Southeast Minnesota Angles for Rail Link through Rochester

Linking Southeast Minnesota to the Midwest Rail Network

» But the fastest route would stop at the city’s airport rather than downtown.

Though state of Minnesota has not been the most active advocate of new rail connections, a faster connection between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been an ubiquitous component of proposals for high-speed rail in the Midwest. The corridor’s termini are set in stone, but its exact route is not. Whereas existing Amtrak service runs along the Mississippi River from La Crosse, Wisconsin to St. Paul, residents of Rochester and the surrounding areas are pushing for the improved line to run through southeast Minnesota. A new study demonstrates the advantages of such a detour, but its lack of connection through downtown Rochester could ultimately prove to be a major limitation.

The Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance report compares several different routes through the state, including the 130-mile existing corridor that parallels the river and a new 170-mile line that would extend west of La Crosse, through Rochester, and then north to the Twin Cities. The latter route’s primary advantage is that it would connect to the rail link the 100,000-person population of Rochester; it is the state’s third-largest city and a major employment center, notably as a result of the presence of the Mayo Clinic. The population of areas within 20 miles of the Rochester route is roughly twice as high as that of areas near the river line, not counting the Twin Cities.

Including Rochester would undoubtedly increase ridership on any rail line since the river route reaches no cities of significant population for the entire distance between Winona and St. Paul. With 110 mph diesel train operation, the Rochester route would move 5.5 million people a year, versus 5.1 million on the river line, according to the study; both would enjoy higher fare revenues than operation costs. These estimates seem unreasonable considering other Amtrak corridors: the Keystone route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which already offers 110 mph electric operation, only attracts about a million riders a year and is 50% subsidized.

The “greenfield” route proposed by the Southeastern Minnesota Rail Alliance would run through Rochester Airport instead of downtown Rochester. This is clearly a decision meant to ensure fast speeds along the entirety of the route and to avoid community opposition to fast trains in Rochester’s urban areas, but it has the negative consequence of limiting potential ridership to and from this detour’s major destination! It also mistakenly assumes that a large number of people will take the train to and from the Rochester Airport when the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport offers far more air service and it could be linked to the project just as easily.

Nonetheless, the argument for a Rochester corridor over the river line is strong. Despite the former route’s longer distance, it would cost only $973 million to construct, compared to the $834 million needed to upgrade the latter corridor, not enough of a difference to justify choosing the cheaper, less effective line. The river route would need 150 miles of new track to handle six round trips a day. It would be quicker to take a train between St. Paul and La Crosse via Rochester — 2h00 versus 2h11 along the river and 2h57 today — because the new link would be far less curvy. The river line includes some 176 curves, requiring a 90 mph speed limit along most of the line — even after improvements.

The other major advantage of the Rochester route is that it would allow for 220 mph operation in the long term, whereas the river route would be unable to ever offer such speeds. With electric trains, travel between St. Paul and La Crosse could be completed in just 1h13 via Rochester; upgrades of the connection through Wisconsin to Chicago would whittle down trip times to just four hours from the Twin Cities (it takes eight hours today). Fast service would cost two billion dollars but make up the difference by attracting nine million riders by 2030, according to the Rail Alliance.

29 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • NikolasM

    I’m beginning to think that Madison should just connect perpendicularly to some station (perhaps in Columbus?) on the current line and run some DMU’s that coincide with future regularly scheduled trains. You could also add some extra runs straight to Milwaukee. That way it would be easy to have a stop at the airport and downtown and/or the University.

  • NikolasM

    Or just using the current line from Milwaukee to Madison through Watertown would also work still keeping it separate from the HSR line to M-SP…

  • Hold the mayo

    The SMRA ‘report’ is just PR spin, it seems clear that this study was performed to support predetermined conclusions. Lots of 220mph greenfield alignments via Rochester, but that is not even an option for parts of the river route? I especially love how they manipulated the northern boundaries for the comparison of populations served. Intellectually dishonest, if they won’t compare apples to apples then one can only assume that the Rochester route would lose in an honest comparison.

    While it is nice that Rochester adds a market of 100,000, MSP is 30 times that. Since MSP-CHI is almost too long to work as a corridor at 110mph, reducing end to end travel times is going to bring more ridership than a lengthy detour via Rochester. Probably the best option is SNCF’s shorter route via Eau Claire into St. Paul and then MSP airport, which can always be extended as a regional/commuter line from down to Rochester.

