RED WING — Rail advocates met online Thursday to talk about a proposed second Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago passenger train.

Hosted by the Great River Rail Commission, the public discussion began with a presentation about what a second daily train from St. Paul to Chicago – with Southeast Minnesota stops in Red Wing and Winona – would mean in terms of costs and benefits.

The last step in getting the new passenger train to happen is a $10 million commitment from the state of Minnesota.

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Currently, the proposed passenger train project has financial commitments of $6.2 million from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, $5 million from Amtrak, and $31.8 million from a federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant, all to cover the proposed $53 million in capital improvements needed to accommodate the second passenger train. There is also a $12.6 million commitment to help with the first three years of operating costs via a federal grant.

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"Right now, if we can get $10 million we could make $40 million in (track and station) improvements here in Minnesota," said Paul Drotos, a member of the commission and a Goodhue County commissioner.

Paul Drotos
Paul Drotos

Drotos asked people to call their state representatives to advocate for the rail project, saying that unless lawmakers hear from people asking for the second passenger train, "They won’t really know what we think."

Kevin Roggenbuck, a senior transportation planner for Ramsey County and a commission member, said the second passenger train comes with a host of benefits far beyond a second option for rail passengers.

A second train would add economic growth through more access to travel and by improving the tracks for freight trains. Planned track improvements, he said, would allow freight to move more quickly through choke points on the rail lines. Since it costs $1,200 an hour to operate a freight train, on average, the quicker a freight train moves, the lower the cost of that freight.

The greater access to travel could mean more tourists to Red Wing and Winona, with tourists spending an average of $200 a trip on local businesses, according to the state tourism board, he said.

In total, the return on investment would be $2.44 for every $1 spent, Roggenbuck said, or "$159 million in economic competitiveness benefits over 30 years."

Those numbers don't include the benefits from increased track safety or the environmental benefits from rail travel, he added.

Dan Krom, a rail planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the second Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago passenger train, which would essentially duplicate the Twin Cities-Chicago section of the Empire Builder train that starts in Seattle, but with a few additional stops, has been in the planning stages for about 10 years.

However, the new train would run only between St. Paul and Chicago, meaning it would be more reliable. And the Empire Builder train, which currently runs just three days a week, would increase to seven days a week along with the new train, meaning passenger options would greatly increase for rail customers, Krom said.

If the state approved the $10 million in the next bonding bill, service could start on the second passenger train as early as 2024.

"We're just waiting for $10 million from the state of Minnesota," Krom said.