High-Speed Rail to Where?

The state of Minnesota is seriously considering spending $400 million on a high-speed rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth. Duluth? Come on. The Duluth-Superior urbanized area only has about 120,000 people. Duluth isn’t even a part of the Midwest regional rail plan, an ambitious plan to run high-speed passenger trains between Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.

A new study says that the Duluth line will cost a bit more than anticipated — $400 million instead of the $350 million estimated a couple of month ago. But proponents insist that the line will generate billions in economic development, reduce congestion, and be environmentally friendly. Yeah, right.

Of course, press reports about the study precede the release of the study itself, so the public can hear all the wild claims about economic development and other benefits before anyone reviews the study in detail. Here are just a few things reviewers should think about.

First of all, just what do they mean by “high-speed rail”? European trains commonly run 160 mph. But in the U.S., high-speed rail means no more — and usually less — than 110 miles per hour. That’s about how fast Amtrak goes in a few places between Boston and Washington. Back in the 1970s, I used to ride Amtrak trains that went nearly that fast on the Santa Fe Railway between Chicago and Kansas City, but I understand that line, like pretty much all other passenger routes outside of the BosWash corridor, is now limited to 79 mph.

I strongly suspect that the Duluth line will go no faster than 79 mph, the usual standard for passenger rail. Upgrading a 150-mile rail line to 110-mph standards is going to cost a lot more than a mere $400 million. At 79 mph, when you count station stops and all the places where the train will run at lower speeds, Minnesotans will be lucky to have a train that averages 50 mph.

Second, what evidence is there that a train line anchored by an urban area of 120,000 people on one end is going go generate billions in economic development? Outside the BosWash corridor, can proponents point to one rail line in the U.S. that has generated such development? Or any development at all? Back when Amtrak offered train service to Duluth, I rode the line a couple of times. I don’t recall seeing any signs of economic development stimulated by few dozen passengers who were on board the train with me.

Third, given that the train is certain to be pulled by particulate and NOx-spewing Diesel locomotives, is there any evidence that such a train is going to be more environmentally friendly than, say, buses along the same route?

Fourth, proponents point to the “Hinckley factor,” referring to a small town between Minneapolis and Duluth that has a popular casino. Certainly, the casino is excited about the idea of Uncle Sam subsidizing transportation for its patrons. Is there any reason why anyone else should be? When many other casinos offer unsubsidized bus service to their patrons, why should the Hinckley casino get a heavily subsidized train?

Fifth, what about freight service in the corridor? A Missouri newspaper points out that the Kansas City-St. Louis rail corridor is so congested with freight that passenger service has often been delayed and Amtrak has lost 15 percent of its patrons. Rail passenger advocates say that the freight railroads should knuckle down and make sure passenger trains run on time, but they fail to understand the trade off.

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America’s system is run mainly for freight. Europe’s rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway’s share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto’s share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.

The problem is that running passenger trains at 79 miles per hour on the same tracks as freight trains that typically run at 30 to 50 miles per hour creates all kinds of headaches for rail dispatchers and delays for the passenger, freight, or both. Unlike highway vehicles, trains can’t pass one another at will; they need special passing tracks. I doubt that the $400 million Minnesota wants to spend on the Duluth line is going to double-track the entire line.

The thing that makes Minnesota so eager to spend $400 million or more on rail is that it expects most of the money to come from the federal government. After all, U.S. Representative Jim Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, is from Minnesota. Oberstar has used the Minneapolis bridge collapse to argue that auto drivers need to pay higher gas taxes for “infrastructure,” but clearly his goal is to skim 40 to 50 percent of any gas tax increase for rail fantasies like a line to Duluth.

This is exactly what is wrong with our transportation system today. Instead of spending money based on a clear system of priorities — such as safety and efficiency — it is being spent based on political power and pork barrel.


8 thoughts on “High-Speed Rail to Where?

  1. TexanOkie

    This haas nothing to do with the content of this post, but it seems the quality of writing seems a bit lower than usual, Randal. It doesn’t quite match your usual writing style. Just fyi.

  2. MJ

    This idea was originally pitched to the state’s citizens last year as potentially costing around $120 million. It wasn’t a good idea then. I’ll give the planners the benefit of the doubt and assume that they implied a system that would run at a top speed of 79 mph. A couple of months ago it was revealed that the cost would be around $350 million, and that the trains would be designed to achieve maximum speeds of 125 mph. This was “needed” in order to get the ridership numbers up to about 800,000 per year. Nevermind the principles of marginal analysis.

    The timing of this post was fortuitous, as a recall commenting yesterday about Oberstar’s preferences for the pork barrel. For those unfamiliar with the region, Oberstar’s district covers much of northeastern MN, including the Duluth area and the chronically unemployed Iron Range cities.

    As prk noted, it is surprising that the original proposal did not extend further to the Iron Range, which is about 50-60 miles NW of Duluth, though I did hear rumblings that some locals wanted to extend the line about 25 miles further up the Superior shore to the small resort town of Two Harbors.

  3. Veddie Edder

    I had a few friends in the Twin Cities area years ago whose families had summer houses in Duluth. I guess the Duluth area is sort of like the Hamptons for the Minneapolis well-to-do? It strikes me that the problem of train service to and from a small city like Duluth is: what, pray tell, does the train passenger arriving in Duluth do to get around when he gets off the train? Ok, so great you don’t need a car to get from St. Paul to Duluth, but unless you plan on making your trip to Duluth a tour of areas within a couple blocks of the train platform, you’re likely to need a car once you get there anyway. People may not realize this when they support idiotic measures like this train line in theory, but they will surely become aware of it once they start actually planning their trips. People are not going to drive to a train station, park their cars, take a train for a short trip, and then rent some other car. You have to have a trip of serious distance to make this a useful travel paradigm, and it’s unlikely that Minneapolis – Duluth is going to cut it. At the distances where this paradigm works, it’s likely that air travel would be a faster alternative anyway. I think you need a sweet spot where rail supplants a 4-5 hour car trip and can get people to a city center quick. It makes little sene to take a train from Chicago to say Milwaukee if I have to rent a cra in Milwaukee, unless that train is going to hit some blazing speed. Chicago – St. Louis starts to make more snese, but then you’re in a race with Southwest out of Midway.

    I’m surprised Oberstar has the energy for this. I thought he was focusing his efforts on stopping states from creating new toll roads. Between this rail line and preventing construction of Texas toll roads, I’m sure every bridge in America will now last 1,000 years.

  4. Veddie Edder

    One more thought: Why not Des Moines? If they are planning on wasting half a billion dollars, why not get two states’ congressional delegations to back the plan? Des Moines has an actual population center with a real metro area and it isn’t too much further away from the Twin Cities than Duluth, just back of the envelope from looking at a map. They might want to use federal dollars for actual interstate travel. Maybe I shouldn’t be giving Oberstar any ideas though.

  5. Pingback: European Rail versus American Rail

  6. the highwayman

    It’s a good idea to restore passenger train service in general. Though high speed rail service would be better off from the Twin Cities towards Chicago.

    Cheers, Andrew

  7. davidmn

    The train from Milwaukee to Chicago is better than driving–try driving that route sometime during rush hour. Chicago’s traffic in general is a nightmare, so taking the train (especially if it’s just a single traveler) often saves time over driving, even with the speed restrictions, stops, etc. It’s about 75 minutes on the train usually, versus easily 90 minutes driving.

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