Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Silophant » September 23rd, 2020, 3:15 pm

The FRA approved a grant for up to $31.8M for the TCMC Second Train project, despite MN's $10M of matching funds remaining absent.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby NickP » September 25th, 2020, 9:55 am

Awesome!

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » September 26th, 2020, 7:26 pm

I rode the Empire Builder yesterday between St. Paul and Winona. Around an hour late going to Winona, and we had to pull off into a couple sidings for freight traffic. Back to St. Paul we were going pretty fast almost the whole time and arrived 7 minutes early.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Tiller » October 1st, 2020, 4:33 pm

Hopefully the cuts to Amtrak will make this more of a priority at the state legislature.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » March 10th, 2021, 9:35 am

The recently-passed $1.9 trillion COVID relief package includes some extra funding to Amtrak, and requires they restore full service to routes, including the Empire Builder, within 90 days (early June).

https://www.greatfallstribune.com/story ... 630446001/

There will be a couple of online town forums for the TCMC second train project focused on Red Wing (tomorrow, March 11th) and Winona (March 23rd). Both will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 pm, and sponsored by the local chambers of commerce. I'm not sure how informative they'll be, but may be worth checking out. You'll need to RSVP via the website to get a video link.

https://www.greatriverrail.org/townforum

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » March 12th, 2021, 12:04 pm

Amtrak announced yesterday that the Empire Builder will be one of the first four long-distance routes to restart service on May 24th, then there will be 4 more each week on May 31st and June 7th.

https://twitter.com/samjmintz/status/13 ... 7353286661

I watched the Red Wing town hall meeting for TCMC service last night. Their big ask was to get people to contact legislators and local officials to get the $10 million in needed matching funds.

Here's the planned schedule, which I put into a spreadsheet.

Image
twin-cities-milwaukee-chicago-2nd-train-schedule by Michael Hicks, on Flickr

The main bits of construction work needed in MN are a 4,000-foot siding by Tower CK in Winona (a junction point with the short bit of Union Pacific track in the city) for $9.1 million, a 2.6-mile siding by Winona station for $10.2 million, and easing curves and adding track at the big wye junction in La Crescent where trains need to negotiate 10-mph turns to head across the river toward La Crosse (will be improved to 25 mph) -- $20.8 million for that one.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby StandishGuy » March 13th, 2021, 10:56 am

Mike or Others, Do you know how much time savings for the trip between St. Paul and Chicago will result from these track upgrades? Obviously, anything that can be done to speed up travel times makes the train that much more competitive with air travel. Currently, flying to Chicago is just so much faster and generally pretty cheap. I'd love to take the train, but it takes too long right now.

Has there been any effort at the MN Legislature to dedicate a pool of funding for passenger rail upgrades? If only there was $5 million, $10 million, or more a year- a fraction of what we spend on roads- to continuously upgrade track and other facilities.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby grant1simons2 » March 13th, 2021, 8:13 pm

It takes longer and at times is double the cost of air travel. It's a really hard bargain to drive for the public without fare subsidies.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » March 13th, 2021, 9:47 pm

The train may be longer and more expensive, but it's also more pleasant. I flew Frontier from O'Hare to MSP and despite taking only an hour (+around half an hour to get to O'Hare on the El and a couple hours with security) it was one of the most miserable flights I've ever had. The legroom on Amtrak coaches feels similar to first class on a plane.

I'm sure Delta and the other carriers know if high speed rail ever becomes reality between the Twin Cities and Chicago then their market share on that segment is doomed.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » March 14th, 2021, 5:43 am

The time savings from these particular upgrades are pretty minimal, since I've already been on Empire Builder trips that have taken 7.5 hours, but of course every little bit helps.

I often think it's a mistake to compare the train to air travel, since the default is traveling by car anyway. It's a pretty busy and competitive air market between the Twin Cities and Chicago, leading to fairly low air fares, but planes only carry a small fraction of overall travelers. There's basically more demand than Amtrak can handle for the MSP-CHI market, so they price their tickets higher than what you'd see elsewhere on the Empire Builder route -- it's much cheaper per mile to go to Fargo or Grand Forks, for instance. Plus, the budget option at the moment is to take a bus, and you'll see a lot of those on the I-94 corridor even though they end up being slower than driving, and are often slower than the Empire Builder already is.

