The State of the Union (Depot) Address

Episode Summary

00:00 | Intro
00:53 | Legislative update
33:25 | Rail termini in the Twin Cities
50:10 | Outro

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Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode was hosted and edited by Ian R Buck, with transcript by the indominable Mike Allen. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super professional Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work they do, please consider donating. We really appreciate it!


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Brian: [00:00:00] This state is very reliant on roads and bridges, which it has been for decades, and so when you look…

Ian: [00:00:08] It’s the most bipartisan thing, we can all agree that we need to build more roads and bridges. Right, guys?

Brian: [00:00:14] [Laughing] Right!

Ian: [00:00:19] Welcome to the podcast, the show where we shape transportation and land use to make our world a better place. Coming to you from beautiful Frogtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. I am your host, Ian R. Buck. In today’s episode, we’re going to chat with Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, about the current state of passenger rail and where we’re going next. Fine show notes and a transcript of the episode at Welcome to the show, Brian. Could you start by telling us a little bit about All Aboard Minnesota itself?

Brian: [00:00:53] Happy to be here. Ian, thanks for having us. So All Aboard Minnesota is a non-profit citizen advocacy group. And what our real mission is, is to advocate and educate various cities around the state of Minnesota about what more passenger rail can do for their cities, and their regions, specifically. And so what our model is, is to get people excited about the prospect of more passenger rail and then for them to put pressure on the Minnesota legislature to fund it. So our model follows what a lot of other citizen advocacy groups around the nation have done. We’re not reinventing the wheel in any way, but citizen advocacy works because, you know, local towns, mayors, chambers of commerce, when they call legislators, that gets their attention. And when citizens get excited about this, then legislators pay, pay notice and attention to it. So that’s our model. We’ve been in existence for a little over ten years. We’ve conducted what we call a number of outreach meetings throughout the state to do just that, to meet with local officials, business leaders, mayors, chambers, rotaries, citizens in general, to get them excited about what passenger rail can do for their cities. And so we’ve done that in Winona, La Crosse, Red Wing, Saint Cloud, Fargo-Moorhead and a number of other cities around the state.

Ian: [00:02:19] Yeah, I noticed that all of those places that you just named are already on the Empire Builder route…

Brian: [00:02:25] Yes.

Ian: [00:02:25] …So they have some direct experience with what that can do for their for their communities.

Brian: [00:02:30] Exactly. And so what we’re promoting on that route specifically is a daytime train from Saint Paul to Fargo-Moorhead because the Empire Builder serves those communities in the wee hours of the morning.

Ian: [00:02:43] Right. Yes.

Brian: [00:02:44] You know, it’s not convenient for those communities. And it’s you know, it’s a great service, but there’s a lot of excitement about a daytime passenger train on that route using the existing Empire Builder route through Saint Cloud, Little Falls to Fargo-Moorhead.

Ian: [00:02:58] Yeah. And that would be not on the same schedule that the second daily Amtrak to Chicago is going to be, right?

Brian: [00:03:07] Well, that’s a good point, because what we’re advocating for is extending the second train frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago up to Fargo-Moorhead.

Ian: [00:03:17] So it would be on that schedule.

Brian: [00:03:19] It would be on that schedule, yep. Yep. And that’s where the daytime part would come in through Saint Cloud and up to Fargo-Moorhead.

Ian: [00:03:27] Yeah, I remember when, when I was first presented with the idea of having a second daily, you know, train, I just kind of assumed that it was going to be like offset by 12 hours from the existing Empire Builder schedule. I gathered that the the planned schedule right now is just an extension of the Hiawatha line that goes from between Chicago and Milwaukee currently. Is that right?

Brian: [00:03:51] That’s a good point. That’s the current plan.

Ian: [00:03:55] [Music] Hey there, Ian from the future here. So I did feel the need to go and look up what the timetable schedule would be. And from what I have found, the westbound is going to be an extension of the Amtrak Hiawatha Route 333, which leaves Chicago about 3 hours before the Empire Builder does. So. What that means is that it leaves Chicago at about 11:00 AM, it passes through Milwaukee at 12:30 p.m., and then it will arrive in Saint Paul at about 7:00 PM. So if we extend that schedule out, that means that it would be arriving in Saint Cloud at like 9:15 p.m. and it would hit Fargo a little after midnight, going in the other direction. The eastbound train is going to be based on the Hiawatha Route 340 schedule. So that is one that arrives in Chicago a little more than 3 hours after the Empire Builder does so at about 7:14 p.m. And it would be departing Saint Paul a little bit before noon. So if we extrapolate that out, that means that it would pass through Saint Cloud around 9 a.m. and it would be leaving Fargo at about 6:00 AM much more palatable times of the day than the Empire Builder currently serves them.

Brian: [00:05:40] WisDOT actually did the service model plan and worked with MNDOT, and Amtrak, and Canadian Pacific, over which the train would run, the railroad that the train would run, to figure out that service plan. Now, what’s being talked about is that the service would start much earlier than originally planned. It’s possible that it can start in the first quarter of 2023, so we’re not exactly sure what that plan looks like now. So things are very dynamic. They’re changing. But the exciting news is we would get it a lot sooner than originally planned, but it would only be three days a week to start.

Ian: [00:06:20] Mm hmm.

Brian: [00:06:21] And then it would go to a daily schedule once a lot of the construction is complete, the infrastructure improvements, things like that.

Ian: [00:06:29] Yeah. And right now, we’re recording this on June 13th. The Empire Builder is back at seven days a week, or is [it]?

Brian: [00:06:39] It is.

Ian: [00:06:39] It kind of it was down to three, four or. Yeah, three days for a little while in the pandemic. And then they brought it back to seven and then they had a bunch of canceled trips because of staffing shortages. Yeah. Has that that seems to have subsided by now, I hope?

Brian: [00:06:54] Amtrak is still dealing with a lot of equipment and crew shortages, which is an issue for them right now, and that that hopefully won’t impact the start up of the second train. But but yes, the Empire Builder is back on a daily schedule, which is great news.

