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 However, most of the planning dates to the 2010 plan (available by special request on MNDOT’s website) which is now outdated as freight traffic has changed and railroads have improved their infrastructure.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.

Performance

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

Improvements

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

Conclusion

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.

3 thoughts on “Beyond 2030: Looking at Intercity Rail in Minnesota

  1. Trademark

    It’s obvious that their ending all of the routes in state except for Wisconsin because they probably haven’t had significant conversations with the other states as far as connections go. I highly doubt if a train was built to moorhead that north dakota wouldn’t jump on the short connection to bring it into fargo. Iowa will probably be a little tougher to get cooperation as extending down to Des Moines would be a sizeable project and responsibility for them.

    You act as if one state can just snap their fingers and create a 750 mile route passing over multiple states and international jurisdictions. While yes sometimes you can lobby for that to happen, if there’s only minneapolis to chicago and Minneapolis to Duluth appears on the amtrak expansion list it will be hard to convince the feds to operate another long distance route from here. Especially as amtrak’s direction going forward is moving away from long distance routes and focusing more on shorter routes.

    Another reason why albert lea is probably their choice is that it has better south, east, and west connections with intercity bus being right on the freeway. This way until Iowa gets their act together buses going to des moines don’t have to backtrack on I-90 going to Des Moines. I don’t think that alone makes it a good decision but that’s probably in the minds of planners. Either way we need more collaboration with Iowa.

    You said you’re focusing on the four routes in the bonding bill, which bonding bill? I know these are the focus of the 6 year old study but are these actually getting funding or are they still just lines on a paper without even having environmental impact studies.

    I do like the idea of eau claire continuing to mankato. I think the NLX could do the same thing too.

    Also the US-14 corridor should be a high priority from New Ulm to Owatonna to Rochester to Winona. With timed connections to the twin cities to chicago amtrak and future mankato to twin cities and albert lea to twin cities trains. Although this will be politically less feasible now after the significant cost of expanding us-14 to a freeway over the last 20 years.

    Reply
    1. Ian Gaida Post author

      So then why not start these conversations? Like I said, Minnesota should be leading the way here, not just waiting for other states to do the work. And it’s not like Iowa is against extending it to Des Moines, they just aren’t doing any studies either (https://iowadot.gov/iowainmotion/railplan/2017/IowaSRP2017_Complete.pdf#page=121). They also have large-scale projects of their own they’re studying, like up to 7 daily trains to Omaha via Des Moines at speeds up to 110 MPH.

      And I’m not saying they can snap their fingers and make it happen, I’m saying it’s much easier to make these kinds of broad changes when we’re this early in the process, and that we should be making them. Unfortunately you’re right about Amtrak focusing on shorter routes, which IMO is a mistake as it requires consistent support from multiple partners, some of whom might not want to play ball to begin with. Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida in 2010 come to mind, or they might stop paying like Indiana in 2019, among others. Sure the feds can do the same thing, but I can only think of two and a half in the past 25 years: Sunset Limited in 2005, and that was due to Katrina, and the Pioneer and Desert Wind in 1997,

      While I didn’t think of the bus connection, I do wonder how many people are willing to ride the train down to the state line and then transfer for the rest of the journey. Kind of seems like the same issue Park and Ride has where people will just choose the one mode for the whole trip.

      The two bonding bills are linked at the beginning of the article, and I’ll add them here too. https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/bill.php?f=SF1962&y=2021&ssn=0&b=senate#actions https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/bill.php?f=HF1639&y=2021&ssn=0&b=house#actions Subtracting off the money to finish the NLX and TCH leaves about $10M for studies on these lines. At this point I’d be surprised if they go anywhere, but one can dream.

      I do like the idea of a US-14 corridor as well, and it’ll probably come up in a future article I’m writing

      And thanks for commenting, I appreciate your insight

      Reply
      1. Trademark

        Ya I agree that we should be trying to collaborate with other states. Especially Iowa.

        I think as far as transferring it won’t impact people who aren’t taking the bus now. But there is a huge market of people who take the bus down to kansas city thru des moines. Des moines is the bigger transfer station but I’ve taken the transfer there before and MNDot has been studying intercity bus connections and has been partnering with swtransit for possible routes to mankato and litchfield. So the interest is there. And the more quality intercity transit routes the better. Yes rail is better but bus is still something that should be implemented where it makes sense.

        Reply

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