Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 20, 2011 weekly rail news

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.

Fun stuff:

  • 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 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.


  1. Since bargaining has become the only way things get done in today's politics, MNDOT and WIDOT should be taking notes by using a mix of public and private operators as part of a route matrix.

    What I mean is that Amtrak should be tapped to operate the recently selected route but that the other two routes--Eau Claire via Madison and Rochester via La Crosse--would automatically go to other parties. If Zip Rail is not extended, SNCF or another Express HSR operator could partner with the company and streamline a connection in Rochester.

    The route matrix would also be complemented by the various commuter rail corridors that would connect the Twin Cities with La Crosse, Eau Claire and Rochester and also other routes like Northstar and NLX.

    Finally, in so-called "purple states" like MN and WI, each political party may have to deal with certain realities: the GOP would have to realize that passenger rail is here to stay while the Dems/DFL would have to put up with private sector alternatives to Amtrak playing a vital role in passenger rail travel.

  2. In fact, this "route selection" was made specifically to select the route with the maximum distance in Minnesota, so that Minnesota could start upgrading while Wisconsin was still run by the demented Scott Walker. If Wisconsin regains sanity, the Madison tracks will be back in the plan, make no mistake.

    The Rochester route is being avoided simply because it raises the reported costs; in practice it can be done as a diversion from the existing route. Expect any initial money to go into work very, very close to Minneapolis, where there are junctions and bridges which need work.