Ian: [00:07:11] Yeah, good, good, good. Yeah. Because as of like spring break of this year, I did have some trouble getting, you know, finding a trip that was on the one specific day that I wanted to. And so I had to go like a day earlier than I planned.

Brian: [00:07:24] Well, and it’s and it’s it’s confusing for the public, honestly.

Ian: [00:07:27] Absolutely.

Brian: [00:07:28] You know, when when you have a train that’s been daily for decades to go to three times a week, then five times a week. And so, you know, we’ve been we’ve been you know, I hate to use the word critical of Amtrak management for doing that, but it is it’s confusing to the public, you know, because you don’t know when the train is going to run. And it’s hard to figure that out.

Ian: [00:07:49] Yeah. Yeah. And and for somebody like I’m very fortunate living here in Saint Paul where like, if I need to book a ticket, I can just go down to Union Depot and talk to the helpful people down there and they know everything, you know? But for somebody who doesn’t live this close to the station, right?

Brian: [00:08:08] Yes.

Ian: [00:08:08] Or if they live in a community that has an un-staffed station, right?

Brian: [00:08:11] Right!

Ian: [00:08:11] Like like you’re trying to use this website. Amtrak’s like website is a unique dumpster-fire, among dumpster-fires.

Brian: [00:08:20] That’s an interesting way to put it. Very well said, Ian. Yeah, right.

Ian: [00:08:24] It’s like like even even somebody who has a fair amount of experience and knowledge about the service and knows like, oh yeah, like for example, bicycles are only allowed on stations that have checked baggage service.

Brian: [00:08:38] Right.

Ian: [00:08:39] Right? And so I know that I need to be looking at that, and that’s why bicycles aren’t being offered to me on the website when I, you know, look at other stations. But but the website doesn’t tell you that, like there’s a lot of little details like that.

Brian: [00:08:53] Yeah. Well, yeah, that’s… Right. [Laughter]

Speaker3: [00:08:58] Yeah.

Ian: [00:09:00] But the humans the humans who work at Amtrak know all these tricks. They they know the whole system.

Brian: [00:09:06] Right, exactly. Well, and that’s that’s one of our main focus and emphasis when, when the second train begins rolling. We want to put out as much information as we can to help MNDOT and Amtrak, promote the service, educate the public about it when it’s going to run, you know what the amenities are going to be like, what you can expect and all those different things because it is going to be a different train from the Empire Builder.

Ian: [00:09:33] Right. Right. And even though I think I feel like the public is probably going to think of it as like, “Oh, this is a second daily Empire Builder.”

Brian: [00:09:39] Right.

Ian: [00:09:40] But it’s… It’s not it doesn’t go the whole distance…

Brian: [00:09:43] Exactly.

Ian: [00:09:43] …All the way to the West Coast, right within Amtrak system. It’s going to have a completely different name.

Brian: [00:09:48] Yes. Exactly. Very, very observant. Yep. Mhmm

Ian: [00:09:52] Like I think there are a few lines like that in Illinois where there’s like there’s one that’s called the Illinois Zephyr that follows a similar route to the California Zephyr, but it only goes out to like the border of Illinois.

Brian: [00:10:06] Right.

Ian: [00:10:07] And that’s what it’s like publicly called. But then like in their back end system, it’s not called the Illinois Zephyr?

Brian: [00:10:15] Well, and and that’s that’s the difference. So Amtrak has very three distinct business units. One is the Northeast Corridor, which Amtrak touts quite a bit…

Ian: [00:10:24] Yep.

Brian: [00:10:25] …And then there’s the state corridors, like the second train…

Ian: [00:10:29] Yep. Mhmm.

Brian: [00:10:30] …Which states pay for…

Ian: [00:10:32] Okay.

Brian: [00:10:32] …And like Illinois pays for the Illinois Zephyr, and Detroit pays for a lot of services in in, in, Michigan, things like that…

Ian: [00:10:42] Yep.

Brian: [00:10:42] …So and then the third segment is the long distance train segment of which the Empire Builder is a part of that. So federal funds subsidize the Northeast Corridor and the long distance trains and states subsidize the corridor services. So they are a different sort of unique service within the Amtrak business model.

Ian: [00:11:02] Yeah.

Brian: [00:11:02] And so if states want more services, they have to pay for them. But the good news is with the Jobs and Infrastructure Act passed by Congress, there’s a lot of money available right now. And so, you know, we’re…

Ian: [00:11:16] And that even though that’s federal money that would be available for getting some of these state… Normally state sponsored routes up and going.

Brian: [00:11:25] Correct, what states have to do is is provide a what’s called a matching grant. So so for example, for the second train, Minnesota put up $10 dollars.

Ian: [00:11:35] Right… It seemed like they weren’t going to for a little while.

Brian: [00:11:39] That’s right. That’s right. But we, along with several other groups, spent a lot of time testifying in the Minnesota legislature, getting the word out, getting legislators excited about what that could do. It’s like $10 million unlocks this whole corridor that there’s proven demand for, that Amtrak/MNDOT/WisDOT model, this great demand for. So it’s there and it’s not going to cannibalize ridership from the Empire Builder because it’s going to be attracting new riders who otherwise wouldn’t take the train.

Ian: [00:12:12] Right. The detail that stood out to me from that model was that ridership is projected to more than double…

Brian: [00:12:19] Yep.

Ian: [00:12:20] …right? When we double the number of trips that go along that route…

Brian: [00:12:24] Yes.

Ian: [00:12:24] …Because there’s so many people who like well, they want to take the train. That’s kind of their first look. But oh, turns out the Empire Builder schedule just doesn’t work for them on that particular trip, opening up a whole another, you know, offset by 6 hours or whatever it is, you know, that opens up a whole new option for people.

Brian: [00:12:43] It does. And so a lot of times when corridor services are doubled, ridership triples or quadruples because of what you just described, because it gives people more options, and it’s called induced demand for people that otherwise wouldn’t have taken those trips because they do have the option.

Ian: [00:13:02] Yeah. Yeah. In this case, induced demand is a thing that we want to have happen.

Brian: [00:13:06] That’s right.

