Map showing author's proposed new Amtrak routes. Existing lines are black, modified ones purple, new standard service dark blue, new higher speed service light blue, new high speed service hot pink. Line thickness determines number of trains. Not all lines or stops shown, frequencies only shown on new routes.

Beyond 2035: MNDOT’s Stretch Goals and Blind Spots

This is a continuation of my previous article, which you can read here.

Map of different phases of intercity rail construction in Minnesota.
Credit: MNDOT.

Perhaps I’m jumping the gun by doing this, after all, we still don’t have any of the routes in “Advanced Planning” operating yet, but I’ve taken it upon myself to take my best shot at redesigning MNDOT’s Phase II routes, to be implemented after 2035. Not to mention new information has come out regarding Amtrak’s 2030 vision, the bipartisan infrastructure bill has passed and the CP-KCS Merger is set to go through, so my last article already needs some updating.

A Loose End

Map of route alternatives for the Twin Cities to Rochester "Zip Rail" project, including different termini at St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Map of route alternatives for the Twin Cities to Rochester “Zip Rail” project.

But first, the elephant in the room: Zip Rail, AKA the Rochester Rail Link, is the one Phase I project I didn’t cover in the last article. There are two reasons for this: the first is that it’s a completely different creature than the other projects. While all the other projects utilize existing right of way (ROW) and operate at standard (79 mph) or higher (110 mph) speeds, Zip Rail was meant to run on entirely new right of way, operating between 110 and 300 mph, utilizing anything from standard diesel-electric locomotives to Maglevs. The second is that it’s dead as a doornail, at least for now. Work stopped primarily due to local opposition and lack of funding, but also due to the North American High Speed Rail Company, which developed its own plan in 2015.

I’ll be brief, as there isn’t a lot of info on the company. The few articles I could find lay out some details, mainly that it was a group of local businessmen using it as a way to entice the World’s Fair to come to MN in 2023. The route would’ve been a viaduct built over US 52, and they claimed to have had backing from “undisclosed US and Chinese Investors” and expected to raise $4.2B for the project. Considering I can’t find any more recent info on what should be the second-largest private investment in US passenger rail since the 1950s, I’m going to assume this plan also fell through. With that in mind, it’s looking like this route is following a close time scale to the Phase II routes, hence why I’m lumping them together.

The common thread between the two proposals is: A northern terminus at either SPUD or MSP, a ROW following US 52 and a southern terminus either in downtown Rochester or Rochester International Airport. I assume both plans would settle on conventional overhead electrification and high speed trainsets as well, and with that, we have a foundation on which to build.

The first change, if you can even call it that, is the end points. I’ll be using Union Depot in St Paul and 4th Ave in Rochester. A somewhat arbitrary point, I know, but the important thing is that it’s near downtown, and downtown-to-downtown will generate the best ridership. It also avoids turning the Twin Cities into a super inconvenient triple hub composed of SPUD, MSP, and Target Field Station.

The next change is the route. While highway medians seem like a logical place for new rail construction, oftentimes they need to be rebuilt wider or barriers need to be put up in order to meet safety regulations, adding to the overall cost. Also, highway curves are built for 65-80 mph speeds, not the 150+ mph HSR runs at. While technology like tilting trains and track superelevation can help with this, again, they add cost, and land is relatively cheaper in rural MN.

Mind, a completely greenfield route would arguably take less land than the alternative. The routes outlined in MNDOT’s Zip Rail plan vary between 77 and 93 miles long, with the shortest alternative between Union Depot and Rochester being 82 miles. However, it’s possible to plot routes in the low 70s, with the straight-line distance being almost exactly 70 miles. Physics tells us time is just distance divided by velocity, so this has the added benefit of shortening trip times up to 21% without needing to increase the speed!

Satellite map of the Rochester to St Paul corridor, showing a line paralleling US 52 to the northeast, then cutting north past Hasting, and into downtown St Paul. Rochester is in the bottom left, St Paul top right
A hypothetical 73.5-mile route between Rochester and St Paul.

Only 58 of the 73.5 miles would be new construction as well. The segments from Cottage Grove to Union Depot and the literal last mile into downtown Rochester use existing freight alignments. There is one downside to this route: the last 14 miles parallel the busiest freight line in the state with around 80 trains a day. However, in the past the were many more tracks in the area serving even more trains, so it shouldn’t be too hard to build a dedicated ROW next to the existing tracks. The tracks through Rochester have much less traffic, maybe 5 trains/day, so this isn’t an issue there.

Looking from Dayton's Bluff northwest towards lowertown. Image text says: A complex of tracks used by eight railroads curved towards Union Depot in St. Paul in this 1958 photo. The depot closed in 1971, and trains now drop passengers at the Amtrak station in the Midway area. Mayor Norm Coleman hopes to see the station used for train service again, but also for light rail and commuter rail.
1958 photo showing the track density in Lowertown. Credit: Lowertown Landing.