I have a mental rule of thumb that taking the bus in the Twin Cities is about 4x slower than driving, so a 15-minute drive is going to turn into an hour-long bus trip (and that doesn't even count having to adapt your schedule to the bus). Despite that, people still take the bus to get around the Twin Cities -- certainly fewer people than we'd like, but what can you expect with that time disadvantage? (And light rail tends to improve on that travel-time ratio by quite a bit, which is one reason why it's popular.)

But the train to Chicago is much closer to a 1:1 ratio compared to driving. If you only go a few mph over the speed limit and don't make any stops, it's around a 6-hour journey, but people are generally going to make a couple stops for fuel, food, or using the restroom, and may need to contend with traffic, pushing that closer to 7 or 8 hours.

Trains today still have the disadvantage that you'd need to use local transportation once you get there, potentially adding on another hour or so if you need to get to a suburb or something, but if we could ever get trains up to the 110-mph speeds that have been talked about for a long time, that would get trains into the 5-6 hour range for covering the whole distance, which would make a transit-train-transit trip (for instance) as fast or faster than a car-only trip.

We of course had a plan to run at least 6 daily round-trips with 110-mph trains back until around 2010, when the Tea Party takeover happened, Scott Walker got elected, and so on. I think that was estimated at around $2 billion total, though that was roughly evenly split between Minnesota and Wisconsin. In theory, I think the federal government would have covered most of that, so each state would have directly needed to spend $200 to $500 million of their own money over the course of a few years.

If you want to talk real 186+ mph HSR that would get travel times down into the 2-4 hour range, then we're talking about spending multiple tens of billions of dollars. Sounds like a lot, of course, though MnDOT just this year is going to see (checks notes) $4.3 billion pass through their hands. It's pretty hard to imagine a megaproject like that, though that's exactly what's going on in China, where they've been dumping $100-200 billion into their HSR network annually.

It's hard to say what we should be spending, but we definitely need something substantial and consistent. I'd say that the bare minimum we should be spending (including whatever federal match we could get) is $100-200 million annually within the state to improve intercity bus and rail. Averaged over the last couple decades, we've spent a bit shy of $200 million annually on light rail for the Twin Cities (much more expensive per mile than less-frequent intercity routes), and that hasn't really moved as fast as we've wanted. If we want a China-scale investment, we could be getting into the $2-4 billion annual spend range, which is hard to imagine, but maybe we should...

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » March 14th, 2021, 8:07 am

Talk is of course very cheap, but Pete Buttigieg did say he wants the US to lead the world in high speed rail. Considering how the California HSR project is coming along I highly doubt that, but there is still a case to be made for implementing HSR on certain corridors. In our case that's Twin Cities-Rochester-La Crosse-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby tmart » March 14th, 2021, 10:04 am

Talk is of course very cheap, but Pete Buttigieg did say he wants the US to lead the world in high speed rail. Considering how the California HSR project is coming along I highly doubt that, but there is still a case to be made for implementing HSR on certain corridors. In our case that's Twin Cities-Rochester-La Crosse-Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago.
The issues with CAHSR are quite California-specific, involving issues with long tunnels through seismically-active mountains, excessive litigation under state environmental laws, and very high land acquisition costs. It isn't really an indicator of what can or can't be done elsewhere in the US and it certainly isn't a measure of the federal government's lack of commitment to the mode.
The time savings from these particular upgrades are pretty minimal, since I've already been on Empire Builder trips that have taken 7.5 hours, but of course every little bit helps.
IIUC one of the big advantages that the second train will have is not speed but reliability: because it starts in St. Paul instead of the West Coast, there won't be issues with long delays because the train is stuck behind a freighter 200 miles west of Fargo or whatever. So while the new service won't be faster on paper when you look at the timetable, the timely departures will cut the real-world total trip time (delays plus rolling time).
We of course had a plan to run at least 6 daily round-trips with 110-mph trains back until around 2010, when the Tea Party takeover happened, Scott Walker got elected, and so on. I think that was estimated at around $2 billion total, though that was roughly evenly split between Minnesota and Wisconsin. In theory, I think the federal government would have covered most of that, so each state would have directly needed to spend $200 to $500 million of their own money over the course of a few years.

