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Celebrating Ten Years With All Aboard Minnesota

Passenger train advocacy organization All Aboard Minnesota is celebrating their 10th anniversary. Let’s learn the history of the organization!

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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 edited by Tim Marino, transcribed by Sherry Johnson, and hosted by Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn.


Ian: [00:00:01] Welcome to the Streets.mn Podcast, the show where we highlight how transportation and land use can make our communities better places. Coming to you from beautiful Seward, Minneapolis, Minnesota, I am your host, Ian R Buck. We have a good collection of transportation advocacy organizations in Minnesota, each with a slightly different focus. All Aboard Minnesota has taken on the challenge of increasing the passenger rail offerings that we have, and they’re about to celebrate their 10th anniversary as an organization. Stick around until the end of the episode to hear about the party they’re planning, but in the meantime we’ll be chatting with co-founders Gerry Ratliff and Jack Barbier about the history of the organization, with occasional chime-ins from the org’s president Brian Nelson. Do you guys want to introduce yourselves a little bit?

Gerry: [00:00:54] I’m Gerry Ratliff. I’ve been involved with trains for quite a while. I basically–

Ian: [00:00:58] Is this Trains Anonymous? [laughter]

Gerry: [00:00:59] You know, I don’t know, I can talk about why I got started with them. My father had me, as a kid, belonging to Minnesota Rail Fans Association. That piqued my interest a little bit. But what really got me interested in trains is living in Europe for a stint in Germany and a stint in England, and how easy it was to get around and how the Americans had built, especially, the German system. And I thought it was really a very impressive system.

Ian: [00:01:26] So Americans building the German rail system, I imagine that would have been in the wake of the World War II.

Gerry: [00:01:33] After World War II, Yes.

Ian: [00:01:33] So, meanwhile, over here, we were busy being so enamored with the German Autobahn system that that we built ourselves an interstate and got rid of all of our trains. [laughter]

Gerry: [00:01:45] Yeah, we did the reverse. There are a lot of things that are different, of course, in how Europe sets things up and how we set things up. You’re right. But it’s really easy to get around without a car in Europe.

Ian: [00:01:57] That’ll definitely make a train fan out of you for sure. And Jack, what’s what’s your sad story about trains?

Jack: [00:02:05] I grew up in the Detroit area–Michigan. I remember distinctly seeing my first train go by. I was a babe in my grandmother’s arms, and it was such a commotion that I said, “Wow, that was cool, whatever that was,” right? I subscribed to Trains Magazine at age ten. That was in 1963. I’ve read every issue since then. I moved to Minneapolis in late 1979 and have lived here ever since. And when I first moved up here, I caught wind of a group, an established group that was set up in support of passenger rail, and that group was called Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. And I quickly became a member… would get their quarterly newsletters. The head of that group is an attorney by the name of Andrew Seldon, and he was one of the first pioneers. He brought the first bi-level commuter coaches in here so that the leaders up and down what’s now the Northstar route could get on board and see what was up. And that was the thing that ignited the whole thing for the Northstar Commuter Rail.

Ian: [00:03:15] You might say that it got them on board with the project.

Jack: [00:03:17] Yes, it did very much so. But I can’t speak to how lawyers are trained or that, but Mr. Seldon is a very smart dude. And he was linked up with a group called, I think, the United Rail Passenger Alliance. And these people understood long-distance trains and were highly critical of Amtrak in almost every way. Gerry was a member of that too, I believe, right?

Gerry: [00:03:41] Yes. For a long time.

Jack: [00:03:42] We went to meetings at Midway Station, where Mr. Seldon really used that, not as a outreach or public-facing thing, but more as a platform for his own views. Both of us, I think, when we first met–which I’ll get into shortly here, also–felt that that style wasn’t what we envisioned as an advocacy group for passenger rail in the state. I met Gerry… It was at National Train Day at Midway Station in Saint Paul, I believe it was 2010 or 2009.

Gerry: [00:04:14] 2010.

Jack: [00:04:15] 2010. Both of us at that point were members of a group out of Chicago called the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which is chaired by another very cool fellow named Rick Harnish. Gerry was also a member of that. So was I. So we got together through Rick Harnish, and we met each other at Midway Station. Gerry was passing out literature for the Midwest High Speed Rail thing, and we got to chatting a bit. And that initial chat led us to get together and actually start talking about: What could we do to help promote passenger rail in this state? We did not envision something which would be combative, but rather, collaborative. And you have to speak around this gingerly, because I don’t want to take anything away from Andy Seldon or what he does with Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. I mean, he has great ideas and they all make total sense. It’s just not the style that we envisioned. Right? We saw a need to get people in the state energized enough so that they would actually take some action to contact their legislators and advocate for more passenger rail in the state. And that’s something that MN-NARP didn’t really even do. I don’t want to see anything against Andy Seldon, because he’s a very knowledgeable guy, and the ideas that he has really, totally make sense. They never seem to get much traction. Andy, if you’re listening to this, I love you. I mean, we go out to lunch.

Gerry: [00:05:45] I’m going to add a little detail to how I met Jack. Rick Harnish asked me to set up a table at the train day in 2010, and so I had a number of people every three hours going through shifts, and that’s how I met Jack. And then I think it was about a year later, this guy named Jack calls me up and says, “What do you think about this organization?” …Duh-da,duh-da, duh-da… and maybe changing it and advocating? I went, “Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” So we met, we brainstormed some ideas on how–we won’t get into that yet–but we were both, I think, frustrated, and everybody I met–I’m not kidding–just said, “Wow, that’s a great idea. Advocating for more passenger trains in Minnesota.” I got a lot of positive feedback from anybody that I just even brought the word up to. I wasn’t sure if Jack was willing to do the work involved, and he was. We both sat down and we put a lot of time into it, and I think that shows. More of it happened later, but that’s the… the introduction was when you called me up, that it was Jack’s idea, and he called me up and I wanted to make sure he was serious before I spent a lot of energy or time into it. And he was, thank goodness.

