Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rochester's Zip Rail takes another step

Rochester's former Chicago Great Western train station, now serving as a restaurant.

Despite the current political climate, the Rochester-Twin Cities High-Speed Passenger Rail Project (known as "Zip Rail") is heading into a series of studies expected to take 24 months, presumably ending in late 2013 or early 2014. The route got a grant from the 2009 state legislature, and yesterday, the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority authorized the use of $2 million to begin work on a service development plan (SDP). I've never heard of an SDP before, but here's the breakdown given in yesterday's meeting packet (there are a few familiar terms within):
The Service Development Plan will include:
  • Statement of Work
  • Public Involvement Plan
  • Purpose and Need Statement
  • Resource Agency Coordination (Mn/DOT, FRA)
  • Route Alternatives Analysis
    • Engineering Analysis of Alternative Routes
    • Station Sites/Locations
    • Environmental Analysis of Alternative Routes
  • Public/Private Partnership Models
  • Rail Service Levels/Frequencies of Trips
  • Capital Project Needs
  • Ridership/Revenue Forecasts
  • Tier I Environmental Assessment
Following the SDP study, an environmental impact statement (EIS) phase will likely be required, and that's probably going to take two years at a minimum. Mn/DOT plans for the route to initially run at 110 mph. They're capping upgrades at 150 mph, though Rochester boosters would like to see the train go as fast as possible (220+ mph). As much as I'd like to see that, Mn/DOT is probably making the wise choice—on this short corridor, increasing the top speed from 150 to 220 would only drop the travel time by 10 to 15 minutes. On the other hand, a very high top speed would become desirable if the link becomes part of a longer corridor extending all the way to Milwaukee and Chicago.

At any rate, the OCRRA appears to be thinking ahead—immediately after authorizing the service development plan, they authorized a bonding request for $15 million which will go toward funding the NEPA process (including the previously-mentioned EIS) and preliminary engineering. The money may also be used as matching funds for Federal Railroad Administration grants if they become available. Remember that $500 million in bonding that Governor Dayton required before accepting the Republicans' state budget earlier this year? This line could become one of the beneficiaries.

Lest you think this is sudden, a high-speed link to Rochester has been discussed for more than 20 years now. Initially, the city had been considered as a stop along the way from the Twin Cities to Chicago, but the route was also subject of a 2003 study that focused more directly on simply linking Rochester to Minneapolis—Saint Paul.

The line to Rochester may bring with it an intercity train station at or near the Minneapolis—Saint Paul International Airport. Since the airport is 20 minutes to half an hour closer to Rochester than Minneapolis's Interchange station will be, it makes a lot of sense to build a new stop there. It'll be interesting to see what form such a station might take—some plans have called for it to actually be located across the Minnesota river in Mendota or Mendota Heights, though such a station would require an extra bus, tram, or light-rail trip. I'd personally suggest boring a third tunnel at the current Blue Line/Hiawatha Line station at the airport's Terminal 1 (Lindbergh), but we'll see what happens. I suppose it'd be simpler to just plop another station at Terminal 2 (Humphrey).


  1. MnDOT is obviously more interested in making Hwy 52 a high-speed route:

    I don't understand how it could work to stop at the airport. Wouldn't it have to go through St Paul to Downtown Mpls then? Or else new track built to Downtown from the airport?

  2. Yeah, I think someone has U.S. 52 penciled in as an Interstate highway spur from I-90 (probably to become I-190 or something). It's already been signed at 65 mph for almost the entire route for more than a decade, and that bit in Cannon Falls is the last 55 mph stretch. I'm pretty frustrated that they're adding a new interchange in the middle of corn fields between Pine Island and Oronoco ($34 million for a diverging diamond interchange -- I thought those were supposed to be cheap, though some of the project cost probably comes from several miles of new frontage roads).

    Pretty frustrating to see that the planned improvements for U.S. 52 amount to nearly $800 million -- that's ballpark for how much the starter train line is expected to run.

    I think there are several options for getting between downtown Minneapolis and the airport, but I can't say what the best one is yet. It'd be cheapest to skip the airport and just go via downtown Saint Paul, or to build the "airport" stop in Mendota and set up a shuttle of some kind.

    The quickest path to downtown Minneapolis would be along the Hiawatha Avenue corridor -- probably using the freight tracks on the east side of the highway, but I'm not sure what to do upon reaching the LRT tracks near Lake Street or especially upon passing I-94. This route would really benefit from a downtown tunnel, and I've had half a thought of terminating the line at the Metrodome, which was formerly a freight station. A 2009 study made for the Rochester rail group (it disappeared from its home on the web, so I uploaded a copy to Google Docs) suggested taking the Hiawatha corridor up to the Midtown Greenway and then zigging west before zagging back toward downtown. I'm not a huge fan of that since it'd prevent a streetcar from going in there, but it's certainly an option.

    I also suspect the train could be routed along the I-494 corridor -- either in the trench or possibly weaving through between the highway and American Boulevard -- until reaching the MN&S line, and taking that north to downtown. But, considering the opposition there is to running freights down that line to make way for the Southwest Corridor, I'm not sure how easy it would be.

  3. ^^^ THe AECOM/Siemens report for the Midwest High-Speed Rail Association also preferred Hwy 52 going to St. Paul and then on an aerial along the BN ROW to Minneapolis—and no airport stop. It doesn’t look like there’s an extant rail line between the two cities—although that means any new route will be more expensive, it also opens the door for using non-FRA compliant equipment. Running quick, European DMUs between Minneapolis and Rochester would be a nice interim service, pending an eventual high-speed connection to Wisconsin and Chicago.

  4. Yeah, Rochester has never had a truly direct route to the Twin Cities. One line (apparently shared by the Chicago Great Western and by the Chicago & North Western) used to weave its way up to Red Wing to meet the Milwaukee Road (now Canadian Pacific/Soo). Another line (CGW) ran north from Dodge Center about 20 miles west of Rochester. Neither route is particularly straight, though the "Tri-State" series of studies have tended to favor the CGW corridor (though not necessarily the right-of-way itself) from Dodge Center because it's fairly flat over there. The U.S. 52 corridor crosses some significant valleys which would bring up the cost, but I suppose the Siemens folks have the advantage of 20 years of improvements in mapping technology and computing power and may have been able to find a good way of running further east.

    But yes, I agree that while a new line will be expensive, exclusivity would bring several advantages. For such a short corridor, high frequency would be essential to draw riders -- especially people who would otherwise drive. It wouldn't be any good to build a route that makes the run in 35 minutes but only goes a few times a day. Fortunately the county board appears to be pushing for as much frequency they get, since they mentioned 15 round-trips daily in the meeting packet.

  5. I think the most obvious option is to go via Downtown St. Paul, through route via SPUD, and continue on to a Minneapolis terminal.

    I wonder how decent the Rock Island ROW is to Dennison/Kenyon.