Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s North Star’

Minnesota Interests Seek Federal Funding for New Route

November 17, 2019

Minnesota rail passenger advocates recently made a trip to Washington in search of federal funding for a proposed intercity rail passenger route between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota.

Proponents of the Northern Lights Express made the rounds of Minnesota congressmen and senators.

The delegation also included public officials from Minnesota.

Backers of the service, which would operate at a top speed of 90 mph, are hoping that with federal funding will come state funding from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Northern Lights Express would restore service to a former Amtrak route known as the North Star and which ended in April 1985 after Minnesota ended funding for the train.

2nd Chicago-Twin Cities Trains Hinges on Funding

April 5, 2019

The rail manager of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sounded an upbeat note about the prospects of launching a second Amtrak train in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor, but cautioned that it still hinges on whether the Wisconsin legislature appropriates the money to pay for it.

Arun Rao spoke at a meeting in Portage, Wisconsin, called by the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers.

He said the Federal Railroad Administration has granted WisDOT an exemption for completing the second phase of an environmental study after deciding the state had done enough already.

“This is very good news because it saves a lot of time and money,” Brown said. “It shortens the timeline, but the state budget is still the main thing to watch right now.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is seeking $45 million for passenger rail, although his proposal does not specify how much, if any, of that funding would be used for the Chicago-Twin Cities train.

Amtrak currently serves the route west of Milwaukee with the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

South of Milwaukee Amtrak operates seven daily Hiawatha Service roundtrips, which are funded in part by Wisconsin.

“What we’ve heard, unofficially, is that some of the money would be used for the [Chicago-Twin Cities]train, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Terry Brown of WisARP.

WisARP has estimated that it will take $10 million to complete preliminary studies being conducted jointly by WisDOT and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Advocates of the train have argued that it would provide more reliable service than the Empire Builder, which is subject to delays.

The final design work for the Chicago-Twin Cities train has not yet been completed so such issues as capacity, equipment and scheduling are pending.

An earlier Amtrak study of the route concluded that a second Chicago-Twin Cities train would handle 155,000 passengers annually.

The route between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities has not had multiple daily train frequencies since the Chicago-Duluth, Minnesota, North Star, was discontinued between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 25, 1981.

Minn. Gov., Anderson Meet About Duluth Service

March 29, 2019

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz met recently with Amtrak President Richard Anderson to discuss the proposed Northern Lights Express project, but no agreement was apparently reached.

The governor said in a Facebook post that Anderson said the national passenger carrier is ready to work with the state on the project, which would reinstate intercity rail passenger service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota.

Another Amtrak official expressed the carrier’s interest in the project during a visit to the state earlier this month.

The Northern Lights Express is projected to operate between a station near Target Field in Minneapolis and make intermediate stops in Minnesota at Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Hinckley, and in Wisconsin in Superior.

The 150-mile line would use BNSF rails. Amtrak’s North Star served that route through April 7, 1985, when Minnesota ceased funding the train.

Amtrak Supportive of Proposed Duluth Train

March 15, 2019

Minnesota officials were upbeat in the wake of a meeting at which an Amtrak executive discussed restoration of intercity rail passenger service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Minnesota.

Joe McHugh, Amtrak’s vice president, state-supported business development, said the proposed service is “in the sweet spot” of Amtrak’s preference for trains that run between 150 and 300 miles and take four hours or less.

The Northern Lights Express would cover the 152-miles between the cities in 2.5 hours.

McHugh met with Minnesota officials in Duluth and St. Paul as passenger rail advocates stepped up their efforts to lobby for support for the service.

However, no operating agreements were reached in those meetings although McHugh said Amtrak will help local officials in their efforts to land grant money to pay for improvements needed to develop the route.

Studies have put the cost of those improvements at $550 million.

“Every time we have put this project in the news it has gained more and more support,” said Jim Paine, the mayor of Superior, Wisconsin.

The Northern Light Express would have intermediate stops at Superior and the Minnesota cities of Coon Rapids-Foley, Cambridge and Hinckley.

