We believe that modern, fast, comfortable, convenient, and affordable intercity train services – operating at speeds up to 79-90 mph on existing railroad lines—are needed now to provide citizens with needed alternatives to highway/air travel. Investment in additional rail services will generate more consumer demand going forward, than investments in more highways and airways.
Existing railroad lines already connect many of our towns and cities. While true High Speed Rail might well transpire in the future, for today we offer our vision as the most practical, economically feasible, and politically-palatable way forward. (Please see our map of proposed routes).
Where we are now
Currently, the only intercity passenger train service operating in Minnesota is Amtrak’s “Empire Builder,” which is a long-distance National Network train, connecting Chicago with Seattle/Portland. This service operates on a daytime schedule between Chicago and the Twin Cities and on an overnight schedule between the Twin Cities and Minot. The Chicago-Twin Cities corridor has always enjoyed strong ridership as well as the Empire Builder route in general.
What we propose
All Aboard Minnesota has studied all the potential rail routes in the state of Minnesota and surrounding region. We evaluated populations, current track conditions and speeds, past ridership and schedules, conducted surveys of Amtrak passengers and reviewed the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics Travel Survey data.
From these studies we identified seven “population corridors” that have potential for passenger train service in Minnesota and the surrounding region. These are places we believe improved train service during convenient daytime hours should be developed. Population served is a good proxy for ridership potential. For most of these corridors three trains each way (with morning, noon and dinner time departures) would maximize ridership and revenues. We believe these routes – if planned and designed carefully-would vastly improve rural and urban mobility options. They would allow safe and fast travel, even during the four months of the year that Minnesotan’s often can’t drive due to winter weather conditions. It would also bring new economic development to cities and communities across rural Minnesota. A Michigan study found $60 million a year in additional economic activity around their Amtrak stations after they invested in intercity rail.
Connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul
In order for new intercity train routes to function effectively, and to achieve true connectivity between routes emanating from the Twin Cities, it will be necessary to develop a dedicated passenger train route between the two downtown ‘anchor’ stations (St. Paul Union Depot and Target Field Station); a distance of 11 miles. All Aboard Minnesota believes (and as studies have shown) that train services work best – and are most cost-effective, convenient, and economically-viable—when they link together to create a interconnected ‘network.’ The more city pairs that can be connected, the more ridership each route will have. It is our opinion, based on our railroad industry experience, that failure to connect the two downtowns and offer true “on-train” connectivity would be a costly policy mistake that will serve to hamper ridership.
Below are the routes we propose connecting the state to the region. They are in order of priority based on ridership potential, cost and challenges to implement.
Population Served 16,575,000
Without Twin Cities 13,080,000
The core route for any Minnesota rail network would be connecting the Twin Cities to Chicago. This is the highest travel ridership corridor in the state for rail, air and highway travel.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) has officially selected the current Amtrak route as the designated route for future rail expansion as well as HSR development. Currently this route operates at a top speed of 79 mph. We believe this is the best route for conventional speed passenger trains to Chicago. But using this route for future High Speed Rail will be a challenge due to its heavy, slow freight train traffic. The route currently serves Milwaukee, Columbus (Madison), Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, Winona and Red Wing on its way to the Twin Cites. We strongly support this route for expanded rail passenger service.
It makes sense for Minnesota to develop this corridor first, as it represents a huge travel market. Parallel I-94 sees 10 million auto trips each year. There are also no less than five round-trip bus schedules, in addition to 1 million air trips annually. MNDOT studies have shown strong ridership potential.
MNDOT is currently proposing one additional train in each direction from St. Paul to Chicago. We strongly believe that such service should also serve Minneapolis since two thirds of the Twin Cities population lives on that side of the metro. With the Amtrak move into St. Paul Union Depot (SPUD) from Midway Station, we now believe serving Minneapolis is imperative.
Ideally, All Aboard Minnesota believes that a total of four daily round trips between Chicago and the Twin Cities could be supported by ridership and firebox revenue.
There has been much debate about potential routes to Chicago and the current route has challenges. We believe an alternative route for future High Speed Rail is on Union Pacific via Eau Claire, WI and then south to rejoin the current Amtrak route west of Wisconsin Dells.
The easiest and lowest cost way to develop the current Twin Cities-Chicago corridor with minimal investment is to add a second daytime train on the current Amtrak route at 79 mph on an alternate schedule to the present Amtrak Empire Builder train.
TWIN CITIES-ST. CLOUD-FARGO/MOORHEAD
Population Served 4,029,000
Without Twin Cities 534,000
The second easiest and least costly route to implement in Minnesota is a second train from St. Paul/Minneapolis-Fargo/Moorhead on the current Amtrak route through St. Cloud. This could be a daytime train leaving Fargo/Moorhead in the early morning going east and leaving St. Paul in the evening headed west. The most cost effective way to operate this service would be as a continuation of the proposed second train between the Twin Cities and Chicago. To achieve the highest ridership and cost recovery, we believe the route should extend to Fargo/ Moorhead rather than just St. Cloud.
Currently Amtrak serves St. Cloud, Staples, and Detroit Lakes, but additional stops at Little Falls, Wadena, and a northern suburb like Fridley or Anoka should be seriously evaluated. This route could eventually support three trains a day (morning, noon and late afternoon plus the current overnight Empire Builder service. One train could be extended to Grand Forks and Winnipeg in the future.
