Photos of The Wells Fargo Center in Minneapolis, the Willis Tower in Chicago, and the view from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The Midwest: A Sleeping Giant for American Passenger Rail

In 2020, the world stood still.

Over three years ago, the surging COVID-19 pandemic prompted a national lockdown. A country of 330 million — one of the most populous in the world — all but shut down entirely. Offices closed. Businesses locked up. Nonessential workers sent home.

Then the cities emptied out. The streets stopped humming. Cars retreated to their driveways. Planes sat empty on airport tarmacs, many of them grounded for the foreseeable future. Nobody knew how long it would last, and I’m sure we all heard the word “unprecedented” one too many times.

A few weeks ago, Thanksgiving arrived, and with it, a colossal flood of holiday travelers. All across the United States, airports overflowed with passengers. Interstates clogged with drivers.

A collage of headlines reporting record-setting Thanksgiving travel in 2023.
A sample of headlines from Thanksgiving 2023.

It’s incredible to imagine that, just three years ago, it was as if somebody hit the pause button on the world.

Now, it’s almost like the whole ordeal never happened. Several of our largest airports recorded their most hectic Thanksgiving travel to date, with the following Sunday going down as the busiest day in the history of U.S. air travel.

Flightradar24 map showing air traffic on the busiest day of air travel in the US.
A snapshot of the busiest day of air travel in the U.S. Source: Flightradar24

As I slogged through the airport that morning, one of almost 3 million Americans heading home, I reflected on the monstrous strain put on our airports and our highways each holiday. “If only we had more passenger trains,” I tell friends and family year after year, “then everything wouldn’t get so backed up.”

“It wouldn’t work here,” they’d say. “This country’s too big.”

Excuses, Excuses

The United States is enormous — the fourth-largest nation in the world by total land area. And if you’re unfamiliar with the geography, it may be difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of our country. What’s the old joke? “British people think 100 miles is a long way; Americans think 100 years is a long time.” I sometimes hear stories about Europeans visiting the States for the first time with the idea of seeing the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon on the same weekend. Maybe get a tour of the Capitol and take a day trip up to Mount Rushmore.

In reality, you could drive for 11 hours straight without leaving Texas.

Because of this, a lot of people assume that passenger rail isn’t viable in the United States, at least outside of the Northeast Megalopolis. Many Americans see that region as the only part of the country with the density to support high-speed (or higher-speed) rail, with its wealth of major cities and overlapping metro areas that fall in a relatively straight line.

A map showing passenger rail lines in the Northeast Corridor, from Washington, D.C. to Boston.
Passenger rail lines of the Northeast Corridor. Source: Apple Maps

Between local, regional and Acela Express services, it’s no surprise that the Northeast Corridor records the highest train ridership of any region in the U.S. It’s essentially a 400-mile line comprising the “Big 4” — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston — along with several other cities like Baltimore, Trenton, New Haven and Providence. This is undeniably the most important rail corridor in the country, and for good reason.

Penn Station, New York.
Another view of Penn Station.

As you move west, though, the density tapers off. Cities become fewer and farther apart. The geography becomes more challenging, and pretty soon, you’re looking at a huge country filled with a whole lot of nothin’.

A map showing population per square mile in the U.S.
Population per square mile in the U.S. Source: Wikimedia / JimIrwin

So is the rest of the U.S. “too big” for 21st-century passenger rail service? Or is this just a lazy excuse to justify the status quo?

Let’s look at the data.

Map of North America with a web of lines drawn between its cities.

This map is the product of a small project I developed in the Python programming language. In the code, I defined every metropolitan area in the contiguous United States, Canada and Mexico exceeding a population of 100,000. Not a difficult threshold, by any means; the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro boasts more than 3.6 million. All in all, there are more than 250 dots on the map, the majority of which are in the U.S. I weighed every possible combination, one city against another, using an enormous for-loop of doom. Seattle vs. Santa Fe. Bakersfield vs. Colorado Springs. San Antonio vs. Sudbury. I don’t know how many city pairs were tested, but my compiler wasn’t very happy about it.

A screenshot of the loop in question.
The enormous for-loop of doom.