Jack: [00:06:56] Well, I saw a need.

Gerry: [00:06:57] Yeah.

Jack: [00:06:57] A real need.

Gerry: [00:06:58] It’s a good thing you called me up.

Jack: [00:06:59] A couple other things. Back then–there was a national group, you’ve probably heard of–called the National Association of Railroad Passengers, based in Washington.

Ian: [00:07:07] Yeah.

Jack: [00:07:07] Right. Big advocacy group nationwide. They later changed their name to the Rail Passengers Association. So that changed, as did Rick Harnish’s. It went from Midwest High Speed Rail Association, and now it’s just High Speed Rail Alliance. So a couple of name changes along the way.

Ian: [00:07:24] We love a good alliance. Yeah.

Jack: [00:07:26] Yeah. And we were both members of that too, at the time. So we knew what other people were doing and we saw the effect, the impact it was having, and it was a very positive impact. So we figured, why can’t we just try and duplicate that here in Minnesota? 

Ian: [00:07:39] So okay. 2010 to 2013 is when this was kind of incubating, right? At that time, we had what? A single daily Amtrak, the Empire Builder. The Blue line was open, had been open, for about ten years then. Northstar had opened in 2007 or 2009, something like that? And then the Green Line was about to open in 2014, something like that? So that’s the landscape that we were at at the time.

Jack: [00:08:09] This was under Governor Dayton. There was ideas being floated for a true high-speed rail train to Rochester.

Ian: [00:08:15] Ah, Yes.

Jack: [00:08:15] And we found in our early stages that nobody understood anything about all these different things, because a high speed rail train–a-la Shinkansen in Japan–completely different than a light rail train. I mean, it’s two completely different things. And those are completely different than a commuter rail, which is completely different from long-distance, Amtrak-type travel. The more we started meeting up with the people over in Saint Paul that were at MNDoT, we found they were starting to work on their first-ever state rail plan, where they were actually eyeing some of these routes and stuff like that. And we found through our conversations with a fellow by the name of Dan Krom–he was in charge of that–we had a lot of explaining to do, because all these legislators were totally in the dark about what long-distance train travel meant. There was a lot of misconstrued information. I mean, people saw the light rail was open. They figured everything was like light rail, right? No it’s not. It’s completely different.

Ian: [00:09:09] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Gerry: [00:09:11] You know, Jack, I think you hit on it. That’s one of the challenges to me in Minnesota. Most people here have not ridden on a train of any sort. I don’t care if it’s light rail or commuter rail like Northstar or long-distance rail. A lot of the people I’ve spoken with, “Do have restrooms on the train. How does that work?” And “How do you get on the train? How do you get off the train?” Kind of some real basic questions. And we see that–I think at Train Day when we were over there today, still–most of the people that come up have no idea how a train really works. “How do you get on it? How do you need a ticket? How does all that stuff work?”

Ian: [00:09:45] Right, right.

Gerry: [00:09:45] So it’s one of the big hurdles, I think, is the educational piece. Is that what you’re talking about, Jack?

Jack: [00:09:53] When you think about it, Amtrak’s one daily train that came out of Chicago got up to Saint Paul Union Depot 10:00 at night. It left around 10:30, and it went up all through Minnesota, all the way up to Fargo-Moorhead in the middle of the night. Nobody even knew it was there! So again, it’s just… There was no knowledge. The more we met, and the more we talked about this, we really saw a need for getting the word out and educating and advocating for this because it wasn’t happening at that time.

Ian: [00:10:20] I remember one time getting on the Empire Builder to come from Chicago back home, and a lady who was like two seats in front of me–I found out that it was her first time on the train when she loudly asked, “Where are the seat belts?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, no, that’s… You can get up and walk around, you’re good!”

Jack: [00:10:41] Well, people on trains, they get relaxed, they talk with each other, you make new friends. You don’t do that on an airplane.

Ian: [00:10:47] My mom does that. But my mom’s weird. We were coming back from Europe one time, and she somehow figured out that the person sitting next to her–my mom had gone to college with her parents.

Jack: [00:11:00] Wow, wow.

Ian: [00:11:02] Yeah, but that’s what happens when you’re traveling with my mom.

Gerry: [00:11:06] On a train. There’s no middle seats. It’s two seats. There’s two and two on the trains. And so it makes it a lot more comfortable, a lot more relaxing. They talk about on airlines, the distance in the seats is in the 30s–you know, 30, 31, 32″.

Ian: [00:11:22] In terms of, like, legroom?

Gerry: [00:11:23] Legroom. Exactly. But from what the last time I read, Amtrak’s–like the Superliners–are around 50″. I just… think of that. So for example…

Jack: [00:11:31] You can fully recline.

Gerry: [00:11:33] You can fully recline. Or, if you’re on the window seat, you can get up and literally get out and walk out to go to the bathroom

Ian: [00:11:40] Right. Without having to tap your partner on the shoulder and be like, “Hey, I need to get up.” Yeah.

Gerry: [00:11:44] So it’s much more relaxed, I think. And you can get up and stretch. You can go, with the long-distance trains, you can often go for a meal in the cafe or the diner, depending on the situation. You can’t do that on a plane.

Ian: [00:12:00] Yeah.

Gerry: [00:12:01] You’re just really crammed in there. But that’s my opinion.

Ian: [00:12:04] And those kinds of amenities, they scale up and scale down according to how long the train’s trip is, right? You don’t see most of those things on the commuter line on the Northstar.

Gerry: [00:12:15] A long-distance train, you have to have more comfortable seats, and you’re not going to be on hard plastic like you are in an air terminal, but shorter runs, you don’t need the amenities as you do on the longer.