It would use BNSF tracks and follow a route used by Amtrak’s North Star, which made its last trips on April 7, 1985, after Minnesota ceased funding the train.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is seeking $15 million to fund the Northern Lights Express and McHugh has described it as “one of the most shovel-ready projects in the nation.”

Duluth Service Moves to Design Stage

March 28, 2018

Proponents of restoring intercity rail passenger service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, have moved into the design phase of the project and also are seeking money to fund it.

“The planning is done. There is no more planning that needs to be done. Now we are ready to build,” said Frank Loetterle, project manager in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Rail Office.

Loetterle said MnDOT is in “extensive discussions” with Amtrak and BNSF, which owns the tracks to be used by the proposed Northern Lights Express.

Once capital operating funding is secured, the service could be in operation in about two and a half years after the final design process begins.

The project is expected to require between $500 million and $600 million.

Derrick James, governmental affairs senior officer at Amtrak, described services such as Northern Lights as “the future for passenger rail.”

James said a Midwest regional rail system of higher-frequency passenger trains would “stitch together the economy of the Midwest” while providing the connectedness that young people and the business community seek.

“If we want to keep the Twin Ports on the map, because we know we’ve got the quality of life here, to keep the young people, we also have to be competitive in connecting our universities, connecting our business community. A highly developed rail station with supportive zoning can be a catalyst for more economic development in the area around the station,” James said. “It’s not about the train, it’s about our economy and we’re building an economy that’s open to everyone and is accessible for everyone.”

Last month the Federal Railroad Administration approved the Northern Lights development plan. Work has also been done on an environmental assessment.

The proposal calls for four daily trips with intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley in Minnesota and Superior in Wisconsin.

Plans envision a top speed of 90 miles per hour, but an average speed of more than 60 miles per hour.

The route previously had Amtrak service that ended in April 1985 when state funding of the route lapsed. The North Star had once operated between Chicago and Duluth.

Proposed Minnesota Rail Route Clears Hurdle

March 9, 2018

The Federal Railroad Administration has found that a proposed passenger rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, would have no significant impact on the environment.

That finding will enable the Minnesota Department of Transportation to seek federal and state funding for the 152-mile Northern Lights Express.

The proposed service, which would use BNSF tracks, is expected to cost between $500 to $600 million and make intermediate stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, and Hinckley, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin.

Studies have projected the trains would generate 700,000 to 750,000 rides in the first year of operation.

“It’s a significant hurdle because we can now work on getting an agreement with Amtrak, BNSF, and funding for final design and construction,” said Frank Loetterle, MnDOT’s transportation department’s project manager,

Amtrak operated a state-funded train known as the North Star on this same route until 1985.

During the 1970s, the North Star originated in Chicago for a time.

Public Comment Sought on MSP-Duluth Plan

May 3, 2017

The Minnesota Department of Transportation continues to work with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to reinstate intercity rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota.

A public comment period is currently under way following the release of a Tier 2 Project Level Environmental Assessment of the Northern Lights Express Project.

The project would culminate in the implementation of a “higher speed” service between the two cities.

Written comments are due by May 24.

The proposed 152-mile service would have intermediate stops at Coon Rapids-Foley, Cambridge, Hinckley in Minnesota, and Superior in Wisconsin.

Service is projected to begin by 2020 if funding can be obtained and capital work completed. The cost of launching the service has been estimated at between $500 million and $600 million.

Further information is available at http://www.dot.state.mn.us/nlx/

Amtrak previously provided service over this route between April 16, 1975, and April 7, 1985. At one time the service operated between Chicago and Duluth as the North Star.

Study Reduces Cost Estimates, Speeds for Proposed Minneapolis-Duluth Passenger Trains

December 22, 2015

A study of a proposed passenger rail route between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, has reduced the cost of the project, but also the speed at which trains would operate.

The departments of transportation of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which collaborated on the study, estimate that the project will cost between $500 million and $600 million, which is nearly half of earlier projections. This includes costs of stations, equipment, and track improvements.

