A photo of an Amtrak Train along the Mississippi river in Minnesota

What the FRA Long-Distance Study Could Mean for Minnesota

Amtrak is having a moment, though it may be hard yet to see the results.

An unprecedented amount of money, effort and political will is currently being marshaled by federal, state and even local governments for improving our nation’s intercity rail system. Much of that attention has rightfully gone toward high-speed rail, as well as frequent, higher speed service between city pairs. However, in the text of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), there was also a congressional mandate for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to study long-distance routes, whether resuming discontinued long-distance routes or creating new ones from scratch.

Long-distance routes are the backbone of Amtrak’s national network. These are iconic, long-distance trains, statutorily defined as having routes longer than 750 miles. Among the long-distance routes is the Empire Builder, between Chicago and Seattle, which is currently the only intercity rail service that connects to the Twin Cities or within Minnesota at all.

A photo of an Amtrak Train along the Mississippi river in Minnesota
Photo of the Empire Builder, which services St. Paul, by Jerry Huddleston, Hampton, Minnesota – Amtrak 8, Maple Springs, CC BY 2.0

If you are familiar with long-distance routes, you’re also familiar with the complaints: the terrible on-time performance, the maddening (technically illegal) freight-induced delays, if not outright cancellation due to “equipment availability.” The current state of Amtrak’s long-distance routes have given rail travel in the United States a bad name (except for stretches of the coasts).

For climate-minded people who care that intercity rail is the most energy-efficient way to travel overland — or even for people who just like trains — Amtrak’s Long Distance Network is not the example you want to give, nor the service you want to carry the banner of the future of short- to mid-haul travel. These services today are not fast, not frequent and not attuned to modern travel patterns. They take longer than their competition, be it flying or driving, and even compared with intercity buses on some routes. They also suffer from a structural disadvantage against their freight railroad hosts, and generally lack the resources and political will to improve their performance.

With all that said, why would the FRA enable and encourage Amtrak to add more slow, infrequent and uncompetitive routes to Amtrak’s network? And why on earth would transit, mobility, and urban advocates and enthusiasts have a reason to support this endeavor?

First, I will discuss the most recent content of the FRA’s long-distance study. Then, I will detail why these long-distance routes may well be worth our qualified support — as both matters of principle and political strategy.

Long-Distance Routes Identified for Minnesota

Numerous considerations went into the routes that made it to this stage of the study (learn more from the source). In short, these long-distance routes favored serving rural populations, with endpoints set as major metropolitan areas, especially those not currently served by Amtrak’s national network. All routes were constructed from segments of existing track and right of way, which means these routes have the built-in assumption of having tenant relationships with the freight railroads that own and operate a vast majority of trackage in the United States.

Among the measurements included were travel patterns and access to national parks, post-secondary education and healthcare institutions. Crucially, these route evaluations were undertaken with the participation and active consideration of Tribal Nations. Additionally, while much of the purpose of the routes identified in this study is to serve rural areas and smaller communities, the current study identifies only corridors and major destinations, and will add further details (such as station locations) in future studies and development.

MSP to Phoenix

Endpoints: Minneapolis/St. Paul to Phoenix, Arizona 

The Local Angle: This route would serve communities in southwestern Minnesota and connect to larger neighboring cities such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Omaha, Nebraska; and Kansas City, Missouri. 
The National Angle: A (relatively) direct train from Minnesota to the desert southwest sounds exotic, doesn’t it? Though perhaps the FRA is onto something given the existence of Minnesotan enclaves in Arizona — the caveat being that the total run-time between MSP and Phoenix is put at 48 hours.

MSP to San Antonio

Endpoints: Minneapolis/St. Paul to San Antonio, Texas

The Local Angle: This route would serve communities in southern Minnesota and connect to larger neighboring cities such as Des Moines, Iowa (currently not served by Amtrak at all) and Kansas City, Missouri. 
The National Angle: Roughly following the path of Interstate 35, this route would also pass through Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and, finally, Austin and San Antonio.

MSP to Denver

Endpoints: Minneapolis/St. Paul to Denver, Colorado

The Local Angle: This route would serve communities in southwestern Minnesota and connect to the population centers of South Dakota, including Sioux Falls, the State Capitol in Pierre and Rapid City, before continuing on to Denver. We have to wonder if the FRA read Pat Thompson’s article in Streets.mn about traveling the overland route to Denver when considering this route for inclusion.
The National Angle: South Dakota and Wyoming are the only two states that are not part of the Amtrak National Rail network. This matters when U.S senators oversee both your legislative direction and funding. More on this later. 

MSP to Seattle, Washington

Endpoints: Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seattle

The Local Angle: This route is entirely redundant. It would follow the current route of the Empire Builder through Minnesota, providing another option between MSP and Fargo, and yet another train between St. Paul and Milwaukee and Chicago (as well as the Twin Cities and Seattle).

The National Angle: This route may be a sizable part of the reason why the FRA was legislatively mandated to undertake this study. Grassroots support for restoring service to the former route of Amtrak’s North Coast Hiawatha coalesced into the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority; that entity has been effectively advocating for returning intercity rail service to southern Montana, which includes most of the state’s population centers. Between this and the “Montana Miracle,” our Big Sky neighbor to the west is doing exciting things in a unique political environment.