Ian: [00:12:26] We briefly touched on one of the the things that was on everybody’s mind when All Aboard Minnesota got started. The Rochester proposed line. What are some other highlights that have happened in the last ten years?

Jack: [00:12:42] Well, we, the two of us realized that there was a lot we didn’t know about starting a nonprofit. So we reached out to people like Rick Harnish down in Chicago, who was a very effective mouthpiece for Chicago as a hub for rail lines all over the country. And we told him what we were thinking about doing, and he gave us a hearty thumbs-up–yeah, go for it–and his advice was, “Do not include the words, ‘high speed rail’ in your name,” because politically, it’s toxic.

Ian: [00:13:13] Okay.

Gerry: [00:13:13] It was. 

Jack: [00:13:14] High speed rail is like–there’s a certain contingent of of legislators in this country, when they hear that, they just go nuts. I was also a member of–being from Michigan–the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, which just celebrated their 50th anniversary. And it turned out that their founder didn’t live that far from where I grew up. So on a trip to Michigan to see family, I arranged to meet him. His name was John DeLora. He was a founding member of Michigan, and he was very, very helpful in helping us to figure out what we need to do to get this thing launched and off the ground. And he gave us the name–two names–Brian Nelson and Bob Moen, who at the time were State Council members for the Passenger National Association, which has that stuff all over the country. Every state, I think, has some representatives very knowledgeable about Amtrak. John had met them through his work with the NARP–National Association of Railroad Passengers. And he recommended we reach out and get together with them, which we did right away. So all of a sudden, now, we just doubled our team, our management team. We brought in a fellow from Wisconsin who had had some… always a rail fan himself, he’d he’d been active in a couple of the Wisconsin nonprofits, and he had a lot of great knowledge about nonprofits and how to get them set up and running. His name was Mark Quam. Very helpful for us. We brought in John Goodman, who had a 40-year history of working for railroads and was actually the manager of the midway station for Amtrak before he retired: a walking encyclopedia of passenger rail. I mean, he could tell you what cars ran on any day of the week, you know what I’m saying? And if the train had trouble, he’d arrange buses, so nobody gets stranded. He just understood how passenger rail worked. So those became our core key board members.

Gerry: [00:15:11] I always felt that we really gelled, that we had the same mission, that we wanted to have more and better trains for Minnesotans. Nobody had an agenda. We just really felt strongly about that.

Ian: [00:15:23] Well, that’s an agenda. But yeah.

Gerry: [00:15:25] I mean, but it was like a theme. We were really focused on that one thing. The other things had to get in place, but I think that’s what encouraged me. I knew it was a lot of work, because I had been involved with a couple of nonprofits in the past and getting started, and I knew how much work it was. However, I just really felt good about the people. When we had the four of us, it just multiplied and that we all had the same focus. We were all focused on making things better for people in Minnesota by having better and more frequent, hopefully, passenger trains. I just think I felt really good about that. In fact, one of the ideas we came up with right away was a focus on existing existing freight lines–as opposed to putting in new, having the trains run on existing rail. Because my take is in Minnesota and Wisconsin, things are… If they have steel wheels, they tend to be partisan. As opposed to most of the other states, you don’t have that. We just sort of have that here.

Ian: [00:16:28] And that was the downfall of the Rochester fight, right?

Jack: [00:16:32] Well, that would have had to have been built from scratch.

Ian: [00:16:36] Exactly. 

Jack: [00:16:37] Right. It was an enormously expensive project. And so it just didn’t get the political support.

Gerry: [00:16:43] That plus there were–was it six or half a dozen people that were well-heeled that were fighting? I think it was called Zip Rail? And they had a lot of money? And that part… It was in the beginning… It was a challenge for us because all the press was negative. “We don’t want a train, we don’t want a train, etcetera,” and it was right at that time period. And so we wanted to have a positive focus. And so we made it through that time period. And that was a tough one, I think, because every time you picked up the paper, there was a negative article, or in the letters to the editor or on the front page.

Ian: [00:17:20] I used to work summers down at the Cub Scout camp near Cannon Falls and commuting down and back from there, I would only ever see big giant yard signs in these farmers’ fields saying “No Zip Line,” and I’m like, “What does that mean?” But that’s the only interface that I ever had with the project.

Gerry: [00:17:39] On a lighter note, though, it was kind of interesting, because you–like Jack was mentioning earlier–a lot of people didn’t know–I hate to say it, but–didn’t know what they were talking about, but they were talking about running the train down the middle of the freeway. But the freeway, to be rather blunt, has a lot of turns in it, just like the the builder does going down the Mississippi. And so you can’t really have a high-speed train that’s going to make all these curves.

Ian: [00:18:02] Sure, sure.

Gerry: [00:18:02] High speed trains are very straight. So it was kind of interesting listening to some of the arguments because they really didn’t make any sense.

Jack: [00:18:10] Yeah. Well it’s not just curves, it’s hills.

Gerry: [00:18:12] And that too. 

Jack: [00:18:13] I mean, the the topography just did not suggest a route for Shinkansen style. It just didn’t. So I understand why there was pushback to it. And Dayton was never in favor of it, so it never went anywhere.

Gerry: [00:18:26] But luckily we didn’t get into that one, beat out of that one.

Jack: [00:18:29] That was the time when we were actually going, “Okay, we need to apply for 501(c)3 from the IRS. We need to come up with bylaws. We need to come up with a focus and a business plan and a mission.” And Brian was our one and only president that we’ve ever had. I mean, I served as Vice President for the first several years until I opted to go on to other things. But Brian’s been the Steady Eddie of the group who’s kept ’em on track. And I don’t know that All Aboard Minnesota would be anywhere near the same without him.

