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Yesterday we had freezing rain, this morning brought a dusting of snow. US Highway 14 received a bit of attention from MNDOT, resulting in a wet strip in the center in spots. The right hand ruts are iced up again though, and in spots the road is totally ice and snow covered. Thus on my 5 mile drive to get internet access at the Tyler library, 50 miles per hour was the fastest I drove. For the last couple days traffic along Minnesota Highway 23, viewable from my front window, has slowed to a crawl at times. The only drivers doing the 60 miles per hour speed limit are newbies to the frozen north and fools.The forecast for the next few days is for more snow... making the drive to visit the relatives for thanksgiving a frightening experience.

But the traffic on the parallel BNSF railway tracks has been moving at normal pace, in fact often outpacing the traffic on MN 23. A couple miles to the north, it's business as usual on CP's DM&E line as trainloads of grain, ethanol, and whatever move at a steady 40 MPH. But sadly, neither railroad carries authorized passengers on these lines... And those open coal and grain cars look like a pretty cold ride!

A hundred yards walk from my home an old sign along the tracks reads "Florence". A few yards farther along the track lies a slab in the shape of a typical small town railroad depot. Old timetables from decades ago tell me that passenger trains used to stop here. Good driving weather or bad, you could walk over to the depot, buy a ticket, and ride the train to Marshall, Willmar, and Minneapolis or Pipestone, Sioux Falls, and Sioux City to the south. With a simple transfer you could travel on to anywhere in America.

But today you'll have at least a slippery and at times snowblind 150 mile drive to catch a passenger train in Minneapolis, St.Cloud, Staples, Detroit Lakes, or Fargo. Need to go southwest? You've got a 200 mile slog to Omaha or even farther to Kansas City.

Now conventional wisdom says that you need high population density to make passenger rail viable. Meet the train that stands that myth on it's head, then drop kicks it out of the country- the Empire Builder-

Take a look at that map- doesn't that (at first glance) look the the most ridiculous place possible to put a passenger train, right across the "empty quarter" where livestock often outnumber people? Conventional wisdom says that the 'Builder should run only as far west as the Minneapolis-St.Paul metroplex of three million souls. Yup, a 400 miles route between Chicago and MSP with Milwaukee thrown in might be viable. But running over a thousand miles further west through three states whose total population is less than that of MSP metro's? And take a look at the towns served by the 'Builder- After Minneapolis until Spokane the only metro area of over 100,000 is Fargo. And after Fargo and even smaller Grand Forks, for the next thousand miles over half the station stops are in towns of less than 3000. Surely we've accounted for much of Amtrak's financial shortfall right here?

Sorry, worshippers of the Amtrak's beloved North East Corridor and big city passenger rail... But the Empire Builder has one of Amtrak's lowest subsidy ratios- , take a look at the second graphic. Note that even though it runs through "cow country" for much of it's route, the 'Builder's financial performance is beaten only by the Auto Train, which runs down the much denser east coast to Florida and caters to wealthier patrons than the 'Builder's.

Note also the Sandpoint train stations's website's advocacy for bringing back the North Coast Hiawatha, a parallel route through the "empty quarter". If you've got time, click the link and download the report. You'll see that for a billion dollars, the price of maybe ten miles of urban light rail line, we can bring back passenger service on over a thousand miles of track and add a 2nd daily train on the "Builder's route across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Washington. And that billion dollar number is high, probably derived by adding up Amtrak's and all the particpating railroad's "wish lists". So we have the potential to duplicate the "Builder's success on more routes.

Back to Florence and Tyler and all the other little towns out here on the prairie. We have the same resources here that have made the 'Builder a success- excellent and underused tracks and a population hungry for rail travel. The BNSF line to MSP has already made MNDOT's list of potential passenger routes. But it didn't receive a 1st tier funding priority, although even republican legislators have supported passenger service from Minneapolis to Willmar. The notorious east-west DM&E line is improving under CP ownership. We used to joke that DM&E stood for "Derailments Made Everyday", and at times they were. The tracks were so bad that you could pace DM&E trains on a bicycle. Not anymore... been a long time since I've heard of a derailment, and the trains now move at a steady 40 MPH. I'd have to do some reckless driving to keep up with them on slippery parallel US 14 today! The DM&E line runs west from Winona where it meets the 'Builder, passes through hot for passenger rail Rochester, and runs west through Mankato, New Ulm, Tyler, Brookings, Huron, Pierre, Rapid City, and a bit beyond. Both BNSF and CP have a well deserved reputation for playing fair with Amtrak and commuter rail agencies... pay for their costs of hosting passenger trains and we could restore service for less than the cost of one NEC tunnel (but that tunnel should be built too). Around the country we have hundreds of freight rail lines ready to host passenger trains again... If we have the will to do it.

All Aboard!

Originally posted to RuralRoute on Mon Nov 22, 2010 at 12:05 PM PST.

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