For each pair, the combined population of the two metro areas is weighed against the distance between them. Larger cities located near each other, like Philadelphia and Washington, give a high ratio, whereas smaller and more distant pairs do not. This ratio is then multiplied by an aggregate “centrality score” that considers other nearby population centers. For example, the Philadelphia-Washington pair would be bolstered due to the fact that New York, Trenton and Richmond (among others) are nearby. This ensures that regions like the Northeast Corridor are given the appropriate gravity considering the number of cities they contain.

Map of the Northeast Corridor, with dense networks of lines connecting cities.

Predictably, this part of the continent is the most chaotic, with dozens of thick, overlapping lines indicating the highly valuable city pairs that lie between D.C. and Boston. Out west, the lines become thinner and fewer as cities are more sparsely located. Even so, it’s easy to spot a number of places where intercity passenger routes are under construction or have some proposal floating around. The Front Range in Colorado. The Central Valley in California. The Texas Triangle. The Cascades.

Map of the Front Range, showing potential rail connections.
The Front Range.
Map of California's Central Valley, , showing potential rail connections.
California’s Central Valley.
Map of the Texas Triangle, showing potential rail connections.
The Texas Triangle.
Map of the Cascades, showing potential rail connections.
Cascades.

Indeed, several of these corridors have been selected either for upgraded Amtrak service or flagship high-speed rail projects. This includes Brightline West, between Las Vegas and the Inland Empire; California high-speed rail, connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area; and Texas Central, which would link the state’s two largest metro areas.

If all of these projects come to fruition, they would be more or less isolated. Each is incredibly important in its own right, reducing both vehicular traffic and short-haul flights, but it would be challenging to unify them into a comprehensive nationwide network.

Map of the Western U.S., showing potential regional rail networks that are isolated from each other.

East of the Great Plains, however, it’s a different story entirely.

Map of the Midwestern and Northeastern U.S., showing a thick network of potential rail connections.

Here, past the endless crop fields and small farming towns that shape the Breadbasket of America, the geography shifts dramatically. Take a look at the map again. The lines here may not be as thick or as concentrated as those in the Northeast, but they are abundant — enough to create a veritable web of high-potential city pairs spanning the entire Midwest and Great Lakes region. Chicago and St. Louis. Madison and Milwaukee. Most of these pairs can be built into larger corridors, like the “3 C’s” of Ohio or a Twin Cities – Milwaukee – Chicago route.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that all of these blue lines on the map should represent independent rail corridors. Many of them are redundant, and quite a few go underwater. As cool as a train tunnel from Chicago to Grand Rapids would be, Lake Michigan would make the English Channel look like a creek.

These lines simply illustrate the network possibilities that exist in this region and the many services that could feed into each other. That’s what makes it a potential powerhouse for American passenger rail. From a size and density perspective, you could take a small cutout of the Midwest and compare it to a similarly-sized country with world-class passenger rail. Suddenly, the scale of the entire U.S. becomes a non-factor.

On top of that, the Midwest has a geographical advantage as one of the flattest parts of the country. Denver to Salt Lake City might be a strong city pair on paper, but it’s not easy to get a train through the Continental Divide. Even with the Moffat Tunnel, the track is way too twisty to support high speeds as it wends its way through the Rockies. Out here, though? No large mountain ranges. No bumpy coastlines. Topographically speaking, it’s as close to perfect as you can get.

A topographic map of North America.
Source: NASA

Many of the freight-owned railroads that already exist here are relatively straight, allowing faster and more direct passenger service from city to city. Just this year, Amtrak’s Lincoln Service began running 110 mph trains between Chicago and St. Louis. It would be much easier to upgrade this corridor to true high-speed rail in the future than, for instance, the Amtrak Cardinal through the Appalachians.

A map of Illinois showing Amtrak routes.
A map showing the Amtrak Cardinal route.

This is true of several other routes throughout the Midwest. Even those with fairly slow, twisty tracks (like the existing Twin Cities – Milwaukee – Chicago corridor) could be supplemented with new rights-of-way running through flat plains or highway medians. Investing in these routes has the potential to shave hours, not minutes, off of their total travel times.