TWIN CITIES-DES MOINES-KANSAS CITY- (TEXAS)
Population Served to Kansas City 6,510,000
Without Twin Cities 3,015,000
We believe that population and Amtrak connections give the Twin Cities-Kansas City route the second highest ridership potential after Chicago. This route has potential for three trains a day to Des Moines with one to two trains extending to Kansas City at 79 mph. In the future one train could be extended to form a Twin Cities-Kansas City-Dallas-Houston train. There is already substantial travel along parallel I35 to Des Moines and Kansas City. The rail route is in excellent condition and has moderate freight train traffic.
The route has the opportunity to connect Twin Cities travelers with Amtrak trains going to: Omaha, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This could also provide a through Twin Cities to Texas route serving the same travelers as I35. It would offer connections at Kansas City and San Antonio to the popular Minnesota destination of Phoenix.
This route would serve the Minnesota communities of Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna, and Albert Lea, plus Iowa destinations including Mason City, Newton (Ames), and Des Moines and connect with the California Zephyr at Chariton and the Southwest Chief at Kansas City. No longer would Minnesota riders have to go east to Chicago and lay over 24 hours to connect with these west bound trains! MNDOT has moved this route to Tier 1 study status, placing it behind Duluth and Chicago. This route has the second highest ridership potential after Chicago.
In 2016 we did a field study of this line. We found substantial Union Pacific track upgrades in Iowa and Missouri done in 2015. We also found that about half the stations and platforms on the line are still intact, but some may not be usable for future service. For these, we identified alternative station locations.
Population Served 3,788,000
Without Twin Cities 293,000
MNDOT is furthest along in its study of service from the Twin Cities to Duluth. MNDOT expects to have a “shovel ready” project study ready for evaluation of funding by the state legislature in July, 2017. At a MNDOT estimated cost of $500-600 million, this route would be more expensive to implement. MNDOT has dropped the idea of High Speed rail in order to cut the cost of implementation.
The service is called the “Northern Lights Express” (NLX). The plans call for four round-trips between the Twin Ports and Minneapolis, serving online communities of Hinckley, Cambridge and Fridley at 90 mph.
Presently, none of the daily trains are planned to serve St. Paul. We believe this is a major flaw in the current study. It would be much more effective from a cost and ridership standpoint for trains to stop at both downtowns.
TWIN CITIES-MANKATO-SIOUX FALLS-SIOUX CITY-OMAHA
Population Served 4,985,000
Without Twin Cities 1,490,000
This route serves a surprisingly high population. There is potential for at least one train a day at 79 mph, connecting various medium size cities together between the Twin Cites and Omaha. The route has moderate freight traffic, but would have to be rebuilt for higher speeds. The line goes through Shakopee, St. Peter, Mankato, St. James, and Worthington. Connections could be made to the California Zephyr at Omaha for Denver and San Francisco.
TWIN CITIES-FARGO-GRAND FORKS- WINNIPEG
Population Served 4,880,000
Without Twin Cities 1,385,000
Population Grand Forks to Winnipeg 851,000
There is a daytime market of Canadians traveling down to Grand Forks and Fargo on weekends. Amtrak has proposed a bus connecting with the Empire Builder at Grand Forks to serve Winnipeg. MNDOT should follow up on funding this connection. This could develop into a train in the future that would split off the Empire Builder at Grand Forks. A future separate daytime train between the Twin Cities, Fargo, Grand Forks, Crookston and Winnipeg is also a possibility. BNSF has been making improvements to the line east and north of Grand Forks including modest signaling and new passing sidings due to increased Canadian freight traffic. More will be required for daytime passenger service.
TWIN CITIES-ROCHESTER (Zip Line)
Population Served 3,708,000
Without Twin Cities 213,000
Due to the cost of building a railroad from scratch to serve Rochester, this route would be the most costly to implement and thus is considered to be the lowest priority of the routes proposed. Over the past few years there has been much discussion of building a completely new “Greenfield”, 75-mile railroad from the Twin Cities to Rochester along Highway 52. We believe this is operationally impractical and will be enormously expensive. The curvature, significant grades and rough terrain of this route are not workable from a railroad engineering or train operations perspective. There has also been substantial local opposition to this option.
The most direct rail route between the two cities is the abandoned Chicago & Great Western Railway (CGW) right of way between St. Paul and Dodge Center, following Highway 56. Combined with the existing Canadian Pacific railroad track between Dodge Center and Rochester. This 92-mile route runs far west of Highway 52 where the terrain is more level and higher speeds could be achieved. It would serve St. Paul and MSP Airport on the way to Rochester.
We believe that any future passenger train development should occur utilizing either existing or abandoned railroad rights of way as much as possible. It would be more cost effective for the taxpayer.
In 2009, Amtrak evaluated a second Chicago-Seattle/Portland train along the southern route through North Dakota and Montana via Bismarck and Billings. The study determined that such a route would be as successful as the Empire Builder, and in fact would be the third most successful long distance train in the Amtrak system in terms of ridership and financial performance. The study has not moved forward due to lack of equipment and funding to start up the route from scratch. The full study is available on the Amtrak website. This route was operated as the North Coast Limited before Amtrak in 1971 and the North Coast Hiawatha until 1979. It was always a very successful route until Amtrak. Air and bus service along the route has decreased, making rail a more viable alternative. We believe that this route would be worth reestablishing if startup funding could be found. It would not affect the Empire Builder’s performance because of the amount of business being turned away in recent years due to the lack of equipment capacity on the Empire Builder. See: https://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/492/133/NorthCoastHiawathaServiceStudy.pdf