, , ,

Plans To Increase Amtrak Service Between Twin Cities, Chicago Move Forward

Project Still Faces Obstacles To Secure Funding For Additional Trains, Infrastructure Improvements

Amtrak train
Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Efforts to add a second Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and Chicago are moving forward.

Transportation officials from Wisconsin and Minnesota held a public meeting in La Crosse this week to get feedback on the first phase of environmental studies.

“This is looking at doing some pre-environmental tasks, and also doing alternatives analysis on the route and operations modeling for how the second train would impact freight rail, and also would determine the infrastructure improvements that are needed to add the service,” said Praveena Pidaparthi, project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

While trains already make the route between Chicago and St. Paul, Pidaparthi said adding a second train in each direction is not a simple task.

“It’s two additional trips that would be running on the corridor which is already congested with the current freight traffic,” Pidaparthi said. “There are some improvements that would be needed for even running a second train. It might not be building a new track, but it would be adding those small infrastructure improvements like sidings and grade crossings.”

Tom Faella, executive director of the La Crosse Area Planning Committee, said the project has been talked about since the late-1990s. But cities such as La Crosse are still interested in expanding passenger rail service.

“It’s a mode that’s increasing. More people every year are riding the rails, and it just would be really good to provide more options and convenience,” Faella said.

For the La Crosse area specifically, Faella said better rail service could help attract more tourists and college students.

And increasing access to major metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago could also help attract and maintain large companies.

The proposed service would follow Amtrak’s existing long distance Empire Builder route with termini at Chicago Union Station and Union Depot in Saint Paul — serving all existing stations on the Empire Builder route plus the Milwaukee Airport Rail Station. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation

“Cities like La Crosse and other ones across Wisconsin and Minnesota, like Red Wing, are sort of handicapped because of the cost of air and the unwillingness to expand air service out of here for business,” said John Parkyn, president of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers. “So when you have rail, which is very inexpensive, with a high enough frequency, then it’s more of an incentive to keep businesses in a town or to possibly start a business.”

Pidaparthi said a second train could be on the tracks by 2020, if the project receives the $1 million to $2 million needed to fund the second phase of environmental studies.

Faella said part of the next study would look at more details of project costs, including up to $100 million for the two new trains.

“There’s a lot of federal funding that’s available. So it would be a federal-state partnership for those capital costs and then you have the operating costs after that,” Faella said. “The three states would have to put together an operating cost model and its predicted that the fare itself would generate probably about 70 percent. So about 30 percent of the annual operating costs would have to be borne by the three states.”

But Parkyn said he isn’t sure how much funding is needed from the states to complete the project.

“You can easily collect enough from the people riding it,” Parkyn said. “The current train through here has the highest ridership in person miles per train mile of any in the United States. So it’s a pretty safe bet to put the second one in.”

Phase 2 of environmental studies is scheduled to begin next year.