Ian: [00:13:07] Unlike with, uh, highways.

Brian: [00:13:08] Exactly. And, you know, the the fact that you’re taking hundreds of thousands of cars off highways, you know, you’re reducing highway maintenance expense and trains are much more energy efficient than cars or planes. And there’s something like taking a train is like 45% more energy efficient than driving. And in taking a train, you’re producing like 83% less greenhouse gases. So, I mean, from a climate perspective, it’s hugely beneficial.

Ian: [00:13:38] Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Brian: [00:13:40] And so that that $10 Million matching grant unlocked $50 Million from the feds that the states can use then for all of the infrastructure improvements that are required by the railroad.

Ian: [00:13:54] Yeah.

Brian: [00:13:55] And so that’s the model throughout the nation. And so with the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, there’s, you know, billions of dollars available now. But, you know, it’s like a shrinking window because that’s not going to stay there forever. You know, it’s like a 3 to 5 year window when that money is going to be available according to the law. And so, you know, states have to act now and a lot of them are like Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, states all around us.

Ian: [00:14:23] And if we don’t, like, act on it, then we’re just leaving money on the table. We’re letting other states just like gobble that up.

Brian: [00:14:30] We’re we’re, in effect, subsidizing other states, as well.

Ian: [00:14:36] So what a great strategy that is.

Brian: [00:14:38] You’re exactly right! So, you know, it’s we made a big push this year with some new passenger rail legislation that was heard in the House, in the Capital Investment Committee, as well as the Transportation Committee. We testified, I think, four different times about extending the second train to Saint Cloud, Fargo-Moorhead, and then new service down through Owatonna, Faribault, Albert Lea, to Des Moines and Kansas City.

Ian: [00:15:05] Okay.

Brian: [00:15:06] And that’s what we call the southern route would connect us to Amtrak trains that serve, you know, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, you know, places that Minnesotans travel to.

Ian: [00:15:20] Right. Right.

Brian: [00:15:21] And so now in order to connect to those trains, you have to go through Chicago, which takes a lot of extra time and a lot of extra money.

Ian: [00:15:29] Yeah.

Brian: [00:15:29] And this train is a direct connection through the heart of the Midwest. And if you’ve ever traveled on I-35 to Des Moines, you know how busy that is.

Ian: [00:15:38] Right.

Brian: [00:15:38] I mean, it’s just packed all the time. So we think that that service would be great for Minnesota and connecting us to the upper Midwest. And there are so many, you know, over the years that we’ve been doing this, there’s just so many people that either don’t want to or can’t drive or fly for various reasons.

Ian: [00:15:58] Right.

Brian: [00:15:58] Of all different demographics. And so this state is very reliant on roads and bridges, which it has been for decades. And so…

Ian: [00:16:09] You look, it’s the most bipartisan thing we can all agree that we need to build more roads and bridges. Right, guys?

Brian: [00:16:16] [Laughing] Right! And roads and bridges should be funded. They should be. And and we’re not advocating that that, you know, we stop funding roads and bridges because they are necessary. But that’s really the only money.

Ian: [00:16:31] We should definitely be funding the upkeep of them. I’m not convinced that we should be building more of them and stretching ourselves even thinner.

Brian: [00:16:36] No. And and thank you for that clarification, because that’s exactly where we’re at that that they should be maintained and that bridges that are, you know, decades old should be replaced for safety and all of those types of things. But, you know, for a lot of the state, that’s really the only travel option is getting in your car.

Ian: [00:16:56] Right. And it shouldn’t be.

Brian: [00:16:58] And it shouldn’t be.

Ian: [00:16:58] And that’s what we’re here for.

Speaker3: [00:16:59] That’s right. Exactly. Mmhmm.

Ian: [00:17:02] Yeah. The you mentioned that, like, if you want to transfer to basically anywhere in the country, you have to go through Chicago first. And it definitely strikes me as very similar to a lot of like public transit systems within a metro area, right. Where you have to go to downtown and then transfer to another bus to get, you know, back out. Chicago is kind of the downtown of the United States, I guess.

Brian: [00:17:27] Yeah. Well, and and and when you think about it, the Twin Cities metro area is the largest metropolitan area east of Chicago and north of Dallas-Fort Worth, until you get to the West Coast. So we’re a huge economic engine for the Midwest. And, you know, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro region needs more travel options other than, you know, flying out or driving.

Ian: [00:17:55] It doesn’t make sense for us to not be a regional hub.

Brian: [00:17:58] Exactly. Exactly. And long distance passenger rail does something fairly unique in that it you can combine city pairs to travel. So so you can go from Fargo to Saint Cloud or Saint Cloud to Winona or, you know, Saint Saint Paul to Fargo or, you know, Saint Paul to Des Moines. You know, it just it gives you those city pair travel options that’s unique to passenger rail because buses do the same thing, but bus service now is so limited.

Ian: [00:18:31] Mmhmm.

Brian: [00:18:32] It’s been cut back drastically since COVID. And so passenger rail, it did do that before Amtrak very well and it could do so again. And that’s sort of our main message.

Ian: [00:18:44] Right. Right. Yeah. When you hear about, you know, Union Depot station in Saint Paul, you know, back in its heyday, it served, you know, however many like 20, 40 passenger trains every day. You stopped there or something like that.

Brian: [00:18:59] Well, yeah. And and right before Amtrak, there was service from Saint Paul to Des Moines, Kansas City. You know, there there were seven trains a day between Minneapolis and Chicago. There were three daytime trains between Saint Paul and Fargo-Moorhead. And, you know, so we had all these options. And Amtrak was created to relieve freight railroads, to provide passenger service. But in doing so, it was a very skeletal model and it has always remained that ever since it was formed. So now with the Jobs Act, you know, we have this unique opportunity to really reestablish passenger rail in this country.

Ian: [00:19:37] Yeah, yeah. Let’s do it!

Brian: [00:19:39] Yeah. Great!

Ian: [00:19:41] All right, so. So here in Minnesota, I think all all of the like upcoming like routes that we’re kind of pushing for are following the like they would fall in the category of routes that would be funded by the state DOT. Right?

