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I'm surprised, unsurprised, pleased, and displeased all at once at reading that the existing route of Amtrak's Empire Builder (and historically that of the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha) has been chosen as the route for 110-mph (177 km/h) enhanced-speed rail service between the Twin Cities and Chicago. Mn/DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration have agreed on the route, so it will be their focus going forward.
I'm surprised because I had come to the conclusion that the route planning had gone on hiatus, mostly because of the election of Governor NoTrain.com in Wisconsin. I went to a meeting a year ago where route alternatives were discussed, and was told there to expect another iteration of open houses in January or February, but several months went by and they never happened. I'm pleased to be wrong about that, and to read that the plan now is to move forward with an environmental impact statement. The Winona Daily News laid out this schedule:
- 2011–2013: Environmental impact statement
- 2013–2015: Design, engineering, and construction begins
- 2016: Soonest the enhanced-speed service could begin operating
I'm unsurprised because they chose the existing route. It's the most straightforward option since it's the only remaining passenger rail corridor up to Minnesota. However, I'm displeased because this seems to show a lack of forward thinking: It doesn't connect to Rochester (our fault) or Madison (Wisconsin's fault).
Only existing rail corridors were studied, so the geography of those two cities always posed a problem. Both would increase the route's distance and lengthen end-to-end travel times. For instance, going through Rochester on existing tracks would force Twin Cities-bound trains to continue west until Owatonna. A true high-speed greenfield route through Rochester would be faster, but ideas like that were not considered. However, keeping to existing tracks shortens development time by several years.
The plan calls for six daily round-trips for the new service. From what I've read before, I believe that's in addition to the existing daily Empire Builder and probably a second train along that route up to Fargo and possibly beyond as a restoration of Amtrak's old North Coast Hiawatha service. I may get proven wrong, but there should be eight daily round-trips between the Twin Cities and Chicago within several years.
Going forward, this will hopefully become just one link (albeit a major one) in a mesh of lines through Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Northern Lights Express from Minneapolis to Duluth will likely begin preliminary engineering soon, and the Zip Rail line from the Twin Cities to Rochester is beginning a service development plan. If funding can be found, the 110-mph Northern Lights Express could open a year or two before the service to Chicago. In contrast, a more-or-less direct link to Rochester will require a new corridor to be built, so it's appropriate for them to design it to the highest standard possible. While it would likely begin service at 110 mph, the Zip Rail folks have ambitions to run between 150 and 220 mph (240–355 km/h) on the route.
The links to Chicago, Duluth, and Rochester are the only "high-speed" corridors in Mn/DOT's 20-year Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan from last year. I hope that the gears will soon be set in motion to build a true high-speed link from the Twin Cities to Chicago. It's an idea that's more than 20 years old, but unfortunately it wasn't included in the rail plan.