If you want to talk real 186+ mph HSR that would get travel times down into the 2-4 hour range, then we're talking about spending multiple tens of billions of dollars. Sounds like a lot, of course, though MnDOT just this year is going to see (checks notes) $4.3 billion pass through their hands. It's pretty hard to imagine a megaproject like that, though that's exactly what's going on in China, where they've been dumping $100-200 billion into their HSR network annually.

It's hard to say what we should be spending, but we definitely need something substantial and consistent. I'd say that the bare minimum we should be spending (including whatever federal match we could get) is $100-200 million annually within the state to improve intercity bus and rail. Averaged over the last couple decades, we've spent a bit shy of $200 million annually on light rail for the Twin Cities (much more expensive per mile than less-frequent intercity routes), and that hasn't really moved as fast as we've wanted. If we want a China-scale investment, we could be getting into the $2-4 billion annual spend range, which is hard to imagine, but maybe we should...
I do think that even the proposed improvements back in the Obama era would've been fantastic, and I 100% agree that even if it's not competitive with flying it can still replace a lot of long car trips. But as a political matter I sometimes wonder if the problem with the 2010 plan was that it wasn't ambitious enough. Much higher frequencies and slightly-better-than-car speeds are exciting to folks like us, and would almost certainly boost ridership significantly, but they maybe don't make as compelling a case for funding among the general public. I wonder if something more obviously competitive with air travel and more globally competitive rather than just improving existing service might have built more durable support for the project.

That would be expensive, no doubt, but (again, speaking more about politics than policy here) I'm not sure how much people care about the difference between $2B and $20B. To the layperson (and frankly, probably to a lot of congresspeople) they're both just unfathomably large numbers, but one of them buys you an exciting ribbon-cutting ceremony, and brings underserved cities (e.g. Rochester) onto the network, and eases that nagging feeling that the US is falling behind China.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » March 14th, 2021, 11:02 am

California seems to have over-promised and under-delivered when voters approved the funds for CAHSR back in 2009. Even if they eventually get the whole thing built, there are doubts that even bullet trains can do the travel times promised, fares will be affordable, and the service will operate at a profit.

While there are issues with it that are specific to California, nationwide we don't have the best track record with completing major infrastructure projects on-time and on-budget. When we're dealing with HSR it's not only a complexity to build but it's something the US has very little experience with. Unless we bring in experts from other countries who have extensive experience with HSR then I'm concerned any other HSR project in this country will face challenges like CAHSR, and we won't have California-specific excuses.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby StandishGuy » March 14th, 2021, 11:33 am

Does anyone here have experience with the St. Louis to Chicago higher speed rail route? I believe it was funded during the Obama years and was supposed to be 110 mph similar to what was supposed to run through Wisconsin to St. Paul.

Agreed. Air travel has become pretty miserable (pre-pandemic) the way airlines squeeze the size of seats and restrooms. My last trip to Chicago on United was awful, but it only took an hour. A four hour train trip between St. Paul & Chicago is probably the sweet spot for me because it wouldn't take most of the day for travel and is so much more humane. A 2+ hour trip would be amazing.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Korh » March 14th, 2021, 4:38 pm

Think it also depends on how much of the track needs to be upgraded to class 4 or higher. Never been on the Empire Builder and can't find any resources online, but I'm guessing only a portion of the line hits the 79mph max from St. Paul to Chicago and it has to slow down in city limits and bridge crossings (I know the later is a big reason that slows down the NEC). I also wonder what the cost is upgrading between different classes since a lot of small speed improvements can sometimes improve end to end time better then adding a few short high(er) speed sections.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » March 14th, 2021, 6:43 pm

This is anecdotal but when I traveled on the Empire Builder from Winona to St. Paul we seemed to be cruising at 60-79 mph almost the entire way except the stop in Red Wing, going across the river in Hastings, and the rail yards in St. Paul. Didn't have to wait for any freight traffic. When I took it from Chicago to St. Paul we also seemed to be going a decent speed for most of the route. The slow segments outside of Minnesota that I remember were getting out of Chicago, a tight turn going into Milwaukee's station, crossing the river in La Crosse, and of course the station stops. The only trains we had to wait for was the westbound Empire Builder and one freight train.