Brian: [00:19:58] Yes.

Ian: [00:19:59] They’re not long distance. Well in Amtrak’s, you know categories they’re not the long distance ones.

Brian: [00:20:05] They’re not the long distance like the Empire Builder, but they are so so state corridor services are defined as routes of 750 miles or less.

Ian: [00:20:13] Okay.

Brian: [00:20:14] So the second train certainly falls into that category. Extending it to Fargo would certainly fall in that category. Service south to Des Moines, Kansas City, all falls into that category. So, but the but the good news is, is that those routes that I just mentioned, are all using existing freight rail infrastructure in both of those routes. So Burlington Northern has invested. Probably $350 million in the past five years from Saint Paul to Fargo. So the roots in like top-grade, class-one, perfect shape. So, there would still be an investment to add more passenger service, but the cost is much less because BN [Burlington Northern] has done a lot of the work already, like signals, grade, crossings, safety, all that type of stuff.

Ian: [00:21:02] Mhmm.

Brian: [00:21:03] And on the southern route. Union Pacific, where that line would run. Who owns that railroad, has invested 300 million in that route alone in the past, I don’t know, 3 to 5 years.

Ian: [00:21:13] So a similar ballpark.

Brian: [00:21:14] Similar ballpark. And it’s just it’s it’s it’s a matter of doing the models the economic impact MNDOT would have to study it, do the, you know design construction of what it would take to enable passenger service, and that’s the bill that we pushed for so hard this year. That got heard.

Ian: [00:21:33] And so it got heard and…

Brian: [00:21:37] And it didn’t get included in the conference committee transportation bill. But this was the first year of its introduction, and it’s very rare for a bill to get introduced the first year and pass.

Ian: [00:21:51] Mhmm.

Brian: [00:21:51] Like we heard, for example, that there was a bipartisan broadband bill that was introduced three or four years ago and it just got passed this year…

Ian: [00:22:01] Okay.

Brian: [00:22:01] …You know, and that had widespread bipartisan support. So these things take a while.

Ian: [00:22:06] Yeah.

Brian: [00:22:08] But what actually made it, as we understand, into the conference committee transportation bill, the Senate bill and the House bill were very different, as you can expect, like diametrically opposite…

Ian: [00:22:22] [Laughing] Yeah, don’t you love having a split legislature?

Brian: [00:22:24] Yes. Yes.

Ian: [00:22:25] It’s wonderful.

Brian: [00:22:25] Yes. It makes for a lot of interesting conversations.

Ian: [00:22:28] I don’t I don’t know that any other state is dealing with that right now?

Brian: [00:22:32] No, they are not. And and and and in a lot of those other states that I mentioned that have funded passenger rail, they’re doing so on a bipartisan basis. So, our hope is that when the second train gets rolling, and it’s successful, and it’s proven successful, that it changes the whole conversation. It’s not about or should we or should we not? It’s like, where else should we go?

Ian: [00:22:55] Right. Right, right, right.

Brian: [00:22:56] So the transportation bill hasn’t passed, as we understand. We were waiting, as I discussed with you, to see if a special session was called, and that was one of the items on the docket. So we’re not sure of where the transportation bill really is right now or what’s going to happen to it.

Ian: [00:23:12] …and that special session is still going on.

Brian: [00:23:15] Well, it hasn’t been called yet.

Ian: [00:23:17] Okay.

Brian: [00:23:18] So from what we’ve heard is like a lot of things are happening piecemeal over Zoom meetings. I don’t know how that’s working exactly, but…

Ian: [00:23:30] Reminds me of my social life. Summer of 2020 piecemeal on Zoom.

Brian: [00:23:34] [Laughter]

Brian: [00:23:35] Exactly. So but what’s in the final transportation bill, the last one that we saw, was funding for the Northern Lights Express, and it was going to be appropriated in 2023, which I don’t quite get. But then the other piece was an operating grant for the second train. So those two things were in the last version of the conference committee transportation bill.

Ian: [00:24:03] Which is from the House or the Senate.

Brian: [00:24:05] It’s well, it’s from the conference committee that melded the two.

Ian: [00:24:09] Ah! Ah! I gotcha.

Brian: [00:24:10] Yeah. So that’s that’s what we understand is, is, is where it’s at. Now, the Senate earlier passed a ban on spending any state dollars on NLX.

Ian: [00:24:23] Wow.

Brian: [00:24:24] So, yes, so that was a very unfortunate development. We put on an action alert and we had other groups in the upper Midwest help us get the word out about that, too. You know, call your senator to say, you know, get that ban off the books.

Ian: [00:24:42] Yeah.

Brian: [00:24:42] So but, you know, things happen in conference committee where, you know, bans can be put in and then taken out and things like that. I’m oversimplifying it. But, you know, there are a lot of times used as negotiating tactics, things like that.

Ian: [00:24:58] And that was and that was this year that they passed that ban through the Senate?

Brian: [00:25:02] Yes.

Ian: [00:25:02] Okay. Now, of course, like I mean, that ban isn’t ever going to pass the House and it’s not going to get signed by Tim Walz, but…

Brian: [00:25:09] No. Not at all.

Ian: [00:25:09] …It definitely signals like what the priorities of the folks in the Senate are.

Brian: [00:25:14] Well, yeah. And and one of the priorities in the Senate is to basically kill the Northstar Commuter Rail. And.

Ian: [00:25:24] And for what?

Brian: [00:25:26] Well, it’s…

Ian: [00:25:27] Oh I’m sorry. We’re talking about Northstar.

Brian: [00:25:28] Yes. I’m sorry.

Ian: [00:25:29] Okay. Okay. I thought I thought you were still talking about Northern Lights Express. My bad.

Brian: [00:25:32] No, no, no. I’m sorry. I should have. I should have, I should have.

Ian: [00:25:36] I’m pretty sure you used all the right words, but my brain did not go to the right place.

Brian: [00:25:39] I should have made a better transition. But it’s true. Ridership has plummeted with COVID. You know, people aren’t moving into downtowns. So what’s happening right now with that is that MNDOT and Metro Transit are going to do a study to determine what should be done. Should it be extended to Saint Cloud? Should it be shut down? Should it remain in its current, you know, sort of iteration? And there was a bill introduced in the Senate to kill Northstar.