Gerry: [00:19:01] And to spin into that, not only Brian, but I think everyone sitting down at the table for our new board had a different set of skills. I was reflecting on that a little bit. Brian, with his marketing background, you were more into the railroad. You knew–I remember you gave me a tour of how the railroads came together and I’m going, oh, because I didn’t know all that. My role was more as an advocate for the passengers because I love to take trains as a passenger. Bob, writing up his proposals and delivering those to MNDoT.

Jack: [00:19:33] Yeah. And along the way, we kept meeting with Dan Krom at MNDoT and presenting him with our analysis of, like, the second train to Chicago and how to structure it so it would get the most bang for the buck for the State of Minnesota. (Ultimately, they didn’t do a lot of it, but that’s another story.) He was thankful for our support… Said, “Thank you for helping us do this,” because we did. We started getting members. We went to Train Day every year, signed up a lot of people. All of a sudden the membership started to grow. And as that happened, we were able to get the word out that, just one call or letter to your legislator can make a big impact.

Ian: [00:20:14] And not just legislators. I know you emphasize that there’s a lot of value in getting local mayors and county commissioners talking about this kind of thing as well, because not just citizens talking to legislators about that, but all of these municipalities also work together and talk to the state level and everything.

Jack: [00:20:37] Well, and that’s a good point. There was one particular group based out of Saint Paul Union Depot: public officials from every county from Ramsey, all the way down to Winona and La Crosse as part of a group that was called at that time–and again, it’s changed–the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission. And after a few years, they realized it’s not high-speed anymore, so they changed the name to the Great River Rail Commission. And we went to their meetings every quarter. John Goodman was a good source of information for these people. Half of them had never been on a train. So we’re trying to present to them how another second schedule up and down the river that would serve La Crosse and Winona and Red Wing would be a terrific business-builder for those in Saint Paul, the Twin Cities–so it was good for business. We came up with a study that came out of Michigan done by a smaller college–they were located in Michigan–which focused on Michigan’s three different rail lines and studied the economic impact that these trains had on the towns that they served. And it was $40 million a year of economic activity that wouldn’t have taken place without the trains. So people are so reluctant to subsidize anything, but a little bit of subsidy can really return you a lot. And that was a message that nobody had heard before.

Ian: [00:22:01] And imagine what it would be if we had multiple trains per day going in those directions that actually work for people’s schedules. Because in our in our heyday, Union Depot handled, what, like several hundred passenger trains every day, going every which way? I imagine Minneapolis probably was a similar story.

Jack: [00:22:23] I think as late as the 50s, you could take at least 11 trains to Chicago from four different railroads.

Gerry: [00:22:30] I wanted to spin off an idea that you talked about the collaboration with other groups. The Great River Rail was one of them. I remember first having a conversation with Kevin or someone else at the organization saying, “You really need to change your name.” It took a while, but they did. I think they understood that eventually the high-speed rail concept was verboten (to use German). I started interacting with the Wisconsin groups–the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers I spent a lot of time with–Mark Wittenberg, for example. I also met with this gentleman who ran Pro Rail, which is focused on Madison. I would call him up and say, “What do you think about this? And what do you think about that?” And in the process, I think I discovered when I go to their meetings that I get more out of the meetings, at their lunches and afterwards than I do at the meeting! Because when they’re talking, a lot of times, at the meeting, I already know what they’re saying–the content, I already know the content. But when you meet with people 1 to 1, you find out about little other things that are happening. Some of it’s political, some of it’s not. Some of it’s funding, some of it’s things that work, some things that didn’t work–which I found extremely helpful, of course, then I want to share that with the group. And it made us, I think, a better group. I mean, you can’t have a high-speed train going along the river… What, are there are 40 turns on the Empire Builder between here and La Crosse? There’s a lot of turns on that. But I think we came back to the basic concept of collaborating, and you made me think of something else later on, after some of the turmoil, especially of the Rochester (line), I think it shows a little bit about the board, how they, I think, trusted each other. I came up with kind of a crazy idea back in 2017, which is now seven, six years ago. (It’s hard to believe it’s that long ago.) And I said, “Hey, what if I met with Chamber of Commerce, mayors, city managers, tourism directors, all the way from La Crosse, all the way up to East Grand Forks and just sort of listened to them and talk about the second train to Chicago?” That’s it. In fact, I joke about it. I really only had like three points, but I mostly wanted to listen to them. And the shocking thing to me, because I had stereotyped, pardon me: All the rural people were against trains. I mean, that’s what I had in my head. But it was a wonderful experience because–well, first of all, I don’t like to drive, so this was really something for me–but anyway, so I started out, went to city after city after city. And I don’t care who they were, the Chambers especially, I thought, “Oh, that might be a tough sell,” wasn’t! They were 100% behind the idea of a passenger train. I especially was nervous going north of the Cities because the train, as Jack mentioned earlier, goes through there in the middle of the night. I love trains, but I don’t know if I’d get on the train at 3:00 in the morning.

Ian: [00:25:20] No… No.

Jack: [00:25:21] The Eastbound Builder, when it’s on time, leaves Fargo-Moorhead at three in the morning.

Gerry: [00:25:25] And they have a lot of people!

Jack: [00:25:25] Goes through Minnesota in the dead of night.

Gerry: [00:25:27] Yeah, and there’s a lot of people in Fargo that ride the train. I couldn’t believe how many people in Fargo ride the train at three in the morning. And I thought to myself, “Wow.” I was just blown away by how positive they were. In fact, I’ll just share one quick story of members sitting in the Harbor store for the mayor of Staples, sitting in his Harbor store shooting the breeze, and he was talking about getting subsidies, and he knew how the subsidies work with Dayton, etcetera. And he said, “Well, look out there. Just look out my window. See that bridge that goes over the railroad tracks, goes over the road?” He said, “That connects one side of my community to the other side of the community.” He said, “You think we can pay for that? No. We have to be subsidized by the state.” And he understood how the whole thing worked, and he said, “Oh, it’d be great to have another train,” and he just got all fired up. But that was the same story over and over. So I was really shocked that that many people supported passenger trains. I thought it was just an urban concept, and it was actually the reverse because I saw how much they had to gain by getting a second train in this case.

