Supporters of passenger rail service in Minnesota, including restoration of the route from the Twin Cities to Duluth and additional service to Chicago, are plotting their push for state funding to keep expansion efforts alive.
The nexus of their efforts will come during the legislative session, which begins in February. But if this year’s experience is any guide — where funding requests for passenger rail projects were thwarted by lawmakers — the undertaking could be a bit of a slog. And there’s no shortage of opponents who feel passenger rail is a waste of money.
“It’s like a MnDOT road project; you can’t just say, ‘OK, there’s the line and let’s build it,’ ”said Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Passenger Rail Office. “There’s a lot of process involved.”
One project adds a second daily train in both directions between Union Depot in St. Paul and Chicago’s Union Station, serving 13 stations on Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance route. Since the service would not be part of the Empire Builder’s far-flung route between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, Ore. — which in fiscal 2018 had a 46% on-time performance in St. Paul — supporters say it will be faster and more reliable. MnDOT estimates the cost of establishing the service would be about $160 million, with costs shared with Wisconsin and Illinois.
The Northern Lights Express (NLX) service would re-establish Amtrak service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, which was discontinued in 1985. The trip would take about 2.5 hours, similar to driving, with four daily trips and stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis. It would cost from $500 million to $600 million to launch.
The $30 million funding request from state coffers would move Northern Lights into its final design phase, with service beginning in 2023.
Rail planners say local and state funding is critical to coaxing federal grant dollars to Minnesota. “The only way we can demonstrate support is if the state and local communities have provided sufficient money to match federal grants,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT project manager.
One fan of the so-called “short-haul” service is Amtrak chief Richard Anderson, the former chief executive of Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines and executive vice president at UnitedHealth Group. Well known in Twin Cities business circles, Anderson is determined to change the transportation paradigm for passenger rail service in the United States.
“Airlines have abandoned small cities in the Midwest,” Anderson said at a recent forum sponsored by the travel website Skift. “What’s happened in these really dense markets, like Milwaukee to Chicago, is that Amtrak [has] over 90 percent market share; no one flies anymore.
“As these urban corridors densify, all the millennials move to cities and don’t own cars, we gradually take over more and more of the market share from airlines,” he said.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in an e-mail, “We’re very interested in both [Northern Lights and the second train to Chicago]. We’ve been working closely with state and local agencies and advocates on both of the projects.”
One such millennial who would frequently use service to both Duluth and to Chicago is David Baker, 27, a St. Mary’s University student from Minneapolis who holds down two part-time jobs.
“I don’t get vacation time at my jobs so taking weeklong trips is a very rare occurrence; a three-day weekend in Duluth or Chicago is pretty much the extent of the travel I can afford,” Baker said via Twitter. “Cutting down on travel time by taking the train vs. a car would allow more time for relaxing, especially because I could be reading or finishing school assignments while on the train. I’d also feel better about the lower carbon emissions.”
Amtrak could operate both the Chicago and Duluth service. “They provide service between places like Chicago and Milwaukee and Boston and Portland, Maine, and they’re doing it like a vendor,” said MnDOT’s Loetterle. “They take in passenger fares, but if there’s a shortfall then the state has to make that up. So [Amtrak] doesn’t have any risk in those situations.”
Another challenge involves reaching agreements to use track owned by freight railroads — notoriously tough to negotiate with. “We’ll evaluate the Northern Lights Express project for safety and impacts to our freight capacity,” said Amy McBeth, spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, which owns freight track between the Twin Cities and Duluth. (Canadian Pacific owns the track that would be used for the second train to Chicago.)
Last week, the Minnesota House Transportation Committee held a hearing in Winona about the second Chicago train project. “We visited the rail depot and all these passengers were sitting around the station because the train was very late because of snow in Montana and Wyoming and freight issues in North Dakota,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. That reinforced how a second train from St. Paul wouldn’t be dogged with similar delays, she said.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who serves on the committee, said reliable service on a second train to Chicago “might make it a more useful service,” but he stopped short of supporting the proposal. The Northern Lights Express project, he said, is “a lot further from reality.”
“Our history with passenger rail in this state is not all that pretty,” Torkelson said, referring to Northstar passenger rail, a highly subsidized route between Minneapolis and Big Lake.
But Mayor Mark Peterson said Winona is “100 percent behind it. We think it will help not only our business community, but universities and tourism here. Come to think of it, we’re 120 percent behind it.”