Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Existing Twin Cities to Chicago route chosen for 110-mph upgrade

View Twin Cities to Chicago 110-mph rail in a larger map

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 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.


  1. Wow. They're talking about an upgrade to 110 mph right? The Exec Summary just mentioned a "decrease in travel time" and the other docs (17 appendixes, including two Appendix Ds) are a bit intimidating for me. It would have been nice if they had included an actual .xls of the capital cost spreadsheet. Personally I have a hard time believing they can get to 110 mph on the segment between Winona and Red Wing, although maybe they can average it out.

  2. Yeah, I feel it's unlikely that they'll be able to reach 110 mph along the river. The Hiawatha historically topped out at about 90 mph in a few spots, but most of the river route was even slower than that. That's based on a timing report from (I think) 1939 that I have in a book, though I'd love to get my hands on more of them to get a picture of the speeds over time. Anyway, expanding 90-mph territory would still help, and getting it fully double-tracked is probably a necessity, though there are lots of places where the rails are currently squeezed in a tiny corridor between U.S. 61 and the river. Improving those segments would probably involve reconstructing the highway (which means $$$). Tilting trains will also help, but this whole endeavor of building along the river is going to be fairly reminiscent of the task of speeding up the Acela Express between NYC and Boston.

    The Strib said the cost could top $3 billion (presumably for the whole route), but I'd like to see a breakdown -- I might have to make one myself...

  3. I haven't really been following this process at all, but wow, it sure seems like bypassing Madison is a mistake...

  4. I'm certain the story regarding Madison would be different if Wisconsin's political landscape hadn't shifted so much in 2010. They had basically started construction on the link between Madison and Milwaukee late that year, and I think it was supposed to be up and running in 2014, but former Gov. Doyle halted the project after Walker's election (which always struck me as weird, since he'd really advocated strongly for it).

    I don't really know where Wisconsin currently is regarding this upgrade. Gov. Walker had actually supported an upgrade to the existing route when he was a candidate, but I'm sure he'd prefer to forget he ever said such a thing. If the poltical landscape swings back toward the Democratic side over there, they've got truly shovel-ready plans that could be dusted off (if they can find the money again, anyway).

  5. There's no good ROW for getting into Madison - historically all the mainlines bypassed it since it was a small town, and it's on an isthmus so serving it requires a significant detour. Even SNCF's HSR proposal, which offered to serve other Midwestern cities of comparable size downtown, proposed an edge-of-city station.

  6. The problem with Madison isn't necessarily ROW - the CP line through DeForest with a station at the Yahara gets you reasonably close to downtown, and although a station west of downtown would be ideal, Madison has a really excellent geography for transit (not really exploited by their transit agency).

    That DeForest line is only slightly curvier and hillier than the existing Columbus line, but I think the problem from the report's standpoint is simply that it's almost twice as long. Pretty much requires an extra half-hour no matter what. Also I'm not sure how good a job the report did predicting trip generation. They appear to have used a pretty basic population measure, and my guess is Madison with its state capital and huge university generates more trips than most cities with similar population.