MOORHEAD — Approval has been given to run a second daytime passenger train from the Twin Cities to Chicago this week, and the leader of a train advocacy group said expanding the added train to Fargo-Moorhead may be next.
Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, said adding the route to the metro area and possibly even Grand Forks is in the top tier of train projects ranked by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
He believes approval of funding from the Minnesota Legislature for the second train to Chicago will have "a domino effect" that he said could be good news for the route to the border here, as well as a Duluth to Minneapolis train.
"I think it's going to be highly successful right out of the gate," Nelson said about the ridership numbers on the train that will leave eastbound from the Twin Cities at 11:30 a.m. on its 411-mile journey. It will arrive in Chicago at 7 p.m. That will join an earlier Amtrak Empire Builder train that leaves at 8 a.m. and arrives in Chicago at 2:15 p.m.
The new route is expected to start in 2024.
The return trips on the second train will leave Chicago at 10:30 a.m. and arrive in Minneapolis at 5:30 p.m. Currently, the Empire Builder leaves Chicago at 2:15 pm. and arrives in Minneapolis at 10 p.m.
Although it will likely take about three years to get the second train operating if funding is obtained, Nelson said, the added route to Fargo-Moorhead could be planned and worked on concurrently with the other route.
"We'll be lobbying for the second train to Fargo-Moorhead," he said.
Currently, the train stopping at the Fargo Amtrak depot heads east at 2:18 a.m. if it's on time and arrives in the Twin Cities at 7:43 a.m. Going westbound on its journey through northern North Dakota on its way to the West Coast, the train leaves at 3:24 a.m.
Thus, another train at a later hour would be much more convenient for area travelers.
The reason for the rather lengthy three-year wait to have the second train operating, Nelson said, is because there needs to be a lot of work on a bottleneck on the Canadian Pacific line in the Winona, Minn., area, in addition to needed improvements near the Milwaukee airport and depot.
The work across the CP line will include track, crossing, switching and grade improvements.
MnDOT has been working hand-in-hand with Wisconsin transportation planners, and if the F-M route is added Nelson suspects they will be working with the North Dakota Department of Transportation, too.
While the Amtrak Empire Builder is expected to receive the contract to run the second train, Nelson said, there could be competitors.
Another selling point for adding Fargo-Moorhead to the route, Nelson said, is the "excellent condition" of the Burlington Northern rail line.
It's "one of the best pieces of railroad in the United States," he said, citing safe crossings, signaling and double tracks.
When BNSF was asked about the possibility of using its track that runs diagonally across Minnesota from Moorhead to Minneapolis, spokesperson Lydia Bjorge's comments weren't quite so positive.
In an email, she said, "BNSF has long-standing passenger principles that guide discussions on hosting passenger projects on our property. Our considerations include safety and protecting current and future freight customers in North Dakota and the rest of our network.
"Adding additional passenger service would require careful planning and discussion on how to ensure current and future freight service for our agricultural, energy and other customers," she said.
Nelson and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., believe the rail upgrades will help freight traffic business.
Klobuchar, who weighed in on the funding approved for the second train in a statement, said the added passenger trains would "boost travel and tourism while expanding economic growth in our region."
She said it will provide "convenient access to jobs, cultural attractions, top universities and world-class health care and better connect smaller urban and rural communities."
She said the rail upgrades should boost on-time performance for both passenger and freight trains.
The added trains will eventually come down to funding, as Nelson believes the "demand is there," especially with demographics showing younger people, perhaps college students, would be some of the more common riders.
That, too, makes the Fargo-Moorhead area attractive because of the three universities.
Nelson said a $25 million bill early in the Minnesota legislative session was pared down to $10 million. The Minnesota legislative aid this year will be added to a $32 million federal grant provided last year for the rail upgrades to allow the second train.
If Congress can approve its federal infrastructure bill this year, Nelson said, that could also be a major factor to speed up any passenger train expansions.