Ramsey County Nudges Study of 2nd Chicago-Twin Cities Train by Putting up $300,000

The Ramsey (Minnesota) County Board of Commissions has approved spending $300,000 to begin an environmental assessment of adding a second train between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesapolis-St. Paul.

A feasibility study conducted by Amtrak nine months ago said the train is expected to need $6.6 million in annual in operating subsidies. That Minnesotamoney would need to come from sources in Minnesota, Wisconsin and/or other parties.

Currently the Twin Cities and Chicago are linked by Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which serves 100,000 passengers a year.

The Amtrak study estimated that another train between Chicago and St. Paul could draw 155,000 passengers annually.

“The second daily train is to grow the market, provide greater reliability at conventional speed of 79 miles per hour,” said Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

MnDOT is expected to form a partnership with Ramsey County in conducting the environmental study. The first phase of that study is expected to be finished by late 2017 and will produce cost figures for construction, capital needs and operating costs.

The environmental study is expected to cost $600,000 with the expense split among MnDOT, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission.

“We’re finalizing the contracts right now and will have a consultant on board within a month,” Krom said. “If everything lined up with funding, we could have trains running in three or four years. But a lot of things would have to line up between now and then.”

Ramsey County officials said they acted to put up Minnesota’s share of the money for the environmental study because MnDOT lacks the funds to do so.

The Amtrak study of a second Chicago-St. Paul train did not assume that Amtrak would operate the service or that it would use the exact route of the Empire Builder in the Twin Cities region.

“There’s been no determination of who would be offering the service. It’s way early for that,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Four potential routes in Minnesota were identified in the Amtrak study, including stops and/or terminal points in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Fridley and St. Cloud.

The study said that the existing infrastructure at St. Paul Union Depot favored it being the terminus for the route because it would be the least expensive option and the quickest to implement.

Some other station options would involve sharing stations with the Northstar commuter rail line, which could result in scheduling conflicts. The Empire Builder route through Wisconsin would likely be used.

The second Chicago-Twin Cities train is seen by some as a step toward developing high-speed rail between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

MnDOT is also studying the Northern Lights Express corridor from Minneapolis to Duluth, but has put on hold a study of developing high-speed rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minnesota.

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