Newsletter - Quarter 1, 2023

February 17, 2023

In this issue:

  • Passenger rail progress in the Minnesota Legislature, 1-3
  • Amtrak Service Issues, 4
  • Let’s Celebrate!

As the 2023 Minnesota Legislative session progresses, there are several new exciting developments for Minnesota's passenger rail expansion:

1. The Governor recently announced his transportation budget, and in it is a recommendation of $15.1M in operating and other support for the 2nd Train Frequency between the Twin Cities and Chicago. This budget recommendation would cover the first four years of operating support and is far greater than what was proposed last year. The state did receive a Federal Operating Grant to cover a large portion of the operating costs for the first three years, but the state would still need to cover some costs. This is a substantial development, and we are learning there is strong support in both the House and the Senate for the 2nd train. All Aboard Minnesota met with the Governor’s Transportation Advisor in December 2022, and learned that the Governor is very supportive of the 2nd train and would like to see it begin service as soon as is possible. The Governor is supportive of passenger rail in general.

2. New passenger rail legislation will be introduced shortly that would allow MnDOT to study new and expanded passenger rail corridors in Minnesota and connecting us to the upper Mid-West. These corridors include:

  • Extending the 2nd daily Twin Cities to Chicago train on a daytime schedule to St. Cloud and Fargo/Moorhead on the existing Amtrak Empire Builder route
  • New service between the Twin Cities and Kansas City, through Northfield, Albert Lea, and Des Moines, IA
  • A dedicated passenger main line between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and more

The bill will be authored in the House by Rep. Erin Koegel and in the Senate by Senator Aric Putnam. If the bill is passed, MnDOT could complete these studies and will allow the state to apply for Federal Matching Grants to enable these new and expanded corridors, which is the same process used for the 2nd train. AAMN worked with MnDOT to draft the language and have met with several legislators in the House and Senate to gain support for the bill. We will definitely keep you posted on all progress and ask for your active voice at appropriate times in this session!

3. The Northern Lights Express bill, new service from the Twin Cities to Duluth, MN, (SF 202 authored by Senator Jen McEwen), was heard in the Senate Transportation Committee recently. The bill provides state match of $99.9M, which would qualify for a $320M Federal Grant. This money would be for infrastructure costs of the Twin Cities to Duluth line, owned by the BNSF Railway, to enable passenger service at speeds of 90 mph. Many testified during the hearing, including Mayors along the line, including Mayor Paine from Superior, WI, the Milles Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Duluth Chamber of Commerce, several college students stating that more options were needed other than cars, and others, made the case. The bill was not voted on in the hearing but put forward for consideration in the Senate Transportation bill.

4. 2022 – Amtrak’s year of discontent! There have been numerous reports of Amtrak’s failings during 2022 that continue into this year. Most concerning from AAMN’s perspective is a direct violation of the Covid funding statute to prevent layoffs and train reductions in 2022, but Amtrak went ahead with service reductions anyway. The Empire Builder, along with all other long-distance trains were cut back to five days a week in January 2022, and full service was not restored until May. As we reported to you in November, AAMN met with the Minnesota US Congressional delegation to hold Amtrak senior management and board accountable to run the national system properly as they now have the resources. We also asked that Amtrak put back into service idle long distance Superliner cars, of which there are approximately 100, or about 15% of the fleet, a record high. Other notes:

  • The Empire Builder continues to run with one fewer coach and sleeper than in previous years
  • Amtrak personal are telling us they are advising passenger to book coach accommodations three to six months in advance and sleeping car passengers six months to a year in advance because of such tight inventory on the train!
  • Other failings have been the new Charger locomotives, with a high in-service failure rate, which we have been told are going to be pulled from the Empire Builder and reassigned to the Florida trains.
  • Equipment issues: design flaws with the new “Airo” corridor equipment, that cost Amtrak an additional $45M to fix
  • Annulment of state corridor trains in Michigan, Missouri and elsewhere due to lack of equipment, and crews
  • Passengers being stranded for many hours due to mechanical breakdowns as reported on the Michigan “Wolverine” state corridor service, Auto Train, and others
  • Passengers sleeping car reservations being cancelled at the last minute and forced to ride in coach due to lack of sleeping cars

We believe this is absolute mismanagement on Amtrak’s part. They need to run the system properly. But a couple notes of good news: Amtrak recently sent out Requests For Information to about 10 manufacturers to acquire new long distance passenger cars. This request will be followed up this fall with a formal request for proposals they have stated. The other positive development is that coach passengers, we have been told, will be able to access the dining car on six long distance routes beginning in February 2023.

5. Let’s Celebrate! 2023 marks officially 10 years for All Aboard Minnesota as a 501 (C) (3) organization! We could not have achieved this milestone without your generosity, activism and support. We are very grateful to all of our members, friends, colleagues, and partner organizations. This fall, we will plan a celebration. Stay tuned!