Passenger Demand in the Region

Even without high-speed rail, the Midwest is one of the busiest regions in the country for train travel. It accounts for the highest Amtrak ridership outside of the Northeast Corridor and California, with 10 state-supported routes combining for over 2 million total trips in 2022.

This doesn’t even account for the shorter segments of long-distance routes, like the Twin Cities – Milwaukee – Chicago portion of the Empire Builder, which consistently see heavy demand. Many of the intercity buses supplementing Amtrak routes are likewise sold out, including Amtrak’s own Thruway service. Traveling overland on conventional rail is certainly not as fast as flying — at least beyond short distances — but maybe it doesn’t have to be.

An Amtrak Thruway bus.
An Amtrak Thruway bus. Source: Amtrak.

In this part of the country, the goal of passenger rail should be to compete first and foremost with driving. In the future, a high-speed rail network spanning the entire region could absolutely be competitive with flying; passengers could travel directly from downtown to downtown in comfort without the hassle of security lines, baggage claim and obnoxiously long boarding processes. But for right now? Any rail service is leagues better than no service at all. Likewise, several medium-speed lines could be more impactful than a single high-speed line. You don’t need a Japanese bullet train to offer a convenient, desirable, cost-effective and sustainable travel option — especially in a place where people say “It’s only a six-hour drive” with a straight face.

The Decline of Rail Travel in the U.S.

During the Second World War, 125 trains passed through Minneapolis every day. Several independent routes linked the Twin Cities with its neighbors, reaching as far as Chicago, Kansas City, and Winnipeg. Long-distance routes, including the original Empire Builder, took passengers through the Dakotas and Montana to the Pacific Northwest.

Great Northern Depot arrival and departures board.
Arrivals and departures at the Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis. Source: Wikimedia / Marty Bernard.

Soon after, these numbers began to dwindle. The railroads deteriorated over the years, with nearly all of their routes closing. In 1978, the Great Northern Depot was demolished, effectively ending the golden age of passenger rail in the Twin Cities. Now, only the Empire Builder remains, a lone artifact of what was once an integral part of our state’s industrial boom.

An Amtrak train enters a station, breaking through a banner that reads "MINNEAPOLIS WELCOMES AMTRAK."
The first Amtrak train to Minneapolis arrives at the Great Northern Depot in 1971. Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The Great Northern Depot, partially demolished.
The demolition of the Great Northern Depot. Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune.

This is a story that has echoed throughout North America. What was once thriving intercity rail service was deprecated; abandoned; left to rot, go bankrupt, or become subsumed under Amtrak. The U.S. once led the world in passenger trains. Decades later, our railways had only an echo of their former glory.

An animated timeline and map of the U.S., illustrating the decline of passenger railway service from 1962 to 2005.
Source: Vox.

Our disinvestment in passenger rail perpetuated a nasty cycle. As train travel options became less desirable, less practical, and even nonexistent in many regions, our lawmakers were left to ask why we continue to fund them. Amtrak was viewed less as an essential service and more as a network of subsidized land cruises. Many people saw it as a fun idea for a vacation, but never something to be relied on for practical travel. This resulted in further cuts and worsening public opinion, giving rise to the many, many misconceptions about why the U.S. will never get on board with intercity trains.

“America is too big.”

“Nobody will take the train when they can just fly.”

“People here love their cars too much.”

The Resurgence of Midwestern Rail

Today, this country is singing a different tune.

Collage of headlines reporting the rise of Amtrak ridership throughout the country.

In November 2021, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill into law, and with it, the Corridor Identification and Development Program was created. This allowed a number of entities, including state governments and Amtrak, to request funding for new or existing passenger routes throughout the country. This would be allocated toward initial studies and planning, with the goal of creating concrete project timelines and getting shovels in the ground. Just over two years later, the selections have been announced in dramatic fashion, with the week of December 3, 2023 marking quite possibly the most pivotal era of Amtrak expansion — all stemming from one monumental bill.

In total, 69 corridors were selected — some long-distance routes, others shorter state-supported lines. Major cities that were previously underserved or completely left off the map are slated to receive new or upgraded Amtrak service. Several gaping holes in the national network can now be closed, and the Amtrak Connects US vision is one step closer to becoming a reality.

