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.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 6)

The New York Times is highlighting the proposed freeway-style Stillwater bridge in their Room for Debate series.  They are calling it “Bachmann’s Bridge”, even though Senator Al Franken and Governor Dayton both support it.  I suppose since she is now a Republican front-runner she gets the cheers/jeers.

Former Senator Mondale sums things up:

At $700 million, this bridge, the largest and most expensive in Minnesota history, would carry about 18,000 vehicles a day. By comparison, the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis carries more than 10 times the number of vehicles and was a fraction of the cost to build. This bridge would consume nearly all of the available financing in Minnesota to build or repair bridges, leaving almost 1,200 structurally deficient bridges wanting for funds. Both states have endorsed this bridge during Minnesota’s well-publicized state budget shutdown, and without investigating less harmful, less expensive and more sensible alternatives that respect the river, address commuters’ needs, and cost hundreds of millions less to the taxpayer.

Congress should employ its common sense.

I realize my Stillwater bridge series is missing a post on the “Sensible Stillwater Bridge” organization that has started up.  Basically, they are advocating for a lower, slower bridge with three lanes instead of four.  It would supposedly save 60% of the cost of the “boondoggle” bridge.  They don’t have a proper website, but you can see renderings of their proposal on their facebook page.  They also have a twitter account.

I asked the Sensible Bridge Partnership about tolling, and for now, they don’t seem to have an opinion.  I think tolling should be part of any “sensible” plan for a new bridge, and could even be a selling point to skeptical Minnesotans.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge

David Levinson (The Transportationist) on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin:

I think building a four lane bridge to replace a two lane bridge does not fully count as “preservation”, but rather as “expansion”. Given the state of the network, and the need to give priority to preservation, a four lane bridge violates that principal. As to whether a four lane bridge passes a B/C test, or better yet, a market test of whether a private firm would build it, the answer is clearly no. This four-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it. That should tell you something about its true necessity. The Franken article cited above suggested Wisconsin wasn’t interested in funding it. Since the majority of benefits for the bridge accrue to Wisconsin land owners, it makes no sense for Minnesota to lead on this.


Midwest HSR/Stimulus run-down

I’ve been collecting articles since mid-February, so this post is way overdue.

Remember when Congress approved $680 million a year for high speed rail projects?  Well that’s peanuts now, with the stimulus bringing in $8 billion.  Back then, Oberstar said Chicago to the Twin Cities could happen in 5 years.

As usual, NYT has the best rundown of the details.  Autopia also has a little more analysis.  The Boston Globe talks to some people who say that HSR will be tough to get started in the US because of our old friends low gas prices (love of foreign oil?) and low population density (also wide open spaces and a lack of historic government support).  Governor Jim Doyle went to Spain, rode their ultra-fast trains and declared a Chicago-Minnesota route possible “within 5 to 10 years“.  Finally, feeling left out, the Hennepin County Board last week approved a resolution asking that proposals be developed to include Minneapolis in high-speed plans (current plans have the line ending at Saint Paul’s soon-to-be-renovated Union Depot).

If $680 million = Chicago-TC HSR route in 5 years, shouldn’t $8 billion = Chicago-TC route in 5 months?