All Aboard Minnesota’s proposed new routes for our state and region: AAMN Route Map
We believe that Minnesota ridership could support a passenger train network as shown in the map.
Yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
The following routes as described below is what All Aboard Minnesota is advocating and educating for:
The core route in Minnesota would be Twin Cities to Chicago. Currently this route operates at a top speed of 79 mph, but we believe that the investment to achieve 110 mph would be justified. This is a busy airline and highway corridor today that could use a rail travel alternative. High Speed Rail development of this route has been stalled due to opposition by the State of Wisconsin. There are three potential routes to Chicago.
The current Amtrak route has been selected by the State of MN as the preferred High Speed Route. This route goes along the Mississippi River through Red Wing, Winona and La Crosse before turning east to Wisconsin Dells and Milwaukee. Then it takes a straight shot south to Chicago. The route has the potential to serve Madison, WI by rebuilding a freight rail route south to Madison and east to rejoin the current route before Milwaukee. There has been much debate about the three routes to Chicago and the current route has challenges. It is a curvy railroad along the river which cuts potential speeds and it is experiencing increased oil and sand freight train traffic from and to the North Dakota oil fields. Freight train congestion would pose a challenge High Speed passenger service.
A second alternative route is via Eau Claire, WI and then south to rejoin the current Amtrak route west of Wisconsin Dells. This route is currently handling minimal overhead freight traffic, which could easily be diverted onto another route leaving more capacity for passenger trains. This route is currently operated at low speeds and would require substantial upgrading to handle either 79 or 110 mph passenger trains.
The third alternative would go south from St. Paul to Rochester and then east to rejoin the current Amtrak route at Winona. This route would serve Rochester and the Mayo Clinic. But currently there is no railroad track between St. Paul and Rochester. The most cost effective solution to this would be to rebuild track on a former railroad right of way along HY 56 to Dodge Center and then rebuild a low speed freight railroad from Dodge Center to Winona.
The easiest way to develop the current Twin Cities-Chicago route with minimal investment is to add a second daytime train at 79 mph on an alternate schedule to the present Amtrak Empire Builder train. The State of Minnesota is exploring this option with IL and WI. They have requested a revenue and cost estimate from Amtrak.
TWIN CITIES-ST. CLOUD-FARGO/MOORHEAD
The second easiest route to add in Minnesota is a second train from St. Paul-Fargo/Moorhead on the current Amtrak route through St. Cloud. This would be a daytime train leaving Fargo/Moorhead in the early morning going east and 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. The current Amtrak Empire Builder serves this route at night, so it does not get the ridership that a daytime schedule would.
Recently Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has had a huge surge of Crude Oil and Sand traffic from and to North Dakota. This has lead to capacity problems, congestion and delays on the line from the Twin Cities to Fargo. Before additional passenger train service can be operated, this line will require investment in double tracking and CTC signaling systems to close the segment gaps were these are not present. BNSF is making some of these investments on its own, but may request additional funds to finish these projects before operating passenger service beyond the current Empire Builder.
The next expansion in the state that is developing substantial support is from the Twin Cities to Duluth. A High Speed train is being evaluated for this service. It would operate via the casino in Hinckley. The Environmental Impact Statement for this route is almost complete and then there will be a push for Preliminary Engineering. There will be considerable discussion of this route in the next year. This route has moderate freight traffic and is in good condition.
We believe that future passenger train development should occur utilizing either existing or abandoned railroad rights of way as much as possible. Since 85% of the cost of a new railroad route is grading the landscape to create an engineered right of way, it would be more cost effective for the taxpayer if existing rights of way were used at every opportunity. The last estimates we have seen are about $4-8 million per mile to create the right of way and $1-2 million per mile for the track and signal systems. It just makes financial sense to avoid building new rights of way where current or former railroad right of way alternatives already exist.
Thus we do not feel building a new Greenfield railroad along Highway 52 is practical from a financial standpoint. More importantly, the curvature and significant grades and rough terrain of this route are not workable from a railroad engineering or train operations perspective. Railroads need gentle grades (below 2%) and curvatures, especially to achieve high-speed operations. The Scoping Document did not provide any details as to the route selected along Highway 52. Without more information on this route, we believe the former rail route along Highway 56 would be better.
The most direct railroad route between the two cities is the abandoned Chicago & Great Western Railway right of way between St. Paul and Dodge Center, following Highway 56. Combined with the existing railroad track between Dodge Center and Rochester previously owned by the Chicago & North Western and presently owned by the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern. This 92-mile route runs far west of Highway 52 where the terrain is more level and higher speeds could be achieved. We have driven the route and reviewed aerial photographs and found that the right of way is mostly intact.
We believe that downtown Rochester should be the primary destination, with a station location easily accessible to the Mayo Clinic. We agree with the decision to operate the line to Downtown Rochester rather than the airport.
Twin Cites options for the Zip Line
Regarding the Twin Cites, we believe that it would be ideal if the train could serve both downtowns and the airport. The report indicates that the Zip Line project will be from Rochester to either St. Paul or the MSP airport or both and that the St. Paul-Minneapolis segment will be part of the Minneapolis-Chicago High Speed Rail Project. We believe that the Zip Line should serve the MSP airport, St. Paul and Minneapolis. We favor the plan to operate to the airport first then to St. Paul along the Minnesota River valley. We would prefer that the line operate directly to the airport and return to a wye on the east side of the Minnesota River, to continue to St. Paul on the Union Pacific (former C&NW) line. The operation of a highway shuttle service across the river on I494 would be a viable option if building a bridge became too costly, but direct access to the airport would be preferable.
TWIN CITIES-DES MOINES-KANSAS CITY- (TEXAS)
This route has potential for one or two trains a day at 79 mph. There is already substantial travel along parallel I35 to Kansas City. The route is in good condition with 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. The states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are evaluating service between Kansas City, Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, Austin and San Antonio. This could provide a through Twin Cities to Texas route serving the same travelers as I35. It would also offer connections to the popular Minnesota destination of Phoenix.
TWIN CITIES-MANKATO-SIOUX FALLS-SIOUX CITY-OMAHA
This route has the potential for one train a day at 79 mph. It connects 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. There is a direct rail route between Mankato and Sioux Falls, which would require some rebuilding of low speed and out of service track west of Worthington.
There is a market for travel between these two cities. Amtrak is currently proposing a bus connecting with the Empire Builder at Grand Forks to serve Winnipeg. 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 and Winnipeg is also a possibility. Such a train would serve Crookston, MN as well.
Amtrak has 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. This route was operated as the North Coast Hiawatha until 1979. We believe that this route would be worth reestablishing if startup funding could be found. We believe it would not affect the Empire Builder’s performance because of the amount of business being turned away today due to the lack of equipment capacity on the Empire Builder.