An official graphic for the Corridor Identification & Development program.
Source: The Federal Railroad Administration on X.

Notably, every single existing corridor in the Midwest, save for some long-distance routes, is included in this program. Each is eligible for up to $500,000 to conduct preliminary studies and begin design work. All of the existing routes, denoted by a solid blue line, are intended to be upgraded in some capacity, with several extensions and brand-new corridors officially on the table.

A closeup of the Midwest from the "Investments to Enhance Intercity Passenger Rail" map above.
A closeup of the Midwest from the “Investments to Enhance Intercity Passenger Rail” map above.

Next year, Amtrak Midwest will welcome its 11th route, the Great River. It will trace the path of the Empire Builder, making all the same stops, but with its western terminus at St. Paul Union Depot. Thanks to Corridor ID funding, this route is now expected to add three extra daily trains between St. Paul and Chicago, adding more flexible travel options throughout the day.

Map of the Great River route from St. Paul to Chicago.
Source: MnDOT.

This past spring, the Minnesota Legislature approved state funding for the long-awaited Northern Lights Express, a project that will return passenger rail to Duluth for the first time since the 1980s. Minneapolis will once again be connected to Amtrak’s network, elevating the importance of Target Field Station. Due to an addendum issue in the Environmental Impact Statement, the route was not eligible for full federal funding, but that will become available in the near future.

Map of the Northern Lights Express route from Minneapolis to Duluth.
The Northern Lights Express route. Source: MnDOT.

And thanks to this month’s announcements, a complementary Twin Cities – Milwaukee – Chicago corridor may come to fruition, adding service to Eau Claire and Madison.

What’s Next for Minnesota?

The Corridor ID announcements marked a monumental investment in intercity passenger rail — a tangible commitment toward a more sustainable future. Of course, these plans do not mean that the United States will suddenly be on par with the likes of Germany and Japan as far as 21st-century rail transportation is concerned. But it’s a start. Many of these routes have not been touched in decades, and their much-needed upgrades will give thousands (if not millions) of Americans their first taste of modern train travel.

The possibility of further grants and network expansions depends heavily on the success of these projects.

  • How effectively will the current funds be used?
  • How many of the new routes will be completed on time and under budget?
  • How can we avoid pitfalls, and what successes can we replicate throughout the country?

In the coming months, it will be crucial to follow up on these studies and keep the momentum going. Lawmakers must be reminded of what a worthwhile investment passenger rail is and how much demand there is among their constituents. With sustained political will, Minnesota is set to receive more passenger service than it’s seen in decades. But this is only the beginning.

Future routes, as advocated by organizations like All Aboard Minnesota, would put Sioux Falls, Des Moines and even Winnipeg back on the map, all anchored to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Like virtually all of the Corridor ID routes, these would run on existing freight rights-of-way waiting to be utilized for passenger service.

Meanwhile, regional rail to cities like St. Cloud, Rochester, Mankato, Faribault, and Owatonna would boost the efficacy of future Amtrak expansions by serving passengers throughout the Twin Cities Metro and Greater Minnesota.

A map of the Upper Midwest showing possible intercity rail lines.
An imagined Minnesota-centered intercity rail map by @ThunderWolf08 on X.

The benefits of these projects cannot be overstated. Connecting cities, towns and everything in between opens up a plethora of economic opportunities for the entire region. Jobs are created. New housing is built. Cars are taken off the road. Pollution is decreased, as are greenhouse gas emissions. Those who cannot drive, whether for financial, medical or other reasons, are offered a comfortable, convenient and viable alternative. Veterans and senior citizens can access hospitals and medical centers for regular treatment. Society’s most vulnerable are no longer left behind, but rather empowered by infrastructure that meets the needs of everybody.

The front of an Amtrak train.

Call or write your state and federal legislators and let them know that this is a future you believe in!

As demand for passenger rail continues to soar nationwide, Minnesota has the opportunity to cement itself as a leader. With one of the most transformative legislative sessions in state history behind us, and with redoubled federal support for transportation improvements, what can’t we do next?

Jesse Cook

About Jesse Cook

Pronouns: he/him/his

Third year aerospace engineering student (UofM) | Transit and housing advocate | Loons enjoyer