The big story:
View Twin Cities to Chicago 110-mph rail in a larger map
We have our route. Yes, it's the former route of the Hiawatha, now plied by Amtrak's Empire Builder. It's the route you know and love, so there may not be any new destinations to visit—but you should actually be able to plan a day- or weekend trip and be ensured of getting there and back on time. For the leisurely traveler, there won't be any more need to get up at 6 AM to catch the train (just in case the Builder is running on time). And with six daily round-trips planned for the new service, there shouldn't be any more need to plan an extra day in Chicago for a connecting train (just in case the Builder is running six hours late).
The price tag for this endeavor is estimated at $2.4 billion (in 2010 dollars), with costs split almost exactly down the middle between Minnesota and Wisconsin—$1.2 billion each (a price that seems to resemble the cost for a certain sports franchise's planned stadium).
Price appears to be the primary reason this route was chosen: It's a few hundred million dollars cheaper than the next-least-expensive option. The current route doesn't have any grades greater than 1%, and centralized traffic control (CTC) is installed along 99.8% of the distance. It's apparently only 5 minutes slower than the quickest option, which would be taking the shorter, less curvy route from Wyeville through Eau Claire to the Twin Cities.
If/when the line gets upgraded, Wisconsin will get the glory in terms of speed, with all of the line's 110-mph territory running east of the Mississippi River that state. Curves along the river mean that speeds in Minnesota will probably be restricted to 90 mph.
I do have to qualify statements about Wisconsin a bit, since their governor is clearly anti-train. He has voiced support in the past for enhancements to the Empire Builder, and Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Mark Gottlieb reiterated that in a letter in August, but apparently this means they would be amenable to running a second daily train along the route, but not necessarily making it run faster or more frequent than that. (Running a second train would probably still cost more than $100 million, according to Amtrak's 2009 study for restoring the North Coast Hiawatha).
I suppose there's some hope that Gov. Scott Walker can be recalled and the political landscape will become more favorable. It will be a tough task, however—the recall effort needs about 15% of the state's eligible voters to sign the recall petition in order for an election to even happen.
Anyway, while Rochester got left off the main line, Mn/DOT did underscore the fact that a separate fast link is planned from there to the Twin Cities by issuing a letter on Friday. Nonetheless, running the Twin Cities to Chicago train along the existing route means that the service can be rolled out more quickly than if a new route was chosen. If things go well, trains could be running in 2016.
- My crappy video of workers grinding recently-welded rail along the University of Minnesota bus transitway on Friday night:
- rome2rio is another new site that lets you plan trips using a mixture of modes, and it includes a CO2e calculation. (Curiously, it does not seem to understand Metro Transit's system except for the Hiawatha Line, and also thinks that the Empire Builder currently runs twice daily.)
Planning, funding, and construction:
- The lower deck of the Washington Avenue Bridge at the University of Minnesota was closed down over the weekend in order to shift traffic from the south side to the north. The upper pedestrian deck remained open (though bike and pedestrian traffic will also shift from one side to the other).
- The Northstar Line celebrated two years of operation on Wednesday, and officials in Ramsey hyped up the planned $13.2 million (or is that $14.35 million?) station at The COR development along the rail line.
- Dakota County bus-rapid transit stays on track with grant
- The Transiteer argues Ax-Man staff should be in charge of detour signage (indeed!)
- High-speed and intercity rail funding has basically been zeroed out for 2012, but more than $1 billion in construction is likely to occur through the year.
- Chicago is planning to switch to contactless smart cards in 2014. The CTA rail systems are planned to switch entirely to pay-by-card, though buses will still accept cash.
- The Michigan DOT is sending out an RFP for speed upgrades along the line from Chicago to Detroit.
- ERTMS coming to California
- Railroads reach major deal with six unions, but apparently there are five more that need to reach agreements.
- PTC: Railroads attempt to get a better handle on positive train control implementation
- Alex posts some maps of the old Twin Cities streetcar system and the paving types in Minneapolis (Cedar Avenue used to be cedar).
- The Amtrak station in Minot, North Dakota, damaged by flooding along the Souris River five months ago, has finally reopened following repairs.
- BNSF freight trains and the California Zephyr were rerouted for 24 to 48 hours following a bridge fire along the route in Iowa.
- A car went under a gate arm and was struck by a Hiawatha Line train today, with the car's driver apparently treated and released from the hospital.