Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 18, 2011 weekly rail news

The big news:

  • Mn/DOT held three open houses this past week for 110-mph rail planning from the Twin Cities to Chicago (er, Milwaukee) in the Empire Builder corridor. I attended the one on Monday in person and followed the Wednesday webinar. Some major points:

    • People are annoyed that the train isn't going to run through Rochester, Eau Claire, or Madison. A few people in the Monday meeting expressed frustration with the process of route selection, and felt it wasn't open or straightforward enough. It's good that Mn/DOT released as much information as they did, but at times it seemed like they were just gathering more data than necessary in order to obfuscate their decision-making process.

    • Centerline-to-centerline track spacing was a significant topic of discussion in the Monday meeting. Canadian Pacific appears to be willing to run 110-mph trains next to freight trains at standard 14- or 15-foot spacing, while Union Pacific seems to want at least 20 feet between track centerlines—BNSF apparently wants 30-foot spacing. These demands by UP and BNSF mean that even if old trackbeds are present in (what is now) single-tracked territory, construction would be intensive and expensive enough that it would almost be like building completely new right-of-way. (At least according to the primary speaker at the meeting.)

    • The Tier I EIS is expected to take 18 months, so expect it in late 2013. It's going to be focused on Minnesota, since Governor is still in office on the other side of the river. (But hey, that recall signature drive is nearly done already. The recall election is still months away, though.)

    • At the Monday meeting, it sounded like frequencies other than just the 6x daily round-trips would also be examined—the 6x number was apparently based on the old Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plans which are several years old at this point (possibly more than a decade). (I figure it's a good idea to run more service since it would seem odd to have 8x roundtrips to Duluth but only 6x to Chicago...)

    • Wisconsin is willing to move forward with a "second Empire Builder" running from Chicago to the Twin Cities (and possibly beyond) each day, doubling the existing frequency. In the webinar on Wednesday, Dan Krom mentioned that possible endpoints in Minnesota could be Saint Paul (Union Depot), Minneapolis (Target Field/Interchange), St. Cloud, or possibly the Northstar's existing terminus in Big Lake. I was surprised he didn't mention the possibility of running to Fargo, though it currently takes 13h20 to make that run and would therefore require extra trainsets (as compared to a shorter run that could make a round-trip in under 24 hours). A 6-month study is expected to begin any moment now. The train would likely operate as an all-coach service, as opposed to the present train which has a mix of coach seating and sleeping compartments.

    • The Talgo equipment being built for the Milwaukee–Chicago Hiawatha Service will start undergoing testing in early 2012, probably shortly after January 1st. It sounded like Minnesota has had a few discussions with Talgo, so there's a modest chance we may end up doing what Wisconsin can't—keep the Talgo plant in Milwaukee open.

The under-reported news:

  • There have been some major changes in management at Amtrak. I'm not a huge URPA fan, but they've got a rundown of who's gone.

Planning, funding, and construction:

  • 46 grants for the third round of TIGER funding have been announced. Out of the $511 million total, Minnesota got two grants and North Dakota had one. Wisconsin didn't get any.
    • The Minneapolis Transportation Interchange (upgrading Target Field station) received $10 million toward its $81.2 million budget.

    • $10 million also went to the $100 million project to raise tracks and upgrade bridges on the Empire Builder route through Churchs Ferry, North Dakota, which has been impacted by Devils Lake flooding. BNSF and Amtrak have each committed to supplying about 1/3 of the cost, so about $20 million still needs to be raised.

    • Minnesota also got a non-rail grant, $1 million for a pedestrian bridge in Northfield (though the bridge will cross over some railroad tracks in addition to Minnesota State Highway 3).

  • Funding has finally been nailed down for Cedar Avenue BRT buses in the south metro.

  • The route 811 bus that connects to the Northstar Line is planned to be discontinued in March due to low ridership.

  • In Detroit, the city's M-1 light-rail line has been canceled. Service is expected to be BRT instead.



  1. As I watched the webinar, I wondered if there were any plans to extend two of the CHI - St. Paul runs to Winnipeg. So far, I've heard nothing.

  2. Mn/DOT's state rail plan has a route to Winnipeg penciled in, but it was listed among the second-tier routes which weren't expected to be added until after 2030.

    The way to get something like that done is to get communities along the route to band together in an alliance to promote the idea.