    And routing via the airport instead of downtown is ridiculous. For some reason Rochester has had a stick up their butt for years about the proximity of the existing rail line to the Mayo Clinic, never mind that similar facilities all over the world successfully operate next to infrastructure that is louder and creates more vibration. Put in quiet zones for the horn blowing and the problem is solved. The biggest market for Rochester bound passengers is MSP, but if they have to mess with waiting for an airport shuttle instead of walking across the street, most of these potential patrons will opt for the 1-2 hour drive. Utterly stupid planning. And if this line can’t be run downtown, at least choose the much shorter path of skirting to the northeast of town instead of wrapping all around way to the south. There is some benefit for shared rail/airport facilities in many locations, but in this case it isn’t worth the added running time. Why hinder 97% of the market to poorly serve 3%?

  • Nathanael

    Definitely ignore Rochester Airport.

    The Rochester station should be right next to the Mayo Clinic. Period. That’s where the concentration of arriving passengers will want to go and it’s good for the majority of locals.

    I still want them to run the line close enough to Northfield that it’s a better deal than driving to Minneapolis…. a Northfield station might not be feasible, but either Northfield or Cannon Fields should be.

  • Nathanael

    Rrgh, that should be “Cannon FALLS” of course.

  • Hold the mayo is right. Rochester is actually smaller than Eau Claire. It has 180,000 people in its metro area compared with 200,000 for Eau Claire. The only advantage of Rochester over Eau Claire is that it can be on the same line as La Crosse, metro population 120,000, but that’s canceled out by the facts that the Eau Claire route is more direct and that it has a suitable ROW in I-94 (and, for long stretches of the route, the existing rail line, which is reasonably straight).

  • simple

    Rochester draws intercity traffic way out of proportion to its population due to Mayo Clinic — a major domestic and international destination. Serving Rochester without locating the station within walking distance of Mayo (in downtown Rochester) would be a huge mistake.

    Likewise, Madison Wisconsin would draw its regular HSR traffic predominantly from walkable access to the state capitol and related government offices, as well as the University of Wisconsin (adjacent to downtown Madison). To implement major HSR improvements there that do not stop directly in downtown Madison would also be a huge mistake.

  • Simple, there’s no way of serving downtown Madison without a major detour. The best that can be done is a neighborhood stop in northeastern Madison, on the model of Shin-Osaka or Shin-Yokohama, with a shuttle from the station to the Isthmus and UM.

  • simple

    Alon, sometimes a detour is necessary in order to serve the market! Technically speaking, Milwaukee is a “major detour” on the way from Chicago to the Twin Cities… but it’s obviously worth it. Shin-Osaka and Shin-Yokohama work because they’re integrally connected public transport-wise into humongous metro regions of 15+ million and 5+ million respectively. The only realistic way HSR (especially modest 110mph HSR) in Madison is going to capture serious mode share is for the station to be within walking distance of the places where the vast majority of regular (weekly or better) riders will go — the state capitol & environs and the University. I acknowledge that a remote station with a shuttle is not a terrible second-best solution, but in a market that won’t produce Japan-style levels of ridership to begin with, a remote station will be a major handicap to generating decent travel demand in a market like Madison, where there is actually a decent level of geographic concentration in demand. But maybe this is just unrealistic to expect for 110mph service (I agree there’s no good way to get back north from the west side of Madison using existing ROW). In that case, I would argue that some trains run CHI-MIL-MSP and others run CHI-MIL-MAD (interurban-style) so that Madison customers may have a one-seat ride to/from downtown. Travelers who are indifferent to boarding downtown can just drive and park at Watertown (or take a shuttle there) and take either train.

  • No, Shin-Yokohama and Shin-Osaka were both greenfield sites when they were built. JNR just ensured to build TOD around the stations and connect them to the rest of the cities; even then, the connections aren’t always perfect – for example, only one subway line serves Shin-Osaka. One could argue that with those tenuous subway connections, Shin-Osaka and Shin-Yokohama are exactly like a suburban stop for Madison with a shuttle.