Ian: [00:26:25] Right.

Jack: [00:26:25] And pretty soon, that led to these people passing resolutions that they passed on to their Congresspeople that said, “We in this city want this.”

Gerry: [00:26:35] That’s right. So we tweaked what we were doing by realizing the power of having the local people support that. Can we utilize that? Because it’s more powerful coming from the Mayor of, say, Brainerd, for example, than us. When the Mayor of Brainerd is speaking to their representative or senator on the state level, I think.

Ian: [00:26:57] I can totally see… I understand city-level people in towns that already have train service understanding the the value of that. I’m surprised to hear about Brainerd, which hasn’t had–I don’t think that’s ever had–Amtrak service. I’m sure at one point there were private passenger rail services. But it’s been a long, long time. 

Gerry: [00:27:19] No, but it’s close and it’s close enough where they can use the services. In fact, I’m chuckling because the mayor at the time was the president of a jewelry store in Brainerd that I visited. And he looks at me and he goes, “Oh, second train, can we get a train that goes east-west on that one route to Duluth?” He said, “Like that one, too?” And he starts laughing. And I said, “Well, that may be further down the road than today. We’re looking at the second train here,” and we both had a good laugh about that one. But he had already been thinking about it, and he lived in Brainerd–he was the mayor at the time. He not there anymore. It’s a new person. I was just blown away by the support in rural Minnesota, and I think they have a lot to gain.

Ian: [00:27:56] Yeah,

Gerry: [00:27:57] I could go on and on and on about that one.

Jack: [00:27:59] When MNDoT put together their first State Rail Plan, it was kind of a new thing for them. And then they have to update it every five years. So with all this new input coming in, they added the Empire Builder line from the Twin Cities up to Fargo-Moorhead as something that they wanted to study more. There is a group in Duluth–the Northern Lights Alliance–they’ve been pushing for years to get service to Duluth, to the Twin Cities. That’s virtually shovel ready.

Ian: [00:28:23] That was one of the talking points that I heard a lot. So it must be true, right? [laughter]

Jack: [00:28:29] Well, I don’t know. It’s going to cost a lot of money to the State to get that up and running because they have to basically rebuild a 50-mile-an-hour freight railroad into a 79-mile-an-hour passenger railroad. And that’s going to take a lot of infrastructure.

Ian: [00:28:44] Sure.

Jack: [00:28:44] …New stations, it’s biting off a lot. Whereas the route up to Fargo-Moorhead is already in place. Stations are already there. All you need is some equipment and an operating agreement.

Gerry: [00:28:53] In fact, on a lighter note, we did a number of outreaches–we didn’t talk about that–where we went to–I think you did the first one–

Jack: [00:29:02] Red Wing. 

Gerry: [00:29:02] In Red Wing. And then we went, “Oh, this is a good idea.” You met with the Chamber, didn’t you? And the mayors, etc.? And it was a small group, and we expanded. In fact, the last one we did in Moorhead, I think, we had our best attendance. And so we went–let’s see, if we can get them all–Saint Cloud, Winona, La Crosse, Fargo-Moorhead. We had a meeting for the businesses, and that was around 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon. And then we had one for the general public, maybe 6/6:30 roughly. And I was running around in the background. Brian was up in front with–I think it was Frank Loetterle up at Moorhead–and one lady stands up with a question and she says to those two up in front, “Well, I don’t understand, why can’t we have this train next week?” And I’m with Chris, who was the manager of City of Moorhead. She said to me, “Wow, I could go down to the Twin Cities for a meeting and come back the same day with two trains.” I said, “Yes, you could,” and you could just see it. Things clicked for her.

Ian: [00:30:00] Yep, yep. Watch those gears turning in her brain.

Gerry: [00:30:04] But I mean, people were so helpful. That’s how excited people were, wanting a train in rural Minnesota.

Ian: [00:30:11] And honestly, the question, “Why can’t we have this train next week?” is a great one to ask your legislator: to be like, “Hey, the ball’s in your court. We want this thing yesterday.

Jack: [00:30:24] And to follow up on that too. All these outreach things that that Gerry’s talking about took place years ago. And as years go by, elections get held, people turn over, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a whole new crop of people that haven’t heard the message. So it’s like, you’ve got to keep at it.

Ian: [00:30:39] Yep.

Gerry: [00:30:39] It’s that educational piece that we talked about earlier. The new mayor, for example, in Moorhead–I haven’t met that person–and Chris (Christina Volkers), the former (City) Manager in Moorhead–now is (City) Manager in Oakdale. And so, she said, “Oh, You gotta call such and such in Moorhead.” But it all takes time because you have to reconnect with people.

Jack: [00:30:57] Good point Jack.

Gerry: [00:30:58] Yeah. So it’s an ongoing process. You can’t just stop.

Jack: [00:31:02] The other thing, too, is that we got some technical help and actually set up a website, which has been an invaluable tool for the group. And I mean, if you go on that website right now, there’s even a short three-minute video, Brian’s in it. A couple other people are quoted as saying, “Boy, this would be the greatest thing since sliced bread if we had better trains here in Minnesota.” It’s a great video, and there’s information on what to expect if you’re taking a train or a lot of different content. That’s been really important for us.

Ian: [00:31:31] Yeah.

Jack: [00:31:31] …And that was something that the Minnesota Association–they have nothing like that.

