» 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.