Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

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Viktor Vaughn
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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby Viktor Vaughn » December 14th, 2012, 11:56 am

min-chi-cbus wrote:Yes, you're right....I didn't take any "end of the world" scenarios into play. How foolish and short-sighted of me!
Nor did I. I only pointed out that we are using temporary economic factors to evaluate longterm investments as if they were static. The need to diversify our transportation system and energy sources is necessary because the status quo we rely on is so precarious. In just the last two years, a series of business-friendly autocratics in oil producing countries have fallen like dominos. Preparing for supply disruptions has nothing to do with doomsday end of the world scenarios, but rather is necessary to adjust to new political realities.
min-chi-cbus wrote:My one and only point is that I think we (the public) need to know what the options are and vet them out appropriately instead of just getting the typical "take it or leave it" we get from the higher-ups (govt. in this case). I just don't want to over-invest in something that has a (rather) incremental impact on time IF a better technology is (again) incrementally (and not exponentially) more expensive and just around the corner. I support HSR very much, otherwise!
I completely agree with this point. It took me a few years to come around to the idea that incremental improvements to passenger rail are the right thing to do. I also have concerns that half-assing a project could prevent the real thing from ever getting built. See the Northstar line anchored by a corn field. Or the upcoming potential folly of building a useless streetcar *starter* segment...

mattaudio
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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby mattaudio » December 14th, 2012, 12:12 pm

Why settle for the risk of fragile systems when we can build antifragile systems? To be a Talebian...

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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » December 14th, 2012, 7:58 pm

Jumping back to mattaudio's question from the previous page:
mattaudio wrote:Anyways, what if there was [a true HSR] alignment that went east from Rochester to Winona, then crossed over the Missisippi at Winona? Following the east side of the river to La Crosse might save some time. No idea.
That's an interesting thought. The Chicago & North Western used to cross at Winona, though that bridge is gone now and big chunks of the track east of there have been taken up. An odd legacy of the line is a short stretch of Union Pacific-owned track in Winona itself which is isolated from the rest of the UP network.

I'm not sure how easy/hard it would be to have both Winona and La Crosse on the line -- the most fully-fledged concepts of true HSR skip Winona in favor of going direct to La Crosse. A line going down the east side could benefit from the big flat expanse around Trempeleau, though I wonder if that's a floodplain... However, any speed gains you might get from that flat area could be negated by goofing off trying to find a good path through La Crosse. The current Amtrak station is in a fairly strange spot -- not very central to the city, though only around a mile and a half north of downtown. I'm guessing the old CB&Q station was somewhere near the downtown, though tracks have been partially ripped out there. The existing BNSF line cuts through the eastern edge of the city. The Chicago & North Western line had a station in neighboring Onalaska to the north.

One suggestion I've heard for a route to Madison has been to continue down the Mississippi to Prairie Du Chien and follow the Wisconsin River valley to the capital city. Unfortunately that corridor isn't very well-populated compared to the I-90/I-94 corridor, so that might not be a good idea. Then again, it might not matter if we're talking about a service that would run non-stop through those towns anyway. It would open up some other options for getting into Madison that wouldn't require the sharply-turning Yahara Station.

But if Winona and La Crosse together isn't feasible, I hope someone will decide that it's a good idea to run a service across southern MN -- a Mankato - Owatonna - Rochester - Winona - La Crosse train seems like a good idea to me, though I'm biased since I grew up along that line.

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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby woofner » December 15th, 2012, 3:35 pm

I would tend to doubt that Winona is large enough to warrant an HSR stop, except that there does seem to be a fair amount of college students there - looks like around 15,000 at St Mary's and WSU which seems to be about the same as UW La Crosse and Viterbo. Of course those numbers are dwarfed by the number of students in the Twin Cities and Madison, not to mention Chicago, but it maybe is an indication of the difficulty planners have in choosing which towns get a stop and which don't.

One thing to consider in Madison is that many or most of the crossings are at grade - I'm not even sure it would be possible to grade separate the line that comes in from the west since it has such a narrow ROW and is in such a dense neighborhood. So while Yahara isn't ideally situated, if it saves a billion dollars it might be worth it.
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mattaudio
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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby mattaudio » December 15th, 2012, 5:24 pm

I wasn't necessarily arguing that Winona was deserving of a stop, but merely that it might be a good location for HSR from Roch to cross the river into Wisconsin. There used to be two (or maybe more) rail crossings in the Winona area.

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Re: Intercity rail to Chicago

Postby UptownSport » December 15th, 2012, 6:57 pm


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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » January 8th, 2013, 9:23 am

Late in December, Amtrak released a performance improvement plan document for five of their best-performing long-distance routes, including the Empire Builder. There are some interesting statistics in it, including things like average travel distance and the top 10 origin-destination pairs (CHI-MSP is #1, with 8%. The top 10 O-D pairs only account for 28% of total travel on the line, though I know there are over 900 possible trip combinations, so some individual trips are probably very rare).