Ian: [00:31:36] That’s where I get all my news from you guys from is the RSS feed from the website.

Jack: [00:31:41] In the posts and whatnot. Yeah. Right. So we’re really proud of what we did, how we got this thing going. We set out in the early beginning to be the go-to organization for expanding passenger rail in Minnesota.

Gerry: [00:31:57] Right.

Jack: [00:31:57] And I think to some degree anyway, we’ve, we’ve achieved that.

Ian: [00:32:01] One thing that really caught my attention is hearing about these, these regional planning, solicitation meetings, or whatever. I don’t know who convenes those–is it Amtrak, or is it the Federal Department of Transportation or whatever? But hearing that All Aboard Minnesota is at those meetings and has a seat at the table and is being asked, “Hey, what would we like to see prioritized in Minnesota?” alongside MNDoT actually being there as well… That’s really powerful.

Gerry: [00:32:36] On a lighter note, sometimes people say, “Who do you have for your secretary. And who’s your paid staff?” And I start laughing, and I said, “Well, we don’t have any paid staff. We’re all volunteers, and we’re all very much in favor of more and better passenger trains in and out of Minnesota.” And they said, “You don’t have a paid staff?” Because I think they had looked at some of the things that we had accomplished and some of the things we had done…

Ian: [00:33:02] How many lobbyists do you have on retainer? [laughter]

Gerry: [00:33:04] Yeah, how many do you have on retainer? Zero. Um, Looking back on one of the huge portions is the educational piece. We’ve done it in different ways, different methods, the personal contact telephone, our emails, our newsletters, our meetings, the outreach and the meetings in the past… The educational piece is important–because Jack alluded–mayors change, especially in the smaller towns. They’re part-time, and so they have a regular job, and then they go become the mayor. So I think that’s a good point. I think the educational piece has always got to be there, I think.

Jack: [00:33:43] It had an impact at the state legislature, too, because over the years we got more and more people sort of behind the whole idea that this is a good idea economically for the state. And like most people in Minnesota, none of them have ever been on it. They had no conception of what we were talking about, you know, at first. So there was a lot of education involved in all this stuff. But finally, we got some champions at the State House in Saint Paul that really dug in and got behind these proposals. And without their help, see, we’d still be wanting a second train to Chicago, but it looks like it’s going to come to fruition here very soon. Finally. Yeah, it took 12 years.

Ian: [00:34:23] Well, and that’s the nature of the beast, right? With American bureaucracy, it’s going to take that long, if not more for things to actually come together, especially when you have eight years in the middle there where we didn’t have a DFL trifecta.

Gerry: [00:34:44] But I think you have to stay persistent. I think that’s another trait that we have. I mean, you have to keep hammering on the issue; otherwise it will disappear. It’s not like how they automatically have all the money for MNDoT. I don’t know what the number is, but it’s a lot. And there are, what, two people in the rail passengers? So it’s a little lopsided, but it’s–things are automatically funded. And that’s not true with passenger trains. It’s the opposite of how things work in Europe.

Jack: [00:35:15] People think the gas tax pays for all the road construction and maintenance, but it doesn’t cover but a small percentage, right? There’s subsidy after subsidy after subsidy. People don’t blink an eye.

Gerry: [00:35:27] In fact, that made me think of I was sitting in East Grand Forks. It was my last stop. I was wiped out for the day. I was talking to the City Manager of East Grand Forks, and he says, “Why would I want a second train?” He could go to another town and catch a flight for 50 bucks to the Twin Cities. I said, “You can’t do that. That’s impossible. How could you spend 50 bucks to fly to the MSP?” He said, “Well, we have a powerful legislator that got the funds.” What are they called? Is it EAS–Emergency Assistance Funding–where every passenger on that particular plane–used to be Holiday Airlines, something like that–that each seat got 500 bucks from the feds? Subsidy, straight subsidy. So he said “It’s easier for me just to drive over there.” I said, “Oh, I see your point, because it has that heavy subsidy. People fly. There’s a couple of businesses there that are strong, and it allows them to connect to MSP.” So that was his point. I went, “Oh.” It is a learning process–for us, too… I didn’t know what that was. But everything–to your point, Jack–is subsidized, and most people don’t realize that. But when you live in another country, you really can see that. In fact, I always joke with people my favorite subsidy is peanut, because if you go to another country, you’ll see how expensive it is. I always photograph peanut butter when I am in other countries because it’s expensive, but here it’s not because we subsidize it. We subsidize just about everything, directly or indirectly.

Jack: [00:36:50] Well, the private railroads got out of passenger service after the War because of the Interstate Highway network was getting built out. Pretty soon you had a 707 landing in every major city, and the traffic dropped off to the point where they couldn’t make any money at it. Then when the post office cancelled their mail contracts, that was the death knell. And that happened in the mid-60s. And after that, they just wanted out completely. And that’s how we ended up with Amtrak and the quasi-governmental subsidized thing as a public service. Trucks run on federally subsidized highways. They don’t have that; railroads have to pay for their own infrastructure out of their own pockets. So if they can’t make a profit on a service, they just don’t do the service.

Ian: [00:37:35] Yeah, it does seem wild that we built out ourselves a country where it’s like all of the roads and highways are publicly owned, and almost all of the railroads are not. And we have these very, very powerful companies that hold these narrow strips of land. And they have done so since the mid-1800s, and they have a lot of political power grandfathered into them because they–

Jack: [00:38:04] The whole oil and gas industry, the concrete pavement industry, there’s such a huge blob of companies that profit off the status quo. They don’t want to see a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston that’ll get you there an hour and a half. It’ll take you off the road because then you won’t have to buy gas.