Ian: [00:26:12] Yeah.

Brian: [00:26:13] So the perception of rail in the Senate, in our view, I don’t know if this is exactly accurate, but the perception in the Senate is that rail is, you know, has to be heavily subsidized. And that is true for Northstar right now, that the subsidies have had to increase, frequencies have had to be reduced because of the you know, because of the ridership numbers. But that echoes what’s happened in the rest of the nation. So it’s not unique in that particular instance.

Ian: [00:26:45] Do you think that we’re also suffering from a perception that like regional rail is the same thing as commuter rail?

Brian: [00:26:53] Yes. And and what was interesting, I listened to the Senate introduction of that bill, and the comment was made by the senator that introduced it that said, “Well, roads and bridges pay for themselves. And so we’ve got to stop subsidizing rail.” And two other senators very, spoke up very forthrightly and said “Roads and bridges do not pay for themselves. That is not true.” And another senator stood up and said, “You know, we subsidize and invest in every form of transportation in the state, whether it’s roadways, waterways, bridges, airlines, railways. We invest in everything.” So…

Ian: [00:27:34] That is the role of the government.

Brian: [00:27:36] That is the role of the government! Right. And and it’s it’s been sort of the federal transportation policy for over 100 years is that the federal government has a role to provide transportation for the nation. So. So it’s it’s it’s a it’s an interesting conversation in the Senate. And we’re trying to do our best to say, you know, “Northstar is one service. Long distance passenger rail is a completely different service. It serves a different purpose, has a different audience and an Amtrak, as a railroad, has one of the highest fare box recovery ratios in the world.” And so we’re trying to get the message out that passenger rail does all these great things for people of the state, is very cost effective and provides a mobility option that people want.

Ian: [00:28:29] Right? Right. Not only is are we are they comparing two different models of like, you know, rail service, but also they’re comparing a regional rail proposal to a commuter rail proposal that was not built to its original intent. You know, it did not go all the way to Saint Cloud, which I feel like is a key component of making the Northstar work.

Brian: [00:28:57] Yeah, yeah. It’s there were a lot of dynamics there and we could spend hours on that.

Ian: [00:29:03] Oh, yeah. So now we’re here to focus on where we’re at right now and where we’re going in the future.

Brian: [00:29:10] Yeah, yeah. So, so, so bottom line is the second train is going to begin rolling early, which is great news. And so, you know, we’re going to continue our work to educate cities and towns, especially along those two new routes that I mentioned, because if those two routes are enabled, along with Northern Lights Express, which which we’re also advocating for, which is a very important route for the state that would serve about 70% of the state’s population. So so if you consider, you know, a town like Little Falls, for example, and towns that are 25 miles away on either the north or the south, that’s where we come up with that equation. And there would be something like 30, 35 communities that would get new or expanded rail service. So it’s a huge swath of the state that would benefit from this. You know, it’s not just an isolated corridor or something like that. So so that’s that’s why we think passenger rail really can play a role.

Ian: [00:30:12] Has there been any movement on the the the route out to Eau Claire, Wisconsin? And I know that the communities, you know, towards that end of of the route formed a like a rail…

Brian: [00:30:29] Yes.

Ian: [00:30:30] …I don’t remember what it’s called, but like a work group to to push that forward and study that.

Brian: [00:30:36] Yes. Very good. I’m impressed. So it’s called the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition. And what they’re looking at doing is funding a study to implement that line from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities. Like, I think it’s like 3 to 4 round-trips a day.

Ian: [00:30:54] Mhmm.

Brian: [00:30:55] But it would not be operated. Their proposal, their model is that it would not be operated by Amtrak.

Ian: [00:31:01] Interesting.

Brian: [00:31:02] It would be operated by another third party operator…

Ian: [00:31:06] Hmm.

Brian: [00:31:06] …And so it’s my understanding that they’re funding a study right now to do all the modeling, what it would take to enable the service, things like that. So from what we understand, that’s still moving forward.

Ian: [00:31:19] And so that’s not at the point yet where it is being discussed in the state legislatures of Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Brian: [00:31:27] It’s it’s not being discussed in the Minnesota legislature. I don’t know about Wisconsin, but it’s not being discussed in the Minnesota legislature. Questions get asked about it, just like what you did. But it’s not. It’s not being funded in any legislation.

Ian: [00:31:43] Mhmm. Yeah. Yeah. You sounded impressed that I knew about that one. But I have a personal stake because my in-laws live in Eau Claire, so…

Brian: [00:31:51] There you go. Perfect.

Ian: [00:31:53] Good. Yep, whenever Savannah and I have to go out that way. It’s like, man, I wish we could take a train. That would be great.

Brian: [00:32:00] Mmhmm. It would be, yep.

Ian: [00:32:03] All right. So, yeah, I’ve got a mental map going here of, like, all of the rail routes that I’m aware of. I think we’ve talked about pretty much all of them.

Brian: [00:32:13] Yeah, we have. That’s that’s that’s really what we’re we’re working on. There are other routes on our map that would go south to Mankato.

Ian: [00:32:22] Mmhmm.

Brian: [00:32:23] Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Down to Sioux City and then to Omaha.

Ian: [00:32:26] Mmhmm.

Brian: [00:32:27] And that was once a former passenger railroad, too. And we believe that that does have promise. But, you know, being a very small nonprofit, you know, we have to focus our energy and resources. So, what we’re really focused on are the three routes that I mentioned: NLX, Twin Cities to Duluth. Extending the second train to through Saint Cloud to Fargo on the existing Empire Builder route. And then the southern through, you know, Albert Lea, Des Moines, Kansas City. Those are the three routes that we’re focused on that that we think have the greatest promise from a ridership potential. They would be, and I shouldn’t say the word easiest, but from an infrastructure perspective, these routes are in great shape and we think that they offer just a tremendous amount of mobility viability for for the state.