    There’s a decent way of getting from the Isthmus and UM back to I-94, but it involves adding about 15 km and some nasty curves in Madison. Overall, at 300 km/h it would add 5-10 minutes over trains stopping in Madison. The main problem is not time, but construction cost; this extra 15 km assumes a new connection through suburbia between the existing rail line and I-94, which is a recipe for cost overruns.

    Running some trains Chicago-MSP and some Chicago-Madison means lower frequency to each city, which means lower ridership.

  • The “greenfield” route proposed by the Southeastern Minnesota Rail Alliance would run through Rochester Airport instead of downtown Rochester.

    This seemed strange, especially if they did demand modeling in the study – unless there is a local rail route connecting Rochester Airport to the Mayo Clinic and Winona, its hard to see the appeal of the Rochester Airport route, and even with a local rail connection, a station in walking distance to the Mayo clinic would would seem to be a much stronger driver than any multi-model transfer at the airport.

    Since the FAA still seems to balk at using its local transport connections funding for through rather than terminal rail routes to airports, there is not even that argument for an airport alignment.

    And so, it was no surprise to see that the study actually did not settle on the airport aligment:

    Exhibit 3.6 shows an alternative route structure using greenfield from Dover to La Crosse, along with existing rail to a downtown Rochester station. This is the alignment that is assumed in the current study, because in preliminary screening, this option was shown to produce higher ridership and revenue. A downtown Rochester station would be convenient to more patrons than an airport station, and the high-speed greenfield segment from Dover to La Crosse is shorter, and would bypass a slow segment of existing track along the River. (emphasis added)

    So the modeling quoted is not for a route via the Rochester airport, but a route through downtown Rochester.

  • Bruce –
    Thank you, I was mistaken.

  • Looking in more detail, the total intercity transport market shows that without the Rochester traffic, the route suffers from a problem similar to the Keystone corridor. With just the Twin Cities, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago intercity transport, and adding all trips running through a segment (so Twin Cities to Chicago traffic is included in each of the below, Chicago to Milwaukee only appears once), the existing pattern of intercity trips along the general corridor is:

    Chicago|Milwaukee: 6.4m
    Milwaukee|Madison: 6.1m
    Madison|MSP: 2.3m

    By contrast, if Rochester trips are included, then the there is a substantial pick up of trips on the MSP side of the corridor:

    Chicago|Milwaukee: 6.7m
    Milwaukee|Madison: 6.5m
    Madison|Rochester: 2.8m
    Rochester|MSP: 4.2m

    And the downtown Rochester alignment is the faster of the 110mph alignments – the River route is 5:46 maximum attainable trip speed (5-11), the Rochester airport 5:50 (5-12), and Rochester Downtown 5:36 (5-13), which with 5% slack is 5:52 St. Paul to Chicago.

    Upgrading St. Paul to La Crosse to 220mph cuts the Twin Cities / Chicago time as maximum attainable trip speed to 5:00, and 220mph St. Paul to Ixonia (halfway between Milwaukee and Madison) to 4:00, so with 5% slack it would be 4:12.

  • I’ve just read the study, and it’s complete garbage.

    First, it was prepared by a company that has never prepared a rail study that was actually built; all of the studies it lists on its webpage were for American corridors which have yet to be built. This means that we have no way of knowing whether the company’s numbers hold any water. On the contrary, we have an indication the company is unfamiliar with HSR practice around the world: it assumes 45-minute turnaround times for HSR, when the ICE turns trains around in 4 minutes.

    Second, the alternatives in the study are biased. The study compares 110 mph service along the current route, 110 mph service through Rochester, and 220 mph service through Rochester. Of course Rochester’s going to look good. That there’s no mention of the I-94 route through Eau Claire as even a possibility is simply criminal.

    Third, the 220 mph alternative assumes high speeds will only be attainable west of Ixonia. This pads the schedule unnecessarily, making the Rochester detour look better in comparison. Rochester is about 40 km longer than Eau Claire, which adds 10 minutes to the schedule at typical HSR average speeds of 240 km/h. A slowdown from 4:00 to 4:10 reduces ridership by less than a slowdown from 2:50 to 3:00.

