From: Paul Schollmeier
Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission member and
Winona City Council member
I’d like to squelch a rumor. Ever since a state legislative committee in December rejected a federal grant for environmental work on higher-speed passenger rail, I’ve been asked over and over if that impacts the second train to Chicago project. The answer is no. The Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago (TCMC) second train proposal is moving forward. Planning work continues. We’re ready to take the next steps. And we need your support to get it done.
The TCMC second train project proposes to add another round-trip per day, to complement existing Amtrak® Empire Builder service. It would serve three stations in Minnesota (Saint Paul, Red Wing, Winona) and 13 stations total in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. A feasibility study estimated annual ridership of about 155,000, on top of current Empire Builder service (123,000). Like the Empire Builder, its maximum speed would be 79 mph on existing tracks, and the full trip would take 7.5 hours.
We believe a second passenger train between the Twin Cities and Chicago is a great idea! It will create jobs and generate economic growth. Set aside the economic impact of those 155,000 passengers a moment — Amtrak alone spent over $60 million on goods and services in Minnesota in fiscal year 2016. And while just two infrastructure projects are needed in Minnesota to accommodate a second train, jobs will be created to complete an estimated $30 million in track and station area improvements.
The TCMC Second Train also would provide access to tourism, colleges, events and more throughout Southeast Minnesota and the Twin Cities.
In Winona, 41 percent of college students at Winona State University and St. Mary’s University have taken the train to/from school, and 57 percent say they would take the train if more frequent service was available.
The Mississippi River Route offers so much opportunity, from the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, to the Cannon Valley bicycle trail in Red Wing, to the many events and attractions in the Twin Cities, all only a short train ride away. Tourism spending in Minnesota from Amtrak passengers in 2016 was $460,000. We’d like to double that impact.
Recent high-profile Amtrak accidents leave the wrong impression. Operation Lifesaver reports an 83-percent decline in train/motor vehicle collisions in the U.S. from a 1972 high of roughly 12,000 to approximately 2,025 in 2016. These accidents are still too many, and we advocate for safer at-grade crossings. Fortunately, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Federal Railway Administration have invested over $11 million in crossing safety improvements along the TCMC corridor; $11.6 million in additional crossing safety improvements are being studied. In addition, Positive Train Control, a system intended to address passenger rail operator issues, is mandated by Congress to take effect before TCMC service begins. Meanwhile, according to the Rail Passengers Association, shifting just one percent of car traffic to rails in the U.S. would save 200 lives each year (equal to $1.88 billion per year in economic value).
Last year the Passenger Rail Office of the Minnesota Transportation Department, the lead agency on TCMC second train planning, was facing the budget ax, but calls and letters from passenger rail advocates to their legislators helped provide funding for the office for two years. This year, we’re asking the Minnesota legislature to approve $1 million to complete required environmental work and service planning, and $3 million for Minnesota’s share of final design costs for the service. With support, TCMC could be operational as early as 2022.
The Federal Railroad Administration ranked the Chicago to Minneapolis-Saint Paul corridor first in the Midwest for future enhanced service. With more than 10 million trips taken by air, auto and train each year between the Twin Cities and Chicago, we know the demand is there for additional passenger rail service. We will need your help again. Please contact your legislators to let them know how you feel about the second train. And please contact us with questions at www.mnhighspeedrail.com.