Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The way to Winnipeg

View Minneapolis-Winnipeg via Duluth in a larger map

I came across an opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press discussing a rail link from Winnipeg to Duluth, which could then connect to the Northern Lights Express train service to bring passengers to Minneapolis. And they seem to be suggesting running the trains at 110 mph all the way to Winnipeg.

This, of course, seems like a crazy idea if you know about the existing transportation networks in Minnesota.  I never thought of going that way—Why would you attempt a 380-mile route between Minnesota and Manitoba when Amtrak's Empire Builder gets within about 150 miles up in Grand Forks?  Bouncing through Duluth adds about 80 miles, which  would likely blow away any time savings to be had by running at 110 mph.

There are a few reasons why it might not be so totally nuts. The shortest historic link between Grand Forks and the border has been severed, so trains would have to detour via Crookston or other cities to go north. The line to Duluth has the advantage of being on Canadian National's main line to Chicago with full CTC and freight speed limits of 60 mph (almost certainly capable of 79 mph for passenger trains), though it is mostly single-tracked. The route would also make it easier to justify connecting the Iron Range and International Falls to the rest of the state's mass transportation network. In Canada, the connection could help justify reinstating service between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay (a tri-weekly Budd RDC service until 1977—and the train dipped into Minnesota between Warroad and Baudette to get around the Lake of the Woods).

Train services also often do a bit better in places where the road network is relatively weak.  Big highways thin out as you head north, though Chuck Marohn pointed out in this week's Strong Towns podcast that MnDOT has been working on upgrading U.S. Highway 53 to a 4-lane divided highway. They've gotten about 16 miles past the Iron Range town of Virginia with that project, and may eventually extend it to the border. It was planned back in 1975 when Voyageurs National Park was created and overly-optimistic projections for numbers of visitors made the highway sound like a good idea. It never became that popular, but the highway still became designated as a High Priority Trade Corridor under TEA-21 in 1998.

As much as Jim Oberstar did for alternative forms of transportation, he did far more for fairly silly highway projects.  Not even 85 more miles to go to convert U.S. 53 to 4 lanes, though maybe they'll only ever get as far as building passing lanes on that chunk of it.

Anyway, this all got me wondering what really would be the best route to Winnipeg, and wondering what services might have existed in the past.  As far as I've been able to determine, the Soo Line/Canadian Pacific Winnipeger was the last train service to run between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities back in 1967—but there's a big caveat that I don't have any good info on when competing service from Great Northern (and possibly Northern Pacific) ended. I also don't know much about historic passenger service on the route these guys proposed.  As I said, Canadian National continued running trains to Thunder Bay several years into the Amtrak era, clipping the Northwest Angle, but trains leading down to Duluth from the Fort Frances/International Falls area must have ended service a decade or two earlier.

Still, if we ever restore passenger train service to Winnipeg, it seems like it would be better to go on a more western route as opposed to bouncing through Duluth.

You could just restore the Winnipeger on the Canadian Pacific all the way from Minneapolis: It's got CTC and 60 mph speeds out to Glenwood (the transcontinental mainline to Chicago), but from Glenwood up to the border is only 40 mph and dispatched via radio with track warrants.

It might be a bit more feasible to take Amtrak's route along the BNSF to Detroit Lakes before turning north.  I've thought it might be a good idea to run that way, then spend some dough to build a track from Thief River Falls to Grand Forks and operate a shuttle between the two cities, or perhaps something running in a loop down to Crookston.  The roads up there are mostly aligned on a grid, so a diagonal rail line could come out ahead in terms of travel time.

In the end, I'd still have to put more weight behind the idea of branching off from the Empire Builder in Fargo or Grand Forks and following the Red River corridor.  It's just a lot shorter and (in my mind) probably connects places that Winnipeg residents would actually want to go to (not that I know for sure where they'd really like to go...).  In my ideal world, I'd do both. We'll see how ideal the future turns out to be.

Well, it's kind of fun to think about.  Yes, VIA Rail is being attacked by conservatives just as Amtrak is being attacked here in the States.  Yes, I know that international links underperform, but if you're going to do it anywhere outside of the northeast or northwest, Minnesota is probably the place to connect because we have pretty high levels of passport ownership.

MnDOT has something penciled in to Winnipeg for sometime after 2030.  We definitely need to work on intra-state, nearby interstate, and travel to Chicago first, but a link across the border should be kept in mind if new opportunities open up.


  1. Nice summary and great maps as always. I've heard from a Winnipeger that it's common to visit Grand Forks or Fargo to shop a couple times a year. Vice-versa, my father lived in Warren, MN (near Grand Forks), for some years growing up and his family took frequent trips to Winnipeg. Dunno if either of those examples provide enough trips to justify investment.

    1. Yeah, hard to say. Hmm, I'm not sure how well things would go if Canadians are coming down to ND to do shopping -- I don't know about the geography of the Grand Forks area, but I know that a lot of the retail activity around Fargo has gravitated toward the West Acres mall and the suburb of West Fargo. The only thing I really know about transportation in Grand Forks is that the Amtrak station moved out to a wye west of town -- previously the train had to go in to a downtown stop and then back out. But, a train from Canada could stop at either place (or both).

  2. How about using BNSF's Willmar / Morris route to Fargo? The St Cloud / Detroit Lakes tracks are getting overcrowded, and it would restore service to a few more MN towns.

    No matter what, a restored Winnipeger, along with a restored North Coast Hiawatha, could mean 3 daily trains from the Twin Cities to Fargo

    1. Yeah, going via Willmar could be a somewhat better option than going along the old Winnipeger route. Freight speeds on the Wayzata and Morris subs are 40 mph (same as the CP line), but it does have CTC (lacking on the Winnipeger route north of Glenwood).

      I suspect going via St. Cloud would still be cheaper and easier in the short run, even with existing congestion. There are some segments of the Staples sub with single track that could be doubled up and ease things up a bit (such as between Big Lake and Becker), though I don't know if that is sufficient. When I'm thinking in a cost-constrained way, I'd prefer to run as many trains along a single route as possible in order to spread out the costs associated with building/operating new track and stations. On the other hand, when I'm thinking freely, I'd love to restore passenger service all over the place.

      MnDOT did also include a Twin Cities to Willmar route in their post-2030 plans (same category as Winnipeg), so it's worth looking into.

  3. I think that there will be more success if we were to follow the Amtrak route from the Twin Cities to ND, and then branch off from Fargo. This would enable an additional service frequency along the route in MN.

    I also think that having yet another route with only once-per-day-each-way service isn't the way to go, and will only invite more criticism from those who are going to oppose passenger rail no matter what.