    Fourth, the study says the operating ratio for 110 mph diesel operations along the river route will be 1.43, higher than for the 125-150 mph electrified NEC, which achieved 1.15 in 2008. This doesn’t inspire confidence in the numbers.

    Fifth, the study assumes trains have to be FRA-compliant. Beyond the fact that this suggests again that the company doesn’t know much about HSR development, it also biases the study against the river route, where 5″ superelevation with 12″ cant deficiency would easily permit speeds higher than 110 mph. The assumption that all trains have to run with low superelevation and low cant deficiency both disparages existing routes and makes greenfield alignments look more expensive than they have to be.

    Finally, I’m not sure where Bruce’s numbers about traffic on the Rochester-MSP segment come from. But the idea that Rochester-MSP traffic would add 1.9 million passengers a year boggles the mind. Is there anywhere in the world where a city pair with one metro area of 200,000 and another of 3 million generates 1.9 million passengers a year? To put things in perspective, the same numbers suggest Madison-Chicago adds 3.8 million people; Madison is three times as large as Eau Claire and has a much bigger attraction in UW, and Chicago is three times as large as MSP. How did a total factor of 9 difference in size shrink to a factor of 2 difference in ridership?

  • Finally, I’m not sure where Bruce’s numbers about traffic on the Rochester-MSP segment come from.

    They are from the report, the intercity transport between the cities.

    Is there anywhere in the world where a city pair with one metro area of 200,000 and another of 3 million generates 1.9 million passengers a year?

    As stated in the comment, it is all intercity passenger transport between the city pairs, which of course means air, road, bus and rail (AFAIU, there is no substantial water traffic along this route, but if there were, it would include that too). When you translate that into 1.9m rail passengers, you are assuming 100% capture of all existing air, road, bus and rail passenger transport, which is a bizarre assumption.

  • Ah, sorry. But where is the report? I can’t find it on the SEMN page.

  • Fourth, the study says the operating ratio for 110 mph diesel operations along the river route will be 1.43, higher than for the 125-150 mph electrified NEC, which achieved 1.15 in 2008. This doesn’t inspire confidence in the numbers.

    It is well understood that, first, the NEC may reach top speeds of 125-150mph, but can not reach those speeds for long stretches of its route, and second, that Amtrak fares are not set to generate best possible operating ratios.

    That there’s no mention of the I-94 route through Eau Claire as even a possibility is simply criminal.

    They are proposing a modification of the alignment presently on the table. If a group wants to propose pursuing the Eau Claire alignment as a modification of the alignment presently on the table, that would be their prerogative. I am sure that TEMS would be more than happy to produce a parallel report on that alignment.

    Fifth, the study assumes trains have to be FRA-compliant.

    That’s been an assumption of the MWRRS all along, and they explicitly inherit the assumption from the MWRRS. It will be interesting to see if the Midwest HSR Association follows the same path in the 220mph study they have commissioned this year.

    Also:

    it assumes 45-minute turnaround times for HSR, when the ICE turns trains around in 4 minutes.

    45 minutes is a reasonable turn-around envelope for ICE services, though of course they keep services running for more than a single route. Making a big issue of that for the fleet calculation would, of course, be hysterical over-reaction.

  • It is well understood that, first, the NEC may reach top speeds of 125-150mph, but can not reach those speeds for long stretches of its route, and second, that Amtrak fares are not set to generate best possible operating ratios.

    The NEC does reach its top speed for long stretches of its route south of New York. Between Newark and Frankford Junction, there is only one section with a speed limit lower than 100 mph, an S-curve in Elizabeth. The areas where Regional trains run significantly below top speed are the curvy tracks in Connecticut and parts of Maryland.

    NEC fares are set to maximize revenue. That’s why even Regional trains are so expensive by the standards of state-subsidized routes like the Surfliner.

    Using the study’s projected river route times, the average speed for nonstop trains is slightly lower than Acela speed from New York to Washington. The average speed for regional trains is slightly higher than Regional speed from New York to Washington. At those speeds, even reaching the NEC’s operating ratio of 1.15 would be a miracle.

    They are proposing a modification of the alignment presently on the table. If a group wants to propose pursuing the Eau Claire alignment as a modification of the alignment presently on the table, that would be their prerogative. I am sure that TEMS would be more than happy to produce a parallel report on that alignment.