The most interesting planned improvement is the re-establishment of bus service from Grand Forks to Winnipeg in order to facilitate connections between the Empire Builder and Via Rail's Canadian and the Winnipeg-Churchill train. (And, well, simply making it easier to get to Winnipeg.)

The only other recommendation they made for the route was to do more promotion of the Big Sky Ski Resort near Whitefish, Montana. A few other ideas they looked at had been discarded, mostly due to cost concerns. The two ideas carried forward should have positive effects on the bottom line, though.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby ECtransplant » January 8th, 2013, 7:55 pm

Just booked a trip to Chicago. It was about 15% cheaper to fly. That and I don't spend the whole day traveling. Not sure how Amtrak gets away charging that much for what it offers. Hell, I could spend $15 each way and get there in the same amount of time as Amtrak on Megabus -- and have lots of options on when to depart! This corridor is in need of some serious upgrades

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Andrew_F
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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Andrew_F » January 9th, 2013, 9:46 am

When you have multiple large bags, enjoy riding and supporting trains, and enjoy spending half a day reading in a comfortable seat while watching Wisconsin slide by the window, it makes a lot of sense.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby ECtransplant » January 9th, 2013, 10:10 am

Unless you're a 20 year old girl or traveling for more than a month a carry on and personal item should be more than sufficient. I like trains. I rode Amtrak all the time when I lived on the east coast and take various line when I go back out there. But the train needs to be competitive on price and travel time for me, and I suspect for others like me, to consider it. I'd also consider an aerial view of the Chicago skyline far superior to anything you can see in Wisconsin.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Andrew_F » January 9th, 2013, 11:19 am

Thanks for that.

People are, in fact, allowed to enjoy different things than you. Whether that's pursuing activities that require them to bring large quantities of stuff (or things than cannot be carried legally onto a plane) with them when they travel or preferring different scenery.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby talindsay » January 9th, 2013, 4:23 pm

ECtransplant wrote:Unless you're a 20 year old girl or traveling for more than a month a carry on and personal item should be more than sufficient. I like trains. I rode Amtrak all the time when I lived on the east coast and take various line when I go back out there. But the train needs to be competitive on price and travel time for me, and I suspect for others like me, to consider it. I'd also consider an aerial view of the Chicago skyline far superior to anything you can see in Wisconsin.
Classy.

Regarding cost, keep in mind that Amtrak's tickets follow a strict rate schedule (and are also redeemable for cash, unlike airline tickets). The rate schedule means that the last few seats on a given Amtrak train are quite expensive - and that makes sense. The first seats are quite inexpensive, so while Amtrak is rarely affordable for last-minute plans, it's quite reasonable if you buy your tickets a while in advance. Also, I believe that the day-of-travel tickets are sold first-come at the ticket window at the original lowest price, though I've never had the guts to wait until the day of travel and risk not getting a ticket.

I wouldn't take Amtrak any time that I have a tight business-travel schedule; but then, that's not really why the Empire Builder runs, and they regularly sell out the train doing things just the way they do them so I don't think they're too concerned about it. For family travel, and for times when schedule allows, it's a much more comfortable way to go - and personally I enjoy the downtime.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby FISHMANPET » January 9th, 2013, 8:02 pm

I took the EB from MSP to Portland. We got a sleeper car, and it was a pretty good experience. Our car attendent didn't know how to operate the intercom in our room. We learned from a couple at the complimentary wine tasting that the "radio" in your room has to be tuned to channel 1 to hear the intercom.

I've also heard quite a bit about the House Transportation committe railing Amtrak for food service costs. Our train was about 4 hours late arriving in Minneapolis, and then by morning we were 4-6 hours late. We ate breakfast with a couple that was going to Devil's lake (a trip they make often), which is scheduled to arrive around 6:30 AM. But we were hours late so at 9:30 they were still on board having breakfast, and since they had a room, their breakfast was included. I'm sure Amtrak's pricing for cabins includes the expected cost of a meal, and a cabin that isn't scheduled to be in use during a meal time isn't going to be charged for a meal, so that's probably one spot where Amtrak is losing money.

I'm also curious about cost recovery for sleeper cabins. EB has 79% cost recovery last I heard, but I'm hoping for sleepers it's better. I don't want to cost the taxpayers too much.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby LRV Op Dude » March 2nd, 2013, 5:58 am

Record Amtrak ridership in Twin Cities
Despite infrequent service and early morning and late-night arrivals and departures, Amtrak ridership hit an all-time high in the Twin Cities last year.
More than 120,500 passengers boarded or stepped off the Empire Builder at St. Paul’s Midway Station in 2012, an increase of 19 percent since 1997, according to a report issued Friday by the Brookings Institution.
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Re: Empire Builder

Postby twincitizen » March 2nd, 2013, 10:50 am

19% since 1997. Not to be a hater, but how much has the metro area population increased since 1997? I just hate misleading statistics like that.