Brian: [00:38:23] [Brian Nelson] You guys have really nailed the point with transportation funding, and it was interesting to me–without sounding like an ancient fossil–where this all began was right after World War I. The federal government recognized the importance of building out a transportation infrastructure, namely airways and highways. So that has been in place since 1917. So it’s over a century old, and it’s so embedded in how the federal government works and subsidizes transportation. To Jack’s point earlier, it isn’t even a question. If a new airport needs to be built, there’s federal money available. But the Amtrak business model is so different, and it’s an outlier in that it’s an annual appropriation. So it gets questioned constantly. And that business model needs to get fixed, or we’re going to have the same issues and problems that we’ve had with Amtrak since its inception that are just going to continue. That’s that’s another part of our work is trying to educate about the fact that the Amtrak business model needs to get fixed.

Jack: [00:39:40] Interestingly, he’s in complete agreement with that. He sees nothing good about the way Amtrak is run or managed nowadays, because the long-distance trains that run over the private freight railroads have consistently shown to be the biggest moneymakers. And yet they they reduce services. They’re late all the time. Lousy dining options. They don’t have the equipment. They could easily triple the ridership on the Empire Builder if they just added more cars to it. But they don’t. They’re a New York / New England corridor. That’s all they care about, basically. I mean, it just seems that way. So again, the model needs to be fixed big-time and just… Start over!

Gerry: [00:40:25] The hard part for both of you, in my opinion, it’s the model. Amtrak is the model for passenger rail. It’s not the only one in town like the Brightline in Florida. I’ve ridden that one. It’s unbelievable. And I don’t know, on a federal level they’re going to have to deal with changing that model. There’s a couple of tweaks that have happened where they have to have people representing the rest of the country, instead of just the Northeast on the Board. They’re starting to deal with that issue, though not very well, in my opinion. But that’s just a little start. They have a lot of different issues, from funding to priorities, etc. So they’ve got a ways to go, but it’s our only model that we have. So the second train to Chicago will be an Amtrak-run train. Because that’s just how life is today in the United States.

Ian: [00:41:25] So will the Northern Lights and–?

Gerry: [00:41:28] I would assume the same. There’s a lot of reasons for that. But one of them is insurance, and the freight railroads–I don’t blame them–they want to deal with a known entity. I mean, if you’re that big of a company, you want to just, “Okay, check that slot off and you know, that’s going to work because Amtrak has done this, this and this.” So I can kind of see their point. So there is no real competition.

Ian: [00:41:51] In terms of like the awareness of your day to day average Minnesotan having taken train at some point in their life, The Northern Lights Express is probably going to be the biggest game-changer for that in a long, long time. Because it goes from the Twin Cities to a very popular vacation destination, Duluth, right at the start of the North Shore. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people start adopting that as the really easy way to just go up North and hang out in Duluth for a couple of days and then come home.

Gerry: [00:42:30] Well, it also goes to Hinckley, where there’s the Indian casino. But I think and we believe the second train to Chicago will generate more traffic and more people into Saint Paul Union Depot than that will, because right now it’s coming down into the Target Center. And so one of the things we’re working on is connecting that to the Amtrak system. That’s our project right now. One of them.

Jack: [00:42:57] Minneapolis is one of the biggest cities in the country that has absolutely no Amtrak service, nor have they for many years. And I go to Chicago quite frequently because I grew up in Detroit, right? It’s a heck of a drive, I mean, traffic, trucks… You’re gripping the steering wheel the whole time. To have a train that would get me there in a car-competitive time? I’d take it each time. There’s college students in Winona that come up from Chicago… I mean, there’s all kinds of new opportunities for travel that that can open up.

Gerry: [00:43:30] Like in Winona, Saint Mary’s College, most of those kids are from Chicago. But that was the other thing about taking… People ask me–like this woman I met in Edina outside in the parking lot–she said, “Well, how long does it take?” And I said, “Well, this is city center to city center, maybe 7 / 7.5 hours for the second train.” And she says, “Oh, okay.” And she said, “It goes to downtown also.” I said, “Yes.” She says, “Yeah, but it’s much more relaxing.” That was… Those were her words. That would be my words that always sell it, because for me, it’s all productive time. I’ve been in Chicago at least 35 times at minimum because I love that city, and sometimes I fly. Sometimes I take the train. I would say three fourths of those are by the train, if I have a choice. It depends on the timing of where I’m going, what I’m doing. But when I get back, when I’m on a train ride, wherever I’m going, I’m relaxed, right? I don’t know why what that is because I love flying, too. But going to Chicago is much more relaxing. You can get up. In fact, sometimes I’ll read a whole book, or I’ll talk to somebody, or I’ll design things, make lists of things I have to do…

Ian: [00:44:36] I don’t think anybody will be surprised to hear that I edit many, many podcast episodes on the Amtrak to Chicago.

Gerry: [00:44:43] Well, yeah, but don’t do that while you’re driving.

Ian: [00:44:45] No, no. Absolutely not.

Gerry: [00:44:47] Please don’t do that.

Jack: [00:44:48] I think I heard at one point and this could be wrong, but I heard at one point several years ago that there’s 10 million car trips between Chicago and the Twin Cities every year on I-90. 10 million. That’s a market. So we’re hoping, hoping, hoping that when we finally get this Chicago to Milwaukee and Twin Cities train up, that it’ll be popular, and that it will be reliable–which is the big issue with the Empire Builder. You know, it’ll be punctual. People can rely on it. I can’t tell you how sad I feel for these people that show up at the station and the train’s eight hours late. They didn’t know that.