I believe all or most of the Empire Builder route between St. Paul and Chicago was originally part of the Milwaukee Road. Back when speeds were less strict the travel time was around 6 hours, 45 minutes.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » March 14th, 2021, 6:56 pm

Yeah, I'm pretty confident that most of the route has the 79 mph limit. Trains don't necessarily slow down simply because they're passing through towns, but there are often switch points for sidings or yards located in towns that cause reductions in speed in/near them, along with curves and bridges (like you mentioned), and the trains sometimes have to wait for others to pass or pull onto sidings to free up track. But, those slowdowns add up, and the train schedule needs to have some padding built in to accommodate that.

Yep, this route had previously been used by the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha train service (Amtrak switched to using that between the Twin Cities and Chicago when they took it over in 1971), which was able to do the run in 6.5 hours back in the 1930s and 1940s, an era when trains were frequently allowed to run faster than 79 mph -- It's not entirely clear how fast that train regularly ran, but it could certainly go past 100 mph in spots, and was rather famous for having some curves where the train had to slow down to 90 mph.

That was also back in an era when there was a mix of local and express routes, and the Hiawatha-branded trains were express ones that only made a few stops. Today's Amtrak trains are sort of a compromise between local and express, which adds a bit to the travel time, but would probably only add up to 15-20 minutes' worth, not the ~80 minutes of extra travel time we see today.

Back then, nearly the entire route was double-tracked, but a ton of that got ripped out as railroads did cost-cutting and capacity optimization through the second half of the 20th century. If we could get back to having double-tracking on all or nearly all of the route, that would help a lot, though it doesn't all need to happen at once either. It's also possible that some curves aren't as capable of high speeds as they once were, since the superelevation (banking) may have been reduced as speed became less of a concern and the railroads were more interested in moving heavier and heavier loads of cargo. If trains can't lean into turns like they once did, then that reduces maximum speeds as well.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Korh » March 14th, 2021, 7:40 pm

Speaking of double track I recall someone saying the reason why a decent amount of companies ended up ripping up everything aside from the bare minimum and are hesitant to help upgrade their lines because certain states taxed them either for the amount of track they had and what condition it was in or how much development was in their ROW. I've tried to see if this was the case for MN (or any other state in case they where talking shit) but finding out how exactly its calculated is a bit tricky.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby DanPatchToget » March 14th, 2021, 8:06 pm

I always assumed it was based upon the area of the land, not the number and quality of tracks.

If we could use tilting trains like some places such as the UK have done that could allow higher speeds on curves.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Korh » March 14th, 2021, 8:59 pm

From what I can gather from a 1985 report before 1979 Railroads had to pay a 5% gross earnings tax to the state but after that was changed to a property tax which was calculated for each railroad by miles of track of the railroad; values of land for the railroad; and buildings owned by railroad with a cost of more than $10, 000. (Report also mentions that railroads operating in more then one state had where calculated by miles of track; ton miles of revenue freight; gross revenue; and the costs of railroad property instead). I'm not sure how out of date the report is but it is interesting if you want to page through some railroad history.
https://www.leg.mn.gov/docs/pre2003/mandated/850894.pdf

Aside from that the only other things I can find is Dayton wanting to change how they where taxed in 2015 (not sure if it went through but mentioned wanting to expand the taxable property of railroads to include train cars, locomotives, bridges and other structures)
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/02/10/railroad-taxes

The state allowing for subtraction for railroad maintenance expenses by certain railroads. (not sure how is works)
https://www.revenue.state.mn.us/railroad-maintenance

And what kinds purchases are taxable (which if I'm reading it right, kinda makes me a little mad since buying gas is considered a nontaxable purchase but buying materials and equipment to build/repair track is a considered a taxable one)
https://www.revenue.state.mn.us/guide/r ... -purchases


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