Why Care About Slow, Long Trains?

If you like maps, or trains, perhaps you’re satisfied. But everything I detailed here has all the drawbacks I’ve already explained: conventional rail speeds on freight-rail controlled tracks, infrequent schedules that are often more aspirational than accurate. To some, this is the exact thing we should not be doing. And there’s a point there: A bulk of any investment in passenger rail should be focused on city pairs with high travel demand, and travel times that are at least competitive with driving, if not flying.

Resources for doing things in the real world are always scarce, and we must use them wisely. But despite the protests of coastal elites who’d happily focus on the Northeast Corridor and Pacific coasts, if we’re traveling to an ecologically and climate-stable future, we have a long way to go — and we’re going to have to go together.

I will make the case that at least some of these proposals are worth some attention and effort — and I will present my case in order of most cynical to least.

First, pork barrel politics works: Looking at the map of proposed routes, one crucial landscape wasn’t included on the map: the borders of congressional districts. If all the routes in the study were to be built out (not likely), there would be Amtrak service in 48 States and 431 congressional districts. This is crucial because Amtrak is overseen and subsidized by Congress on behalf of the American people. And recent history has shown that passenger rail becomes a bi-partisan issue when proposed Amtrak cuts come close to home, whether in upstate New York or the southwest.

Pork barrel politics, also known as “political engineering,” is the process by which elected representatives of all stripes fight for projects that put dollars and jobs in their district. We can do a lot worse than long-distance rail routes — a recent example being the continued bipartisan interest in building Naval warships in the Upper Midwest that the Navy doesn’t want anymore and can’t really use. People dedicated to their ideologies may resist embracing the methods of the Military Industrial Complex and the interstate highway lobby. But these methods work. Let’s not assume we are too virtuous to embrace a little pork-barrel spending in order to accomplish goals that may otherwise languish.

Besides, in my reading, we’ve spent the past couple decades turning our backs on pork barrel politics, such as earmarks. In that time, we’ve accomplished very little (especially in regard to long-term issues like climate change), and we all seem to hate each other more than ever, when we ought to be collaborating to solve our nation’s and world’s most intractable problems. Consider the scale of what needs to be done and the current state of politics. Maybe we should give pork-barrel politics another look. Within reason. 

Consider: These long-distance routes may politically protect or ensure future or developing intercity and high-speed projects in the future.

Second, plant the seed: Currently, no Amtrak service exists between Iowa and Minnesota, or between Minnesota and South Dakota. I will concede to having misread South Dakotans in the past, but this may be our best way of building energy-efficient transportation links between our neighbors to the south and southwest. I don’t foresee a radical political realignment from our neighbors to the west soon; the same goes for the strange politics of Iowa. So we shouldn’t expect the state governments of Iowa or South Dakota to change their approach to intercity rail or sustainable transportation.

Climate change is not the political issue in these places that it is in Minnesota. When climate change does crop up it is as an aspect of agricultural or energy policies, and sustainable mobility is often far down the list of priorities (as it often is in our state as well). Any discussions of sustainable mobility are in their infancy — or, as is the case with the Des Moines Transit Agency (DART), fighting for survival.

If these long-distance study routes can survive the continuing process of development, we can get our foot in the door as sustainable transportation advocates. This is important for reasons beyond sustainable intercity and interstate travel. Train stations are a part of walkable, sustainable cities and towns of all sizes across the world. Normal, Illinois is a poster child of the ways that passenger rail can help transform small towns and mid-sized cities that people would otherwise write off as “flyover” country. 

Once built, these infrastructures will create and develop advocates. Sustainable transportation and urban advocates need to diversify their ranks, a commitment that Streets.mn has signed on to with its racial equity analysis, which recognizes that white urbanites benefit most from the work and content of Streets.mn.

The need for more identities and perspectives in conversations around sustainable infrastructure and communities extends to marginalized parts of the Twin Cities, but it extends beyond that, too. Let’s expand it to meatpacking communities in western Minnesota, to rural communities, in which our political stereotypes often overlook agricultural labor and Tribal Nations. The plains and prairies are more diverse than many realize. For example, the first mosque in the United States made for the purpose of worship (compared with retrofitting a building) was built in Ross, North Dakota.

A skyline view of Des Moines, Iowa.
Downtown Des Moines (image credit: Greater Des Moines Partnership)

A just future means planning for even more diverse rural areas, and as always, that means thinking beyond car-centered environments. We need walkable urbanism advocates in Willmar, Marshall and Owatonna. We need sustainable transportation folks in Des Moines and Sioux Falls. These long-distance routes may not be a priority, or perhaps could even be a distraction — which is why we should focus on building broad coalitions spanning space.

The FRA study is an invitation to watch what happens next, and see if we can contribute to something like the Great River Rail Coalition, geographically broad with the proven record of delivering to us the Twin Cities-Chicago second daily train, which will be named the Great River and begin service any day now. But to participate means we have to be willing to support these long-distance routes, which were developed with nationwide feedback and listening sessions.