Ian: [00:33:16] Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

[00:33:25] [Music]

Ian: [00:33:26] Do you have any thoughts on like where those all should terminate here in the Twin Cities? Because my biggest fear is that we’re going to end up with like a three way, you know, like like a triangle of different hubs in the Twin Cities. Because I know NLX is going to be terminating at Target Field, which is not where the Empire Builder stops in town and…

Brian: [00:33:49] That’s the $64 Million question. Yeah. So. So what’s in the legislation that I talked about that we testified in this current session is MNDOT would like to establish a dedicated passenger mainline between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, which would enable NLX to not only come through target field but then terminate at Saint Paul Union Depot.

Ian: [00:34:19] Ah!

Brian: [00:34:21] It would allow the second train to have a stop in Minneapolis…

Ian: [00:34:25] Mmhmm.

Brian: [00:34:25] …On that dedicated passenger main line. So MNDOT really wants that and believes that that would enable much more fluidity and stops in both cities and St Paul. Union Depot is a fantastic facility. It’s a gorgeous facility.

Ian: [00:34:44] I love that building. So much.

Brian: [00:34:45] Well, yeah, as as you well know. But, you know, like three fourths of the Twin Cities metro population lives in Minneapolis and northern suburbs. And so Saint Paul Union Depot isn’t always from what people have told us. Not always geographically desirable for them. So we are very much proponents of a stop in Minneapolis or Anoka or something like that to serve those communities better.

Ian: [00:35:10] Yeah. Yeah. As a Saint Paul native, I do rather delight in the fact that we’re the ones that get the the regional rail.

[00:35:21] [Laughter]

Ian: [00:35:22] I like to tell my friends in Minneapolis that, well, if you wanted to have a nice station in Minneapolis, maybe you shouldn’t have, you know, tore yours down in the seventies.

Brian: [00:35:31] Yeah, well, that yes. So and and Midway was great because it was very centrally located and it was.

Ian: [00:35:40] Yeah. Still hard to get to unless you’re in a car, though.

Brian: [00:35:43] Correct.

Ian: [00:35:43] It was, it was a weird spot.

Brian: [00:35:45] Yep. Yep. So the city of Anoka has petitioned Amtrak to stop the Empire Builder there. So we recently wrote a letter of support to Amtrak.

Ian: [00:35:57] Oh, to. To stop the Empire Builder in Anoka?

Brian: [00:35:59] Yeah, yeah. To serve the northern metro area…

Ian: [00:36:02] Yeah.

Brian: [00:36:02] …And so hopefully when the second train gets rolling, that could be a stop there as well. And it would use the existing Northstar station, you know, the existing parking lot facilities, all that stuff. So, you know, there wouldn’t be a great investment required. You know, you’d have to negotiate with Burlington Northern to stop the train there. But, you know, all those things are possible.

Ian: [00:36:23] Yeah. Yeah. The idea of having a main line directly between downtowns, Saint Paul and Minneapolis does make me think about the, you know, the rethinking I-94 project and Our Streets Minneapolis has the Twin Cities Boulevard concept for that, where we entirely get rid of the freeway as it exists today and replace that with a boulevard that spans that whole seven and a half miles with several different, you know, a lot of different stuff. But one of the things that they that they’ve been talking about is a free, rapid, dedicated lane transit option between the downtowns. And it strikes me that like, that could very easily be a rail, you know, that like rail could be the form that it takes and that that could very easily kind of feed into the rest of these goals, you know, to to strengthen the regional and long distance rail systems that come through our metro area.

Brian: [00:37:29] And that’s and that’s really a good point, Ian, because because we’ve talked to Move Minnesota, about that connectivity between, you know, once somebody gets off a passenger train, how do they connect with transit? How do they get around? And, you know, we’ve we’ve we’ve discussed that with them a couple of times. And they’re and they’re all in on that. You know, it’s like, how do you connect these systems to make it seamless and easy for people, which seems to be the model in Europe, you know, like if you go to Switzerland or places like that, everything’s so interconnected, you know, it’s so easy to make these transfers between between different modes of travel and that. And that doesn’t exist in the Midwest, you know, it probably does in the Northeast, but not so much here.

Ian: [00:38:13] Right. Right. Yeah. Having to navigate however many different agencies are running different services that you’re going to be touching. During all different parts of a trip sometimes feels like it’s a fun part of the adventure, but also can be just like a big source of stress that you don’t want. For sure.

Brian: [00:38:34] Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And having to anticipate. Well, what am I going to do once I get there? You know, is, is, is, is an issue that’s been raised to us in some of these outreach meetings that I’ve talked to you about.

Ian: [00:38:48] So as somebody who collects public transit cards from different metro areas, I do rather delight in the prospect of like getting to a place and then going to a fare box and like buying myself a new…

[00:39:00] MmHmm. Mmhmm.

Ian: [00:39:02] …a new transit card, but..

Brian: [00:39:03] Yeah, yeah. Well, like, you know, if you go to Penn Station in New York or, you know, Washington, D.C., you know, the transit systems are connected there. Right? You know, buses, subways, light rail, long distance rail all come into the same facility. And it’s just it’s just real easy, you know, to look at a map, and if you get a get off a train and you want to go to I don’t know where you want to go to, but you can look at a map and you can figure it out and you can go.

Ian: [00:39:34] Yeah.

Brian: [00:39:34] And it’s just it’s just real easy. And that just doesn’t exist here.

Ian: [00:39:37] Right? Right. I mean, fortunately, we do have the green line, you know…

Brian: [00:39:41] Yes.

Ian: [00:39:41] That touches like it currently it’s two terminuses… Termini? Are at the, you know, Union Depot and target field stations. Mm hmm. Yeah. It’s not a particularly fast option for getting straight from one to the other…

Brian: [00:39:55] No.

Ian: [00:39:56] …But it does exist.

Brian: [00:39:57] Yes, exactly. Exactly. So. So that’s that’s sort of the state of where things are at. We’re like I said, our focus is going to be on those three routes, helping to promote the second train. And, you know, we can use all the help we can get.

Ian: [00:40:14] So, you all have a newsletter?

Brian: [00:40:19] Yes, we do.

