MN: Feds map out potential Amtrak routes from Twin Cities to Denver, Phoenix and San Antonio

March 15, 2024
A study detailing the possible restoration of Amtrak long-distance passenger service to these cities and dozens of smaller towns along the way was recently released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is seeking feedback on the plan.

Imagine riding a train from the Twin Cities to Phoenix, San Antonio, Denver or Seattle. Federal rail officials want to know if you think that's a good idea — or not.

A study detailing the possible restoration of Amtrak long-distance passenger service to these cities and dozens of smaller towns along the way was recently released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is seeking feedback on the plan. The idea is to create a long-term vision for rail service and identify what needs to be done to make it happen.

The maps in the plan will likely make train nerds swoon, and naysayers fume.

Count Brian Nelson, president of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Minnesota, in the swooning category.

"It may seem a long ways off, but I think it's the first time that the FRA has come up with a robust proposed structure to really advance long-distance passenger rail in this country," he said. "There's a lot that needs to happen, but it's an exciting step, because it lays out a vision, a plan, and what could be."

Federal officials have already held a series of public forums along with Amtrak and other state and local interested parties on the proposed routes, and more meetings are planned. They say they've unearthed "a widespread desire for restoring long-distance routes and exploring the creation of new ones."

While a report to Congress is expected by year's end, there's no timeline for when any of these routes may start service — if ever. And none of the proposed routes embrace "high-speed" service, like the kind frequently available in Europe and China. The Amtrak Acela fleet in parts of the Northeast corridor is considered high speed rail, as well as the Brightline train between Miami and Orlando in Florida.

The proposed routes that would link the Twin Cities to cities across the Midwest and West include:

— Service with stops in Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Tulsa, Okla.; Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio, Texas.

— Service with stops in Sioux Falls, Pierre, S.D.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Denver, Colo.

— Service with stops in Sioux Falls; Omaha; Kansas City; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, and Phoenix, Ariz.

— Service between Seattle and Chicago, different from the existing Empire Builder route west of Fargo, that includes a stop in the Twin Cities, as well as Fargo, Bismarck, N.D.; Billings and Helena, Mont.; and Spokane, Wash.

The effort came about following the adoption of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, which was pushed by President Joe Biden, nicknamed "Amtrak Joe" for his fervent commute by train while serving in Congress. It directed the FRA to consider how new long-distance routes could bolster connections between cities and promote "economic and social well-being" in rural and tribal areas.

Proposed routes in Minnesota would also likely serve towns along the way. The route from the Twin Cities to San Antonio could stops in Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna and Albert Lea. "That's quite a bit of support in southern Minnesota," Nelson said.

Currently, the Empire Builder — service between Chicago and Seattle or Portland with a stop at St. Paul's Union Depot — is the only Amtrak service available in Minnesota. Plans are edging forward for passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, with Amtrak as the likely operator.

FRA officials note additional analysis is needed, so the regions and cities currently mapped out could change.

"Everywhere we go in the state for meetings, there is a lot of interest and people are excited about it," Nelson said. "There's a large contingent of people who don't want or can't fly or drive. We believe the demand is there."

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