Gerry: [00:45:25] And they still ride the train. A lot of people wait to ride the train. I’m just amazed, you know, especially the people of Fargo where it’s three in the morning or whatever time it is. And one of the things that I think we’re kind of fanatics about is to make sure we don’t get on. I call it the rumor train that we try to make sure we double check to make sure everything’s factual before we either publish it on our website or discuss it and make sure we have at least, you know, 2 or 3 sources to make sure it’s accurate, even though it might make us look better. We would rather not publish or get involved with that kind of thing. I think that helps and speaks to our credibility, I think. And people ask me all the time, “Oh, are you going to attend this meeting? Are you going to attend this meeting?” Well, I’m not, but maybe Brian is or maybe Bob is or whoever. So we try to attend all the different meetings so that we know what’s going on.

Ian: [00:46:18] All right. So 2023, we’re at a pretty exciting point in passenger rail in Minnesota, I think more exciting than any other point in my life, I would say.

Jack: [00:46:31] For a long time anyway.

Gerry: [00:46:32] Yeah. And mine too.

Ian: [00:46:33] Where do you guys think where are we. Where are we headed next? What’s our next goals?

Brian: [00:46:37] One of the things that we did when we formed and stormed–and thanks to Jack and Gerry for their vision and their sticktoitiveness, to make All Aboard Minnesota happen–is we really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what what we were going to say, what we were going to do, and what we were not going to do. Right? And I think that’s really helped us stay on-mission, stay focused, get the word out. Not only with mayors and legislators, but with the general population at large. And so we’re going to continue that advocacy work. And the two routes that we’re going to focus on going forward is extending the second train–the Twin Cities to Chicago train–to Fargo-Moorhead on a daytime schedule. There’s a lot of political support. Gerry’s talked about that before. We’ve kept in contact with those people. So we’re going to do a lot of outreach, education, advocacy work on that route. The other route that we’re going to focus on is Twin Cities to Kansas City. There’s a lot of support in southern Minnesota for more passenger rail. And so those those are going to be our focuses and priorities going forward. Other organizations have asked us for some help in terms of policy issues, things like that. And so we’re going to help out where we can, but we’re going to stay true to our focus and mission of public outreach, advocacy and building support for those additional passenger services.

Ian: [00:48:03] And connecting Target Field to the Amtrak system.

Brian: [00:48:07] Yes.

Gerry: [00:48:08] Those are the three things we’re looking at and are working on now. I think though–Brian said it really well–having those priorities really help. I’ve had over the years, a number of people say, “Wow, what about taking a train to Winnipeg?” Yeah, well, that’s on our long-term. That’s a long ways away. But yes, why don’t we do that right away first? Well, we look at what will be most successful and work with the most people first. That’s why that’s the order. But that really helps us to focus instead of all of a sudden you got five people going in the direction, trying to work on a train to Winnipeg. Then then our focus isn’t all together, and that really helps us stay focused..to Keep using the same word.

Ian: [00:48:54] Yeah. You don’t want to be the dog chasing two rabbits.

Gerry: [00:48:57] No, there’s enough rabbits to chase. Plus, I hate to use the word ignorance, but a lot of people just don’t know a lot about passenger trains or how they’re funded versus highways or airways or whatever.

Ian: [00:49:10] Sure. Yeah. And it sounds, like you said, the organization has that mixture of people with, experience as passengers and knowing what you want to see as a passenger. And then people who have experience with working within the system of what are the logistics of what funding methods need to get into place, and how many do we need to upgrade the rail lines along the way and stuff like that.

Gerry: [00:49:40] So I think those are kind of exciting. The Fargo one, I mean, the people there were so fired up about a daytime train coming along the same tracks as the Empire Builder. They just were so excited. And I’m talking about a number of Chambers, for example, in the Fargo-Moorhead area. I mean, there’s several of them that I interacted with. I mean, they’re all so excited about that possibility that it recharges my batteries and everybody else’s, I think. So it’s it’s fun to look forward to that. Awesome, I think.

Ian: [00:50:10] Alright, let’s talk about that party that you guys are planning. So, I know it’s on November 18th, it’s at the Edina library; Brian, give us all the details. 

Brian: [00:50:15] Doors open at 1 p.m. We will have several speakers. Frank Loetterle from the Federal Railroad Administration will give an update on their long-distance study, which could greatly impact passenger train services through Minnesota. So he’ll give us an update on that. Greg Mathis from MNDoT will give an update on the status of the second daily train to Chicago to Twin Cities / Duluth service–an update on the State Rail Plan and where that’s headed. Aaron Kegel, who was the chair of the House Transportation Committee, will give sort of an overview of the historic legislation that was passed and what the future could bring for more funding for passenger rail in Minnesota. And Jack and Gerry will, of course, give a brief overview of how we formed and stormed, and we’ll talk about some of our achievements and milestones over the last ten years. So, yes, full event details are posted on our website under the Events tab. We ask if you can to register. We’re going to serve a light lunch, and we’ll have a cake-cutting ceremony at the end. And our guest of honor will be former Representative Alice Hausman, who served in the Minnesota House for over 30 years and was a champion for passenger rail for her entire tenure. And without her, we would not be where we’re at today. So we’re looking forward to a great, fun event and we welcome anybody that would love to come. It’s free; there’s no charge, and we’re greatly looking forward to it.

Ian: [00:51:51] Oh yeah. Looking forward to it. Gerry. Jack, Brian, thanks for coming on.

Gerry: [00:51:56] Thank you.

Jack: [00:51:57] Thank you.

Brian: [00:51:57] Thanks.

Ian: [00:52:08] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Streets.mn Podcast! This show is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NonDerivative 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 Erik Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was edited by Tim Marino, transcribed by Sherry Johnson, and hosted by me, Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the Streets.mn Podcast, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn. Find other listeners and discuss this episode on your favorite social media platform using #StreetsMNPodcast
Until next time, take care!

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Ian is a podcaster and teacher. He grew up in Saint Paul, and currently lives in Minneapolis. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation, and wants to make it possible for more people to do so as well! "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"