I have yet to try Amtrak, but I hope to soon. I'd expect that having a proper train station, even if in the wrong city, will cause a small spike in ridership. When are they expected to know if a second daily train to Chicago will be added?

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » March 2nd, 2013, 3:00 pm

Here's the report that generated the news over the past couple of days. I'm still digging into it.

1997 was a low point for Amtrak, so it may be disingenuous to start there, though it was also the year when a major piece of reform legislation passed. Here's a graph I made for system-wide ridership from Amtrak's inception through 2010 (I should post an update at some point -- they reached 31 million last year):

Image
Amtrak ridership 1972 to 2010 by Mulad, on Flickr

I don't think the Empire Builder has seen ridership go up as quickly as the system as a whole, but the frequency of service has remained daily. I'm pretty sure we have the busiest stop for a station that only sees one train per direction per day. The only exceptions I've found are the endpoints of the Auto Train, which runs non-stop between the D.C. suburbs and Florida (poke at long-distance train numbers for a while, and the Auto Train tends to be the exception for many measures).

I made this map last month showing ridership at stations all across the Amtrak system:

Image
amtrak-ridership-2012-03-06 by Mulad, on Flickr

A point I've been trying to make with the map is that ridership is pretty closely tied to frequency of service all across the country. It doesn't look like a standard population density map at all -- The Empire Builder actually looks very good in comparison to the other western routes (the once-daily California Zephyr and Southwest Chief, and the thrice-weekly Sunset Limited along the southern border). That's more or less backward from what you'd expect, especially since there aren't any major metropolitan areas between the Twin Cities and the west coast along the Empire Builder route, while (for instance) the California Zephyr hits both Denver and Salt Lake City.

I imagine the only way we'd see ridership increase from Saint Paul more than another 20% or so would be if more trains run. We could certainly do better with the current train if it could arrive and depart on time more consistently (particularly eastbound), though taking a thorough look at the route to see if any connecting bus routes could be added, advertised, and/or integrated into the Amtrak ticketing system would also be a good idea. Amtrak suggested that they'll add a bus route between Grand Forks and Winnipeg soon, but I'm not sure if that's actually progressing or not. Some bus routes have been added in Wisconsin in recent years, though I don't know how popular they are. (I still haven't taken an intercity bus in the U.S. -- the idea of being dropped off in a McDonald's parking lot next to the highway doesn't really appeal to me. If buses are to be taken seriously, they need decent infrastructure too.)

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Matt » March 2nd, 2013, 5:10 pm

twincitizen wrote:19% since 1997. Not to be a hater, but how much has the metro area population increased since 1997? I just hate misleading statistics like that.

I have yet to try Amtrak, but I hope to soon. I'd expect that having a proper train station, even if in the wrong city, will cause a small spike in ridership. When are they expected to know if a second daily train to Chicago will be added?
Population in the 7 county area has grown 8.8% since 2000 (and 25.5% since 1990). No data that I could find had the 1997 population estimates. Not sure if this link will actually work, but this is the source I used: http://stats.metc.state.mn.us/data_down ... vel=region

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby FISHMANPET » March 4th, 2013, 10:07 am

Amtrak Thruway takes you to the train station, not some random parking lot. They're timed against the train, so if your train is late getting to a Thruway station, the bus waits. Apparently it's done wonders for Amtrak in California. The incremental cost of one more passenger on a bus or train is pretty close to zero once you've paid for the bus and train.

Though this doesn't work so well on a long distance train that's often full, so additional capacity means longer trains or more frequency, both with a higher fixed cost.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » March 4th, 2013, 11:51 am

Well, I was talking about intercity bus service in general, and typically about the opposite end of the trip out in a small town (and even some not-so-small ones). Just look through Jefferson Lines' list of stops, which is loaded with restaurants, filling stations, and convenience stores. Certainly there are cities and towns with substantial transit centers, such as in St. Cloud. But many other places don't have them -- Rochester, for instance.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Andrew_F » March 4th, 2013, 2:53 pm

I take Megabus/Coach USA a few times a year, and have taken Greyhound in the past. When I take a bus, it's not because it is reliable, fast, fun, or anything of the sort-- it's merely because of the price, and I'm sure that's true for 99+% of customers. I don't want to pay a few extra bucks to have a station, and certainly not a crapload of extra money for a big fancy one. I think Greyhound's reliance on stations is a huge part of their failure.


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