by Sarah Squires
Adding high-speed rail to the existing River Route running through Winona will cost less to construct, have a faster running time to Chicago, and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less to maintain than options running through Rochester or other routes, according to preliminary studies from federal and state transportation officials.
It’s the reason the River Route has been chosen for the preferred alignment to connect high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Chicago, and proponents say that when the fast trains come, jobs and a major boost to the economies of towns along the tracks will come with them.
Residents and transportation officials met earlier this month at the Winona County History Center to discuss the future of high-speed rail in the area, explaining why the River Route has been identified as the best option.
Studies looked at issues such as the number of rail crossings, slope, freight conflicts, cost and travel time for a number of proposed high-speed rail routes, and routes that had high areas of concern received a “red flag” for each issue. In the end, the River Route, following the existing Amtrak lines, was considered the most feasible.
The route has no significant elevation changes to mitigate, while all other routes presented slopes that would have posed an issue for high-speed trains. The travel time was significantly lower than other routes, including routes through Rochester deemed longer than driving times when measured to Milwaukee. Construction of the River Route line is expected to cost hundreds of millions less than other feasible route options.
It will take time to get the estimated $2.4 billion needed for the construction and contingency costs, said Dan Krom, Director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT)’s Passenger Rail Office. But that doesn’t mean that more, faster trains aren’t on the way. Transportation officials plan to add a second Amtrak passenger train to the line in the coming years, and the River Route can be built incrementally, with increases to speed and frequency along the way.
Most of the right-of-way is already owned for the route, said Krom, adding that it’s lucky that there used to be double tracks all the way to Chicago, meaning there is room to add a second line within the existing right-of-way. Upgraded crossings will be installed called “four-quad gates” for added safety, and some crossings will be combined or eliminated.
Track upgrades will also provide more opportunities for freight traffic, and Krom said that his office has been working with the railroad company closely. “We’re going into their house and remodeling it, and we’ve got to live in it with them,” he said.
The River Route is just one component of a larger passenger rail plan for the state and region, including plans for faster routes to St. Cloud, Duluth and Rochester.