A new push for high-speed rail

Passanger check in
Passengers check in to board Amtrak's Empire Builder at the Minneapolis station. That line's final destination is Seattle.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Buying a train ticket is a straight dollars-and-cents deal for University of North Dakota Student Don Schuette. He's just stepped off Amtrak's Empire Builder after a six-hour ride from Grand Forks to the Amtrak station in St. Paul.

"If you can't find another ride then you're pretty much out of luck, unless you want to spend a few hundred dollars for plane ticket," Schuette says.

Schuette's $112 roundrip Amtrak ticket from Grand Forks to the Twin Cities compares to $500 for a Northwest airlines flight.

All aboard
Roundtrip Amtrak fare from Minneapolis to Seattle is $282 and takes 40 hours.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The Minneapolis Amtrak station is filled with people of all ages -- college students, mothers carrying babies, old folks wearing spring coats a bit too light for the chilly early morning temperature.

Passengers move quickly through check in as the conductor tells everyone the train is full. And the train leaves for Chicago on time.

Ridership on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle and Portland is up 14 percent. Nationally, Amtrak's ridership is up 11 percent and has set records the last four years.

Your support makes a difference.

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

If included among U.S. airlines, Amtrak would rank eighth in the number of passengers served, with a market share of nearly 5 percent.

Trains magazine columnist Don Phillips, a former Washington Post transportation reporter, says despite repeated attempts to kill passenger rail service in this country, it survives.

"People insist on riding it, even in the days when it was really really bad," Phillips says.

Chicago in 5.5 hours
Passenger rail proponents want as many as six Amtrak high-speed runs per day between Minneapolis and Chicago, cutting trip time from eight to five and a half hours, and making rail competitive with air service.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The bad old days for passenger rail in this country began in 1971. That's when the nation's largest railroads begged Congress to be released from their money-losing passenger routes, so they could concentrate on more profitable freight hauling.

Congress agreed, and railroad deregulation took hold with a vengenace. Almost overnight, nearly half the country's passenger rail service disappeared.

Several presidents, including most recently George W. Bush, have tried to pound the last nail in passenger rail's coffin by zeroing out Amtrak's federal subsidy.

But some members of Congress are having second thoughts. David Johnson, a spokesman for the National Association of Rail Passengers, says elected officials have begun paying attention to increasing ridership numbers.

"Politicians see this, and politicians realize that these passengers are the ones pulling the ballot lever on Election Day," Johnson says.

Does passenger rail pose a real competitive threat to airline service? Yes and no.

Long haul
Seventy percent of Amtrak's passenger rail service runs on track owned by private freight rail companies, which ended rail passenger service three decades ago.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

If you really need to get to Seattle in a hurry, you'll probably pop for a $240 roundtrip airline ticket that gets you there in just under four hours. The Amtrak ticket costs $282, and the trip is about 40 hours.

Laura Kliewer, the executive director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, says if you want to go to Chicago, the equation changes.

To get from the Twin Cities to Chicago, a Northwest Airlines roundtrip fare is $164 and 90 minutes flying time. Amtrak is $143 and eight hours travel time. Doesn't sound like a fair fight at first glance.

But Kliewer says think about a high-speed rail service that gets you to Chicago in five and a half hours. Suddenly, she says, riding the rails stacks up pretty well against the pain and agony of air travel -- including the drive to the airport, and the long waits and delays of air travel.

"Last time I came from Minneapolis we had to circle O'Hare forever to be able to land, and we don't have any of those issues with trains," Kliewer says.

High-speed rail service to Chicago would not be like the 357 mph record set recently in France by one of their trains. The train would more likely travel about 110 mph, to make the five-and-a-half hour trip.

High-speed train service won't happen soon, though, according to State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, in part because there's no federal or state money immediately available.

Sieben's represents the state on the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, and she says her goal on that panel is to give Minnesota a voice in the planning.

"Minnesota has not put any resources into that effort yet, and I'm afraid that if we don't get on board, so to speak, we're not going to be at the table when there's an expansion of route," Sieben says.

Sieben is asking fellow Minnesota lawmakers this session to approve spending $2 million to help begin planning for a high-speed rail link to Chicago.