    This is a bug, not a feature. SEMN Rail didn’t pay TEMS to produce an objective study; it paid TEMS to produce a study that confirmed its biases, in favor of the Rochester route, incremental upgrades such as single-track diesel service, and moderate speeds of 110 mph.

    That’s been an assumption of the MWRRS all along, and they explicitly inherit the assumption from the MWRRS. It will be interesting to see if the Midwest HSR Association follows the same path in the 220mph study they have commissioned this year.

    It’s the job of good planning contractors to say, “You can’t do it like this.” It’s understood that there’s no way of running high-speed services when curve radii are 500 meters; it’s equally true that there’s no way of running high-speed services when locomotives have to weigh 100 tons.

    45 minutes is a reasonable turn-around envelope for ICE services, though of course they keep services running for more than a single route. Making a big issue of that for the fleet calculation would, of course, be hysterical over-reaction.

    I think the fact that the company is oblivious to the fact that the ICE’s turnaround envelope is an order of magnitude less than 45 minutes is significant. Your mileage may vary.

  • This is a bug, not a feature. SEMN Rail didn’t pay TEMS to produce an objective study; it paid TEMS to produce a study that confirmed its biases, in favor of the Rochester route, incremental upgrades such as single-track diesel service, and moderate speeds of 110 mph.

    What you are complaining about here is that SEMN did not pay to produce the study that you want to have commissioned to critique the MWRRS approach.

    You can well criticize the previous state of MN sponsored studies over a decade’s span that came up with the route for being too path dependent – Eau Claire was in the Northern Corridor, and you may well argue that when the Southern Corridor was chosen, the alignment from Madison through Eau Claire should have been included in the Southern corridor alignment options.

    But its perfectly appropriate for an advocacy group to compare their proposal to current proposed alignment. Demanding that any advocacy group that commissions a study of an alternative must re-open every prior decision already made is absurd.

    it’s equally true that there’s no way of running high-speed services when locomotives have to weigh 100 tons.

    The critique of the 220mph technology as discussed in the report is, on the other hand, a valid critique.

    The Electric High-Speed Train assumed for this study would utilize existing Acela locomotives, regeared and with perhaps some additional power added (as has already been done for Amtrak’s HHP-8 electric locomotives, increasing from 6,000 to 8,000 available horsepower, or for the Eurostar Channel Tunnel trains, by adding a booster under the first and last coach car.) The study assumes that the coach cars would be redesigned using Stainless steel or Aluminum construction to reduce their weight, but that they would retain their existing FRA Tier II compliance. With additional power and lighter coaches, an upgraded Acela train could achieve 185-mph on dedicated track. 220-mph speeds would require even more power with traction motors distributed underneath the coaches, as the latest generation of European high-speed
    trains such as the ICE-3 and Eurostar has.

    Clearly, they are fudging in this section. I would hope that the 220mph report commissioned by the Midwest HSR Association does a better job in this regard.

    I think the fact that the company is oblivious to the fact that the ICE’s turnaround envelope is an order of magnitude less than 45 minutes is significant. Your mileage may vary.

    ICE’s service turn-around is on the order of 30 minutes to 45 minutes, though they don’t turn around services at the end of each route. Turning around in MPS or Madison and running through Chicago might be a more realistic operating regime …
    … but how many trains would be saved by turning the service around after each round trip or each second round trip? In the 220mph version, 4:15+0:05 means four one way trips is 16:15, so the first and possibly second service of the day can run two full round trips and the balance of the services can run one round trip and one way.

    So running one service through the day and turning the service around when the system shuts down for the night cuts the required number of trains by at most one or two. That’s why its quibbling, posturing as a major “gotcha”.

  • At 220 mph, it shouldn’t take 4:15; it should take at most 3:00, which corresponds to the average speed of most of today’s 186 mph HSR lines. Another major flaw in the study is its belief that the only way to run trains at high speed south of Milwaukee is on a new elevated alignment, which would raise costs unacceptably.

    With 3:00, the difference between 5 and 45 minutes is 6:10 versus 7:30 for a roundtrip. The line capacity difference isn’t large; the main issue is platform capacity at the terminals, which, as we know from the case of California, matters a lot. And, again as we know from the case of California, it showcases competence in general.

