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Minnesota rail group pitches new train in Winona

Work continues on efforts to get a second passenger rail train along the Mississippi River that would travel from St. Paul to Chicago. Amtrak’s Empire Builder route provides daily round-trip service to and from Chicago, with stops in Red Wing and Winona, where passengers loaded Friday morning.

WINONA — Representatives from All Aboard Minnesota and Amtrak spoke to a crowd of about 30 Tuesday afternoon at the Winona County Historical Society about plans to bring a second train to Winona.

The city is now served twice daily by the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle and back. The leg between the Twin Cities and Chicago includes stops in Red Wing and Winona; six Wisconsin cities, including Milwaukee; and one other stop in Illinois.

The new added train service would run between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago but at a six-hour difference from the schedule of the current service, said Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota.

"What’s nice is you can use the new service one way and the Empire Builder the other way," he said. "So it just gives you a lot more options."

"The key thing I want to drive home is how important frequency is," said Derrick James, a representative of Amtrak who also addressed the group.


More arrivals and departures make the system more convenient to use, and that brings more people to the trains. "You start to see an exponential benefit not only for the traveler but the communities."

James gave examples of several cities where added train service didn’t spread existing passengers over more trains but increased overall ridership. In fact, he said, Amtrak’s fares pay for more than 90 percent of the company’s annual operating expenses.

What All Aboard Minnesota and Amtrak were hoping for Tuesday was to get support to finish the phase II environmental assessment and do the design work needed to add the additional route.

"Once phase II is done, we’re getting really, really close," Nelson said, adding that if funding to complete phase II is approved this year by the Minnesota Legislature, new service could begin somewhere between 2020 and 2022.

But that funding looks like it might not make it out of committees at this point, he said, so he encouraged people to contact their legislators to ask for the $4 million in bonding money needed to complete this portion of the project.

Most in attendance seemed supportive of the idea, though Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward said even with all the benefits AAM and Amtrak touted, there were some drawbacks.

"It really seems to be an economic benefit for the outside people who are coming here for vacationing or maybe going to the cultural events or the colleges," she said.

However, she said, the true costs of the train for the taxpayers and consumers isn’t clear. For example, once you arrive at a train station, there would be a cost to get to a final destination, either via taxi, public transportation or some other mode of travel.


For the taxpayers, she said, there are only so many transportation dollars available from the state. "Who gets shorted on this, the county or the township?" she asked. "I don’t know."

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