Thoughts on Amtrak

Unfortunately, this is not the train we rode.

Somewhat unbelievably, it’s taken me 30+ years to ride Amtrak.  I’m not sure if that says something about it’s viability, or something about my lack of cultural experience.  You be the judge.

After riding the Empire Builder to Chicago and back for the Memorial Day weekend, here are some initial thoughts:

  • Once you ride this route, you’ll yearn for high speed rail.  If it were only an hour or two faster, it would be competitive with the automobile and thus much more attractive.  I’ll leave the cost-benefit discussion of that upgrade for smarter folks and later posts.
  • It’s better than air travel (at this distance). No security checks, no arriving early at the airport, and much less of a cattle car feeling.  Seats are large, legroom is ample, and there is an observation car where a National Park Service employee gives you a guided tour of the landscape.
  • It’s slow. You just have to be ready for that.  It took 9.5 hours on the way down, because we left a little late and freight trains blocked us on a number of occasions.
  • I wouldn’t want to ride it overnight.  While comfortable, sitting in any seat overnight is not pleasant.  The looks on the faces of passengers getting off at Minneapolis from points west in the early morning confirmed my feeling.  A sleeper car would be a must.
  • The food is actually pretty good.  Just stay away from the prepackaged stuff in the cafe car.  Beer is even reasonably priced.
  • Arriving downtown is great, especially in Chicago.  The CTA system is one of the most uncomfortable transit systems I’ve ever ridden, so stepping off Amtrak downtown and avoiding the blue line from O’Hare is great.
  • It has too many stops.  Stopping in both Red Wing and Winona seems excessive and the Portage and Columbus stops seem like they could be done away with without a significant loss of ridership.  Perhaps these stops are an artifact of the historic route, or some requirement of federal funding, I’m not sure.
  • There are a lot of at-grade crossings.  This probably slows down the train (and car traffic).
  • Based on my two observations, there was lots of demand.  The train was very full both ways, and on the way back there must have been thirty cars total.

Is a fast train to Chicago fast enough, or do we need real “high-speed”?


The Strib tackles the question of whether new rail service between Minneapolis and Chicago is really going to be fast enough.  As you may already know, the proposed line to Chicago will not travel at a European-style 200+ miles per hour, it will cruise along at 78, possibly reaching 110 in some stretches.  The current Amtrak line averages 54.  The Strib pegs the total trip at 5:21 hours for the “fast” train and 3:22 for a true “high-speed” system running the same route (not including boarding times).

Since spending $33 billion for a true high speed system seems somewhat out of the question in the current political and economic environment, the question becomes: can a 5 hour train ride (not including boarding and alighting times) compete with the car, the plane and the Megabus?  We’ll start with the two latter options: yes and yes.  The Strib’s graphic says a non-stop car trip takes 6.5 hours and the Megabus takes 8.  If you factor in the traffic jams, general unpleasantness of driving 6+ hours, Illinois drivers, and ever-present worry about who you may get stuck next to on a bus and I’d wager a “fast” train would compete well any day if fares were reasonable (sub $200 round trip).

The plane is the real competitor.  However, unlike the car, the train and the bus, which all have relatively short waiting times for boarding, plane travel can include an extra 1.5 hours on the front end minimum for ticketing, security, and other airport hassles.  So you can effectively double the Strib’s estimate of travel time by plane to 3 hours.  Oh wait, have you ever flown into O’Hare?  It’s an hour from anywhere!  4 hours it is.  Union Station is right downtown.  And while there is no garauntee that new rail service wouldn’t result in increased security at stations, it couldn’t possibly rival the silly and offensive security theater currently perpetrated by the TSA.  Last time I rode the Amtrak from Milwaukee to Chicago there was no metal detectors, no baggage screening and no one asking me to take my 8 month old’s shoes off.  If you assume 30 minutes for ticketing, etc. at the train station you are at 6 hours.  6 hours on a clickety-click, comfortable, pretty-scenery train or 4 hours in a cramped metal tube after being x-rayed and frisked and with only 3.4 ounces of liquid to comfort you?  If the price is right, I think the train wins every time.

Strib weighs in on Minneapolis to Duluth rail project

The Star Tribune says yes to the proposed high-speed rail line between Minnepolis and Duluth.  Some highlights: it may be able to support itself financially if it ran 110 mph and stopped at the Grand Casino in Hinckley, it will cost $400 million, and it would make the trip in two hours (again, assuming 110 mph speeds).

I’m a big supporter of rail, especially the high speed variety, but again I’ll say I think we should complete the first natural spoke in a midwest wheel, which is to Chicago, before we go working on second tier routes like Minneapolis to Duluth.  And seriously, a casino?  That is the destination we’d be counting on to support the line?

Congress approves Midwest high-speed rail – could it really happen?

Midwest Network from MHSR

It only took an energy crisis, a climate crisis and a horrible train accident, but Congress has finally taken a first step towards providing a real transportation alternative.  The House and Senate have both approved a rail safety bill that includes $680 million a year for five years for high speed rail projects.  This same bill includes safety improvements, and doubles Amtrak’s funding to $13 billion over five years.

Of greatest interest to this Chicago-lover is the possibility of high-speed rail in the Midwest.  Always one to provide the bacon for Minnesota (not to be confused with pork), Congressman Oberstar says that this bill could mean a high-speed connection between Chicago and the Twin Cities in the next five years.  That seems like an awfully ambitious timeline, especially given the last sentence in the story, “…matching funds need to come from state and local sources”.  But, if we get some new, pro-rail leadership in the White House in January (McCain’s position, Obama’s position), perhaps things really could start to happen in less than a decade.

One question for the readers, why is a line from Duluth to the Twin Cities a higher priority than the Chicago-Twin Cities line?  Have they already “stud[ied] the impact” of the Chicago route (I assume this means a EIS process)?  Why is Duluth a viable destination for a train line anyway?