Trains would operate at 90 mph rather than the 110 mph that was earlier planned.

Known as the Northern Lights Express, trains would use existing BNSF tracks and offer four round trips per day Service is projected to begin in 2020 with a travel time of about 2.5 hours.

The study estimated patronage for the first year to be 700,000 to 750,000 trips, which is expected to increase to 1 million trips by 2040.

Fare revenue would cover most of the operating costs, estimated to average $17.5 million per year.

Amtrak’s Minnesota-funded North Star was the last passenger train in the corridor, ending on Easter Sunday 1985 after the state ended its funding.

During the 1960s, the former Great Northern Railway operated the twice-daily Badger and Gopher in the corridor.

A source of funding for construction of the corridor has yet to be identified.

In the meantime, the next step will involved updating the preliminary project and operation cost estimates, and preparation of a final benefit-cost analysis after cost-sharing discussions with BNSF are completed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is conducting preliminary engineering, a Tier II environmental assessment, and financial and implementation plans. MinnDOT officials said the project could be ready to begin 2017, officials said.

As for funding, MinnDOT is eyeing the possibility of a federal TIGER grant or other federal funding.

Officials said that in seeking federal funds, a project needs to be ready to begin construction.

The project is being overseen in part by the The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, a joint powers board formed to explore options for renewing passenger service on the 155-mile corridor.

Also participating in the project are local communities along the route and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Passenger Rail & Environmental Services.

Minnesota, Wisconsin Eye New Twin Cities Train

November 2, 2013

Not since 1981 has there been double Amtrak service between Chicago and the Twin Cities in Minnesota, but that may change.

Wisconsin and Minnesota transportation officials are eyeing the prospect of adding a second train to the route that would supplement the current service provided by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Passenger Rail Office director Dan Krom said there is demand for another train on the route and that it will be a more efficient version of the Empire Builder, not a high-speed one.

The states and Amtrak are studying ridership projections, what time of day the second train should operate, and cost-sharing between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The study is being conducted by Minnesota DOT and is expected to be released in early 2014.

In Amtrak’s first decade, the Empire Builder and North Coast Hiawatha, which also operated between Chicago and Seattle, ran independently between Chicago and the Twin Cities. In September 1977, Amtrak combined the Empire Builder and North Coast Hiawatha, and launched a daytime train between Chicago and the Twin Cities named the Twin Cities Hiawatha.

The latter train shifted to overnight operation in April 1978 and was combined with the Minneapolis-Duluth,  Minn., Arrowhead to create a daily Chicago-Duluth train named the North Star.

The North Star was discontinued in October 1981, leaving the Empire Builder as the sole train between Chicago and the Twin Cities. The North Coast Hiawatha had ended in a massive 1979 service curtailment and route restructuring program.

Passenger train advocates say the Empire Builder schedule is not convenient for business travelers or those wanting to make a day trip to Chicago or the Twin Cities.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker returned federal high-speed rail funds in 2010, but Krom said having the second train could be a step toward high-speed rail if it can “prove that the ridership is there, grow the market, [and] allow us to continue to do the work on the faster trains.”

“If the political will changes in Wisconsin and they are interested in looking at true high-speed service of 110 miles per hour again, we’ll have done our work to get us to that point,” Krom said.

John Parkyn, president of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers said a second train on the route has been discussed for years.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said it is cooperating with its Minnesota counterparts who are estimating the number of riders, revenue, operating costs and the cost for updating infrastructure to make the second train possible.

“So we’re looking into it. We don’t know if it’s feasible or not, but this study will evaluate that,” said Arun Rao, passenger rail manager for WisDOT.

Hundreds of residents along the route have also showed their support for the project by signing petitions asking for another roundtrip train that stops in their city.

Parkyn knows their concerns. “People, like myself, who have to go to the Twin Cities a lot and back, we drive,” said Parkyn. “Sometimes we take the train instead. Right now that’s not an option. Out east it allows you a lot more connections.”