Ian: [00:40:20] I know that, because I’m subscribed to it.

Brian: [00:40:21] Yeah. Good!

Ian: [00:40:24] And that that will have most of the information about, you know, upcoming events and…

Brian: [00:40:30] Yep, yep.

Ian: [00:40:31] …Actions that people can take.

Brian: [00:40:33] Yes. And and one thing that I will add here is, our champion in the House, Representative Alice Hausman from Saint Paul, is retiring this year. So we are going to hold an honoring retirement party for her. I think the date is August 4th, but we’ll put the event on our website. Everybody’s welcome. You know, we she has been a champion for passenger rail for, what, 30 years? And she’s she is one who has secured funding in the past, and for the second train. So we feel like we really want to honor her and what she’s done for this cause for decades.

Ian: [00:41:15] That’s huge. Yeah.

Brian: [00:41:18] And so so we need to obviously find a new champion [chuckling] and but we’re, we’re just very grateful for everything that she’s done. She’s been an incredible partner in our entire history over, you know, the past ten, eleven years and just a truly a class act politician. So.

Ian: [00:41:40] Very nice. Yeah. And and when was that again?

Brian: [00:41:43] It’s going to be August 4th.

Ian: [00:41:45] Okay.

Brian: [00:41:45] So we will publish all the details. We have an events page on our website, so we’ll publish all the details there.

Ian: [00:41:51] But and what is the URL for the website.

Brian: [00:41:54] It’s

Ian: [00:41:57] That’s all. All spelled out.

Brian: [00:41:59] Yep.

Ian: [00:41:59] Very long.

Brian: [00:42:00] Yep. Yep. So the event isn’t posted there yet. We’re we’re finalizing all the details. We should hopefully get that done within the next week or so and then we’ll publish that.

Ian: [00:42:10] And then so certainly by the time this episode comes out, those details will be up there.

Brian: [00:42:15] Yes. Yes.

Brian: [00:42:17] So and then it’ll also be in our next newsletter too. So and we just published a new video, so that’s going to be in our next newsletter.

Ian: [00:42:26] Oh, yeah.

Brian: [00:42:27] Designed to, you know, impact the communities that I talked about. You know, we’re going to, you know, focus that video on on those routes, you know, to get people excited about it. And it’s it’s told through personal stories, you know, of of Minnesotans who would like the option and why.

Ian: [00:42:45] Is this the video that was inspired by one from Michigan?

Brian: [00:42:49] Yes!

Ian: [00:42:50] Yes.

Brian: [00:42:51] Good memory. You have a great memory that. Yes, exactly. And so great River Rail. The other big passenger rail advocacy group published a video last summer, NLX published one a few months ago. So we’re sort of the third leg of the stool to publish one. So so we’ll release that to soon. We just got done finishing it up so.

Ian: [00:43:15] And let’s see Great… Great River. That’s like the counties and communities that are along from like Saint Paul on down to look. Cross area.

Brian: [00:43:24] Exactly. Yep. So it’s composed of those counties. They’re very much focused on on the second train, but they’ve been a fantastic partner for us as long as well as NLX. So our groups work together on various issues. We coordinate, you know, we’ve held joint conferences, we’ve held joint calls, we’ve held joint various number of events throughout the years. So but but each of us has a little bit different focus, you know. NLX is focused on Twin Cities to Duluth, which of course we support. Great Rivers’s on the second train to Chicago. We’re more of a statewide, MNDOT rail plan focus.

Ian: [00:44:03] Yeah, but as you said that 70% of like the population is served by just these few, these like three or four routes that we’ve been talking about today, so…

Brian: [00:44:16] Yeah. Yeah. And you know, there are big swaths of the state and yes, there are other routes like the one to Mankato and Sioux Falls that that are viable too, but, you know, these these three, we think from again, from a ridership, potential infrastructure investment, political expediency, being able to connect the dots to various different audiences. And again, our resources as a, as an organization, that’s what we’re focused on.

Ian: [00:44:44] Yeah. Yeah. Rochester’s not happening, right?

Brian: [00:44:49] No.

Ian: [00:44:51] I have a vague recollection because I used to work at the Cub Scout camp down by Cannon Falls. Oh, sure. And, you know, taking the drive down towards towards that community, seeing a lot of people with with big yard signs opposing it.

Brian: [00:45:08] Yes, that is no. So a direct rail connection is no longer part of the MNDOT State rail plan. Yeah. And, you know, there is there would be plans with the second train for bus connections, things like that. But in terms of a direct rail route, that is mothballed for now, let me just put it that way.

Ian: [00:45:29] Yeah. Which is a shame because that’s I mean, that’s the other large metro area in the in the state.

Brian: [00:45:36] Yeah. It’s but when you look at again those combinations of infrastructure investments and all sorts of things, it would be extremely expensive to build a rail line because the existing rail line through Rochester is in east-west line. It’s not north-south.

Ian: [00:45:54] Right. Right. So you’d be having to use like highway, right of way…

Brian: [00:45:59] Exactly.

Ian: [00:46:00] … to get it working.

Brian: [00:46:00] And as you pointed out, there’s a lot of opposition to that.

Ian: [00:46:03] Right.

Brian: [00:46:04] So it’s it’s again, I’ll use the word mothballed for now.

Ian: [00:46:11] Yeah. I mean, it’s one perspective is. “Yeah. Why should we be taking space on our on our highways for trains?” Another perspective that any time that I am on a highway going somewhere, I think, “Man, this traffic is awful…”

Brian: [00:46:28] Yeah.

Ian: [00:46:28] “…What if I was on a train that didn’t have to worry about all this traffic? Wouldn’t that be great?”

Brian: [00:46:34] Exactly. That’s right. Yeah, well, and. And it is it’s just a lot. It’s it’s comfortable. You know, seats are bigger than airline first class seats. You can get up, you can move around.

Ian: [00:46:47] And dare I say, you meet the most cool, interesting people whenever you’re on a train.

Brian: [00:46:52] Yep, you can say that again. And you know, I’ve been I take probably 2 to 3 Amtrak trips a year and you know, it’s like everybody has a story.