This is a chance for us to change the map.

Third, a brief note on busses: People may say, “These are all great points, but can’t they be true also for buses, at a fraction of the cost?” First, some caveats. By virtue of the congressional legislation and agency committing the study, these routes are studied as rail. While committed urbanists and sustainable-transit advocates may see buses as functionally identical to rail service, it’s apparent that the traveling public and the base of grassroots advocates do not. Plus, there is more political excitement around intercity train service — exhibit A being that a national high speed rail network has even become a meme.

I’m not going to argue here for trains over buses. As Jesse Cook makes clear in his recent Streets.mn article, there’s a huge amount of promise in state-run intercity bus systems, and opportunities are being left on the table.

But I will present some counterpoints to the quick-draw arguments: 

  • The comfort of buses and trains is simply not the same. I’ve had experience on Amtrak and long-distance buses. We cannot discount the luxury of being able to get up and walk around on a long trip. Especially when things are going badly. 
  • The passenger capacity of trains is greater. If we have airplanes flying from MSP to Des Moines and Sioux Falls, our travel market is probably larger than can be served by basic bus service. Frequent bus service is expensive, and it will need demonstrated, durable political support before being put forward as an alternative. 
  • There’s more than 100 years of history and a world of examples of effective, economic electrified rail, which is crucial for a clean-energy and transportation future. The current state of electrifying buses is… not great. They don’t really work, and work worst at the long distances that we’re talking about. Battery-electric long-distance transportation might be a technological dead end, and we have to be prepared to work around that — with overhead wires. 
  • The speed and convenience of buses relies on autocentric American planning. While we need to live with our past autocentric decisions for lifetimes to come, should we, as sustainable transportation advocates, adopt a mindset that implicitly supports the dominance of the freeway, or should we be fighting freeways for our future? 

This study will go ahead whether or not we participate. Intercity buses have a crucial role to play for secondary corridors and quick-build alternatives in our future — but this study gives us some specific routes and projects to advocate around, and they’re worth engaging with strategically. 

Finally, small towns are part of our urban future: Perhaps you are still unconvinced that the FRA Long-Distance Study has anything worthwhile. Sioux Falls, Omaha and Des Moines are all smaller cities than the Twin Cities metro area. The communities served by these routes only get smaller from there. Perhaps you’re a high-speed rail purist: If we’re not making rail that can go the speed of corridors in Spain, China or Morocco, why bother? Perhaps, relatedly, you’re a localist: Transportation ought to be focused on connecting our existing urban communities.

What I will say is that we should have a future with small towns. While there are various narratives about how precarious “small towns” (should we just start calling them towns?) are, I think it’s clear that many small towns and cities are fighting for their place in a world that’s been transformed by globalization, corporate consolidation, digital communication and demographic transformation. This fight has often been framed as one “against” metropolitan areas (or right metropoles), but it doesn’t have to be.

We need small towns. We need small towns because ecologically responsible farming is going to happen on the land (“in the environment”), not in an industrial facility, turning our back on millennia of accumulated human experience. We need small towns because not everyone wants to live in a large city, nor should they. And if we’re right about what transportation choices can do for people’s lives — how human-centered and joy-giving it can be — then we should care about the transportation service provided to rural communities. And the best opportunity for many rural communities to have transportation options will be the fruit of the Federal Railroad Administration’s Long Distance study.

The Northeast higher-speed corridor was once just . . . a corridor. Image from Amtrak Media

One Step at a Time

These long-distance routes are less important for the end destinations than the midpoint opportunities that open up along the way. Realistically, a 26-hour train ride to Denver or a 32-hour ride to San Antonio is not going to meaningfully compete with flying, and many people would still drive. But even a once-a-day train has a chance to change places for the better. It provides opportunities for students, families and visitors. It creates opportunities to age in place and to replenish workforces and populations using tried and proven methods (the methods that many of these towns first used to establish their existence).

And there’s a lot to say for an incremental approach. People disagree about how to characterize the progress of the California High Speed Rail project, but I doubt anyone would hold it up as an example of how we want things to go. The budget is ballooning, the timeline is measured in decades rather than years, and even with construction well underway there’s an open question as to whether the money and political will shall see the project through to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco.

We have to find better ways to make high-speed rail happen, because our other option is hoping to get really lucky developing green fuels or battery efficiency — and hoping for luck is not a plan to fight climate change, or even a prayer. Slow trains to new markets are the baby steps toward fast trains that serve established markets. That’s why the FRA Long Distance study matters and is worth your engagement.

The formal comment period for this phase of the study closed on March 8. A final comment period later this spring and summer will have additional opportunities to provide feedback, especially on the process of how routes identified in this study may get implemented. In the meantime, conversations are already beginning to attract attention and grow followings.

Max Singer

About Max Singer

Max Singer is Minneapolis born, raised, and returned. He's had a lot of odd jobs and wacky experiences for being Gen-Z. Max gets around- at times by foot, bicycle, light rail, bus, car, boat, delivery van, train, and sometimes, escalator.