There’s some uncertainty regarding the optimal top speed. On the one hand, if the train stops at intermediate towns like Zumbrota and Cannon Falls, trains might not reach top speeds above, say, 125 mph between stations, or if they do they’ll get diminishing returns. However, if this route gets built into a larger dedicated HSR line to Chicago, then top speeds of +200 mph would make sense in the grand scheme of things. This would put travel times at about 50 and 26 minutes, respectively. Perhaps a combination of the two could be implemented, utilizing the old Red Bird/Blue Bird names the Chicago Great Western used on their trains to and from the two cities.

This all assumes money is no object, which is rarely the case for rail projects. There is a budget option, which is to offer a stub service extending from a possible Des Moines Train at Owatonna. Other than being cheaper and quicker to start up it’s a worse service at 107 miles long and around 2 hours one way.

The Kitchen Sink

While this stub service would be less than ideal, extending the end points to New Ulm and La Crosse paralleling US 14 could make for an interesting service. Connecting lines from St Paul to Mankato, Des Moines, Rochester, and Chicago in a ring road-esque service isn’t something that’s been tried outside of a few subway systems, and I think would be quite popular as it would shorten travel times not only for towns on the route, but nearby towns with connecting services. To ensure connections to all routes, at least 4 trains a day are needed. As far as potential names for this service, I’m partial to The Winona Rider.

Red line showing route from New Ulm to La Crosse. Twin Cities are in the top center with the Iowa border at the bottom
“US 14” Route following the former DM&E through southern MN.

I talked about the line to Winnipeg in my last article, but with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill’s passage directing the FRA to do feasibility studies on discontinued long distance routes, with emphasis on those discontinued before Amtrak’s startup, as well as instructing Amtrak to enhance cross-border service with Canada, I figured I’d bring it up. Amtrak has never served the route, but there have been Chicago-Winnipeg trains in the past, and creating a new border crossing in the middle of a 2000 mile gap certainly qualifies as enhancing cross-border service I think. Combined, it makes a prime candidate for a modern revival. Perhaps it could be an extension of the second TCMC train Amtrak is set to start. The Soo Line used to run “The Winnipeger” between the two cities. The name feels uninspired to me, but it works.

That just leaves the lines to Sioux City and Sioux Falls. The 2010 state rail plan throws out the Sioux City line due to low ridership, but the line to Sioux Falls was projected to get about 81-122k riders from four round trips. 30k per year per round trip isn’t a lot, so this could do with being cut back, for the time being, perhaps one round trip between the two, extending down to Kansas City via Omaha. This line with the Missouri River Runner could fill a similar purpose as the US 14 line discussed earlier, but for the long-distance trains coming out of Chicago. Most of the trackage is former Chicago Northwestern territory, so I think bringing back The Nightingale name is appropriate.

Red line showing route from St Paul to Kansas City via Mankato, Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Freemont, and Omaha.
Route of the revamped Nightingale.

Of course, I’m not one to leave a town without rail service, so what about the line through Willmar and Marshall? Unfortunately, Marshall on its own is too small to justify rail service even by my standards, but with congress’ doubling down on long-distance lines there’s an option for restoring Amtrak service to Willmar. Prior to its discontinuance in 1979, the North Coast Hiawatha ran via St Cloud between Minneapolis and Fargo, while the Empire Builder was routed via Willmar. In fact, Amtrak still uses this route to detour trains when needed. Another option is to partner with Illinois and run it into Chicago via Dubuque and Rockford, a route served by Amtrak until 1981 and Illinois is looking to restart by 2025. These reroutes could stem losses due to the Builder’s more remote route through Montana.

A 1974 map of passenger rail in the US showing lines operated by Amtrak and private operators. Not all stops shown.
A 1974 timetable showing the different routes between Minneapolis and Fargo. Credit: timetables.org.

Bringing it all Together

Like with the Phase I routes, the quality of the Phase II routes is a mixed bag. Some are good as-is, while some need modification. Some are excess, while others are completely absent. I’m not saying they aren’t good, I would happily take them over the status quo, but in my personal opinion, they need improving. There again, that is just my opinion, and really the only bad option is one where none of this gets built. Passenger rail is an important piece of the infrastructure puzzle. Without it, we stand no chance at fighting climate change or kicking our car dependence.

Map showing author's proposed new Amtrak routes. Existing lines are black, modified ones purple, new standard service dark blue, new higher speed service light blue, new high speed service hot pink. Line thickness determines number of trains. Not all lines or stops shown, frequencies only shown on new routes.
Author’s rendition of an improved rail network in Minnesota and beyond.