Ian: [00:47:02] Yeah.

Brian: [00:47:02] No matter where they’re from, no matter what part of the country they’re from, what they do, everybody has a story. And it’s so interesting to talk to people and just just get to know somebody completely different, you know, you’ve never been exposed to before.

Ian: [00:47:20] Yeah. Yeah. Some of the like best conversations that I’ve had on the train were like with with people who absolutely were on the opposite side from where I am politically. But like we had a great conversation and got to know each other and it was awesome.

Brian: [00:47:35] Yep. Yep. And you know, I suppose you can do that on a plane, but you’re much more limited in terms of who you can talk to.

Ian: [00:47:42] And my mom can do that on a plane. I think that most people could not do that on a plane.

Speaker3: [00:47:46] Yeah.

Ian: [00:47:47] Well, and she has a unique talent. [Laughing]

Brian: [00:47:51] Well, that’s cool. Good for her.

Brian: [00:47:53] But, you know, the the train offers, you know, you know, you can bring baby strollers on board and you can bring extra luggage because the luggage allowance is a lot better. You can get something to eat. You can watch videos, you can watch the landscape.

Ian: [00:48:08] Observation car is a perfect venue for just like sitting with random strangers and like, you know, if you don’t want to talk to them, you don’t. But if you do like, hey, we’re all lounging here looking at the amazing views going by.

Brian: [00:48:20] That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. And so it’s it’s it’s a it’s a very it’s it’s a form of transportation that Minnesotans have been, you know, limited to, basically because the Empire Builder has been the only train since 1985. Yeah, it’s the only service that goes through here. And so, you know, I, I talk to a lot of people, you know, in the legislature and elsewhere and they’re like, I never even considered taking a train before. I didn’t even know one existed.

Ian: [00:48:49] Right.

Brian: [00:48:49] And so, you know, and and before Amtrak, like I mentioned, Minnesota had a lot more rail passenger service, so it was more well known.

Ian: [00:48:58] Mmhmm. Mmhmm. All right, Brian, any final thoughts?

Brian: [00:49:02] If you’re interested in more train service, like we’ve been what we’ve been talking about, the best thing for people to do is to: call your mayor, tell your neighbors, call your Minnesota rep, your Minnesota senator. And there’s a place on our site where you can go where it says our vision and your voice. Scroll down, just type in your zip code. It’ll give you all of the representation in your district. And so, again, that’s the model of citizen advocacy. Is, is getting the attention of legislators to fund these services.

Ian: [00:49:35] Yeah.

[00:49:36] Ghat’s the best thing that you can do and sign up for our newsletter from an all volunteer standpoint. We put them out as often as we can, but…

Ian: [00:49:44] I know exactly how that goes.

[00:49:46] [Laughter]

Brian: [00:49:47] Yeah, right, exactly. So stay in touch with us. But citizen advocacy does work. It has enabled a lot of new services around the country. It takes time, but it works. So that’s that’s our story and I’m sticking to it.

Ian: [00:50:04] There you go. Brian, thanks for joining us.

Brian: [00:50:07] Thank you, Ian. It’s been a pleasure.

[00:50:10] [Music]

Ian: [00:50:10] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it, and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Ian R. Buck with transcript by the indomitable Mike Allen. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest-booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super-professional, Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work that they do, please consider donating at We really appreciate it. If you have feedback or ideas for future episodes, drop us a line Until next time, take care!

About Ian R Buck

Co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, podcaster, and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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2 thoughts on “The State of the Union (Depot) Address

  1. James Buchanan

    Let’s compare Saint Paul Union Depot to Norway’s Oslo Central Station. On October 7, 2020 Norwegian Railway’s Special Advisor Svein Horrisland sent me this message about Norway’s Oslo station. Oslo Central Station has far more passengers and more trains than Saint Paul Union Depot, while Norway has 200,000 fewer citizens than Minnesota. To achieve Minnesota’s urgent climate goals, Upper Midwest citizens must work to match or exceed the number of passengers and trains that Oslo Central Station has now.

    Dear Mr. Buchanan;

    Here are some answers to your questions. As mentioned in my last email your questions initiated some very interesting reflections in our organization!

    Oslo Central Station today serves about 940 trains facilitating 76,000 travels on daily basis. These train travels contribute to reducing 49,000 car trips to/from Oslo per day, implying a reduction of 45,000 tonnes CO2 eqv. of emissions per year, by choosing train instead of car. The extent of emissions reduction through train travels facilitated by Oslo Central Station is equal to total annual emissions from operation and maintenance of the whole railway sector in Norway.

    These calculations are based on actual number of passengers through Oslo Central Station per day, general knowledge on regional mobility patterns, travel distances, passenger car emissions and shares of electric, gas and diesel cars in this area.

    When the Follo Line is completed, there will be two separate double track lines between Ski and Oslo S, and this allows for a complete reshuffle of the timetable towards the southeast. So, it does not give you the full picture to just give you the numbers of the additional trains compared with the current timetable.

    • There will be 4 additional trains in the basic timetable, with a total of 9 trains for the new Follo Line (5 trains) and the existing Østfold Line (4 trains).
    • In the rush hours, one additional train, with a total of 13 trains for the new Follo Line (7 trains) and the existing Østfold Line (6 trains).
    • For the Østfold Line, there will be a huge improvement for commuters from all stations between Ski and Oslo in having four trains per hour in the basic timetable, instead of just two trains.

    The potential for adding further trains is good, when other infrastructure projects are financed and built in the coming years. For instance, it will be possible with six trains per hour between Ski and Oslo on both the Østfold Line and the Follo Line in the basic timetable, and more rush hour trains on the Follo line.

    I hope these answers satisfy your needs, and please do not hesitate to contact us for further questions.

    Best regards;
    Ove Skovdahl
    Special Advisor M.Sc.C.Eng. M.M.

    Tel: +47 900 55 368

    Norwegian Railway Directorate
    Visit Adress: Posthuset, Biskop Gunnerusgt 14, Oslo
    Mail Adresse: Postboks 16, 0101 Oslo

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