    The Southern Corridor/Northern Corridor difference is another problem – as you note, it’s easy to include Eau Claire in the Southern Corridor approach. The people who designed I-94 didn’t seem to think that going through Eau Claire means avoiding Madison.

  • At 220 mph, it shouldn’t take 4:15; it should take at most 3:00, which corresponds to the average speed of most of today’s 186 mph HSR lines. Another major flaw in the study is its belief that the only way to run trains at high speed south of Milwaukee is on a new elevated alignment, which would raise costs unacceptably.

    That is also from the state sponsored Tri-State II (MN/WI/IL) study. Hopefully the Midwest HSR Association 220mph study will revisit that – it is clearly a more easily justified use of the funds provided by members of a broad Midwestern rail advocacy group than the funds provided by members of a Southeast MN rail advocacy group.

  • Nathanael

    Alon, several points:
    (1) Eau Claire, while an attractive super-direct route, suffers from some problems: the UP routing will be unobtainable and not very straight, and the I-94 routing stops quite a ways outside Eau Claire. Assuming WisDOT is willilng to give up the I-94 ROW.

    (2) *If taking the river route*, FRA track standards for freight will have to be followed, because that is a *busy freight route* and there is *no room* to expand it to four tracks along most of the distance. Remember, this is valuable riverfront property, and it runs through a bunch of downtowns.

    *If taking a different route dedicated to passengers* FRA standards might not need to be followed for track construction — but it is correct to assume that the river route is limited to FRA standards.

    The river route is a pretty terrible choice for HSR, period. The Eau Claire alternative *or* the Rochester-La Crosse alternative are *both* better.

  • Nathanael

    “The line capacity difference isn’t large; the main issue is platform capacity at the terminals,”

    St. Paul Union Depot should have no problems here, since it’s actually a through station.

    Chicago is another matter, but until the West Lake Transportation Center is built or Union Station is totally reconstructed, capacity is fixed at its current state. Luckily north side capacity is not nearly full yet.

  • Well, FRA standards don’t increase safety even on lines shared with freight, without positive train control. Caltrain’s done simulations, and is in the process of petitioning the FRA to allow it to run lightweight EMUs on a line it shares with UP.

  • Nathanael

    “Well, FRA standards don’t increase safety even on lines shared with freight, without positive train control. Caltrain’s done simulations, and is in the process of petitioning the FRA to allow it to run lightweight EMUs on a line it shares with UP.”

    God, that would be a godsend. We can sure hope the FRA will revise its rules to match reality soon. That would help every rail proposal in the country, period.

    Agreed that the FRA “crashworthiness” standards which don’t match reality are a major handicap and have been bloating expenses unnecessarily. I would love to see those changed as much as you; lighterweight equipment (with proper crumple zones, of course) would improve literally every rail system in the country, and being able to buy European designs nearly off-the-shelf (with only couplers, signalling, and occasionally clearances varying, *no heavyweight requirements*) would make designs both better and cheaper due to more competition.

    We can hope. :-)

  • Woody

    As far as I can tell, even “crumple zones” would be needed about as much as meteorite protection. How many rail cars actually get crumpled? Next to nil.

    But every time a train hits a pickup truck in a grade crossing many passengers get bunged up with bruises, scrapes, cuts, and bone breaks.

    What is really needed is seat belts and maybe air bags. Not invented here, I guess.

    • Nathanael

      Yeah, but the thing is, crumple zones don’t hamper performance the way heavyweight requirements do, so they’re a harmless concession.

  • Jim

    The Mayo Clinic is the driving force behind the passenger rail to the airport nonsense. They have been pursuing a freight rail bypass south of the city for over a decade. They hope to tag the freight bypass to the passenger rail corridor. Mayo is the one paying for the studies.

    Locals in Rochester speculate that Mayo either wants the DM&E (CP) right of way for expansion, or they are trying to prop up the local airport (which is operated by Mayo).

  • My website is currenttly down.
    I see you know about the Mayo Clinics role in rail.

    Do you ever run across any reports on the amount of money that they spend?

    They do not release cost figures. I am trying to do some reconstruction on what they spend. For example their 990s do not match such reputable sites as OpenSecrets.org or the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.
    .
    Let me know please. Thanks.

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