more direct routes from St. Paul. This is probably done to circumvent a 2002 ban on commuter studies on the line. While clever, the more sensible option is to just remove the ban. Nevertheless, these numbers should provide a good starting point on how these lines might perform, and how they might be improved.


The Table below showcases the various metrics of the proposed routes according to the 2010 rail plan. Startup and operating costs are given in millions of dollars. The Farebox Recovery Ratio is the percent of operating costs covered by revenue. For reference, most of Amtrak’s long distance routes at the time had a ratio between 43% and 53%. The ranges given are what the report calls “base” and “best” scenarios, with base being the first value and best being the second. All routes have four daily trips except Fargo, which has two.

LineRidershipStartup CostOperating CostFarebox Recover Ratio
Albert Lea110,500 – 165,750$118.5 – $73.6$19 – $14.95%-8%
Eau Claire257,000 – 385,000$156.0 – $112.1$14.6 – $11.535%-56%
Fargo36,500 – 54,750$119.6 – $75.2$10.2 – $5.820% – 43%
Mankato228,000 – 342,000$223 – $170.3$14.1 – $11.129% – 46%
Data source: MNDOT/Cambridge Systematics


I will preface this by saying I don’t particularly care about the cost aspect since intercity rail is a public service, and that it tends to be a red herring as these concerns are never raised about highways or airports. That said, the cost of rail service is still a popular argument against it, and as such, I’ll still be looking at ways to reduce them here, at least at the state level, and usually with the goal of improving these routes as well.

To start, while the Eau Claire and Mankato routes are both pretty good, other than the aforementioned routing issue, perhaps combining them into one route could reduce equipment and labor costs. Maybe the savings could be used to increase service frequency or speed, or even electrify the line.

The Fargo line, on the other hand, could use some work. First, I’m not sure why the bonding bills specify Moorhead. Second, the frequencies could perhaps work better as part of two other proposed trains. One as an extension of the Twin Cities Hiawatha, and the other as part of the North Coast Hiawatha – a proposed train roughly following the Empire Builder’s route, but heading through southern Montana and North Dakota. The latter has the advantage of exceeding the 750 mile route length required to make it a long distance train, and as such, all it’s operating costs would be covered by the federal government (i.e. Amtrak). Montana and other states will help with startup costs as well, and it would give travelers a wider variety of destinations, boosting ridership.

The former would also share some of these benefits, although the operating costs would be split between the states instead of being covered by Amtrak. Still, better than Minnesota paying for all of it. The latter could also benefit from a different end point, as the nearest point to turn a train in Fargo is over in Dillworth, about 5 miles away on the other side of a choke point and a yard. Meanwhile, the Grand Forks station is inside of a wye and Winnipeg Union Station is about 2.7 miles away from a wye. Winnipeg also sits past the 750 mile limit for this line to be considered long distance, and again would pass operating costs to Amtrak – and possibly VIA Rail as well. This would undoubtedly necessitate a name change, but that’s a small price to pay to increase connectivity, distribute the costs to other entities, and even check off a Phase II route well ahead of schedule.

Three comparison images showing the locations of wyes relative to Amtrak stations
Showcasing the difference in train turning locations. From top to bottom: Winnipeg, Grand Forks, and Fargo Source: Google Earth

The last and most problematic route is the line to Albert Lea. First, the routing should be changed to start in Minneapolis and head to Northfield via St. Paul. Leave the Dan Patch Line for commuter service. Second, at the very least change the end point to Austin. Not only does it have more people, but the Canadian Pacific line south of Northfield has much less traffic than the Union Pacific’s spine line. CP has a better track record with Amtrak as well, and their route in Owatonna makes a possible connection to Rochester much easier. These two reroutes shave three miles off MNDOT’s path too, down to 113 miles versus 116. While it’s not much for a line that only makes back five percent of its costs, it’s something, and if the service is really going to end there it’ll need every advantage it can get. Even then, it would be hard to justify 4x daily service on this route.

Ideally these changes would be combined with an extension to either Des Moines for the extra ridership or Chariton, IA for a connection to the California Zephyr. It’s baffling why the legislature is placing this arbitrary limitation of keeping the studies within the state, and then immediately breaking that rule with the Eau Claire route. Perhaps it’s because the city is looking to conduct its own study, but it still seems like an odd choice to me. I’d prefer the state lead the way here, and not wait for others to do the work.

Better yet, extend it further to Kansas City or Houston, like the Plainsman and Twin Star Rocket used to do. These would bring in even more riders not just from locals , but from other connecting trains. Also, say it with me everyone, Houston sits much further than 750 miles from the Twin Cities, making this a long distance route and passing operating costs from the states to Amtrak. Side note, this is why there’s strange service gaps in between say, Louisville and Nashville in Amtrak’s 2030 map.

MNDOT’s proposed route (blue) and mine (red) between St. Paul/Minneapolis and Mason City IA. Red is 155 miles long, blue is 154. source: Google Earth


While it’s nice to see some development on these projects again, we should first look at if these routes best serve their communities. Personally, I think the answer right now is no. While some of these routes are fine in their present form, most could benefit from some form of revision before studies begin, and at least one needs a complete redesign. Thankfully, that’s an extremely easy process right now, only requiring a minor rewrite of two very short bonding bills. Well, in addition to their passage during the special session, but I’ll leave that up to the experts.

Ian Gaida

About Ian Gaida

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