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.

New Year News – Trains, Plans, and Automobiles (miles traveled)

What with the holidays and all, Net Density has been on a bit of a hiatus.  Many pieces of news dropped while I was enjoying some relaxation, and in order to catch up I simply don’t have time to give them all the detail they deserve.  So, instead of skipping them altogether, I’ll try to cover them all, giving a few of my editorial comments for each.

A draft of the Minneapolis North Loop Small Area Plan was completed and put out for public comment, with a twist.  You can edit the document directly using a wiki, which the city and the neighborhood hope will encourage more participation.  Put me in the skeptical camp. Wikis work best when with a small audience who is very knowledgeable about the topic, or a really large audience (see Wikipedia) where the size of the audience enables content to be vetted and inaccurate information to be weeded out.  The North Loop plan wiki may see a small audience, which will mean little peer review, and they will also likely be unaware of the requirements for plan content.

TransForm, a transportation policy advocacy group from the Bay area, has released its GreenTRIP rating system to fill the gaps in LEED ND and rank developments based on their ability to reduce VMT.  I say hoorah for the premise, we need to tackle VMT to address climate change and other issues, but do we need another rating system?  How about some regulation?

Saint Paul adopted a requirement that all new buildings projects which receive $200,000 or more in city funding must meet the standards of one of seven ratings systems such as LEED. Projects must meet Minnesota Sustainble Buildings 2030 energy standards.  Saint Paul is a model.  Any development that receives public dollars should at least meet these basic energy requirements when the payoffs (and paybacks) are so obvious and available.

Last, but certainly not least, MNDOT released its statewide Passenger and Freight Rail Plan.  The plan lays out near and long-term corridor priorities and shockingly (or maybe not shockingly) does not clearly pick the river route as a winner for high-speed rail to Chicago.  The alignment saga will continue, but if MNDOT’s cost-effectiveness figures are correct, building a link to Chicago makes good sense (and not just because of the lack of full-body scanners).

Welcome to 2010!  I hope your best laid plans all reach the implementation stage this year!

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.

Do you care which route the Southwest Transitway takes?

The two choices in Minneapolis

Hennepin County is now accepting comments for the Scoping stage of the Draft EIS on the Southwest Transitway light rail line.  Submit comments online, or at the final Scoping Meeting on October 23rd.  If you care about the alignment in Minneapolis, tell them what you think.  I’m holding back my opinion (see note below), although you may be able to guess which route I prefer.  2015 is not that far away (we’ll be halfway through Obama’s second term), and once this piece of infrastructure is in the ground, it ain’t moving for a very long time.

The image above is of the two possible routes in Minneapolis.  One would basically follow the Cedar Lake Trail into downtown and connect with the rest of the system at the “intermodal” station near the news Twins Ballpark.  The second would go through Uptown on the Midtown Greenway and turn left at Nicollet, connecting to the rest of the system at Fourth Street downtown.

Full disclosure: Bonestroo (the firm I work for) is currently part of a team working on station-area planning for Southwest Transitway stations outside of Minneapolis (Saint Louis Park to Eden Prairie).

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?