2020 Annual Report
January 22, 2021
Thank you for your interest in the Twin Cities - Milwaukee - Chicago (TCMC) Second Train project and expanded passenger rail options along the River Route. This Enewsletter is our 2020 Annual Report. It includes a recap of news and Great River Rail Commission activities over the last year.

Please forward this newsletter to friends and colleagues who may be interested in passenger rail news.

Second Train Receives Funding Pledges
This year we saw a number of funding commitments for the TCMC Second Train project from multiple sources.

Commitments include:
  • A federal grant for capital funds of $31.8 million
  • A federal grant for startup operations in the amount of $12.569 million
  • A commitment for capital funds from the state of Wisconsin of $6.2 million
  • A commitment of capital funds from Amtrak of $5 million

The state of Minnesota remains the only missing funding partner. The Great River Rail Commission continues to advocate for a $10 million request that would result in $40 million worth of track and signal improvements in Minnesota, benefitting both freight and passenger rail.

Find our how you can participate in the process of reaching out to legislators during the legislative session at our Take Action 2021 page.
Active Community, Business, and Legislative Support of Second Train
While the TCMC Second Train project ultimately did not receive funding from the Minnesota Legislature, the project did receive quite a bit of support in 2020.

Governor Walz initially included the project in his bonding bill, and bills were authored in both the house and the senate that included funding for the TCMC Second Train.

Resolutions or letters of support for the TCMC Second Train project were recently put forward by:  
  • Winona Health
  • Winona State University (President and Student Senate)
  • Saint Mary's University (President and Student Senate)
  • City of Winona
  • Visit Winona
  • City of St. Charles

In total, over the last several years, more than 50 cities, counties, businesses, universities and Canadian Pacific Railway have told us they support the Second Train project. 
What's Next for the Second Train?
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is leading the development of the TCMC Second Train project. In 2020, service alternative analysis was completed and the alternative that is an extension to the Twin Cities of the Hiawatha passenger rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago was selected. Two federal grant applications were submitted, The stand-alone alternative was judged to have a benefit-cost ratio of 2.4 (meaning the state would receive a benefit from the project equal to 2.4 times the cost).

The next steps include: 
  • Secure funding from the state of Minnesota
  • Detailed design of track improvements
  • Completion of the Service Development Plan and environmental documentation
  • Approvals from Canadian Pacific Railway and the Federal Railroad Administration
  • Service contracts between the states, the host railroad and the service operator
  • Construction of improvements
Passenger Rail in a Pandemic
Like most forms of transportation, the pandemic has had a serious negative impact on Amtrak ridership and revenue. The federal government has provided stimulus funds, but not before commuter routes were suspended and long distance service reduced. Locally, the Empire Builder service was reduced to three days per week.

The agency worked quickly to set new cleanliness and travel standards in an ever-changing environment and instituted new policies and programs to make passenger rail a safer travel alternative during the pandemic.

Efforts to provide a new standard for travel include:
  • The requirement of face coverings
  • Partnership with the makers of Lysol
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols
  • Physical distancing and limiting bookings
  • Contact free travel options

Amtrak has announced a number of criteria they are looking for in early 2021 to start bringing back more frequent trips to these routes.
Supporter Spotlight - Meet Gordy!
Gordy is a former nonprofit research assistant and current Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. You may know him from his excellent opinion piece about the TCMC Second Train after the bonding bill was finalized.

We'll let him tell you more about himself and why he is supportive of the TCMC Second Train.
"The current Amtrak Empire Builder is a nice travel option that I have greatly appreciated using for a trip to Chicago and a journey out West. Onboard, the people were friendly, the staff funny and courteous, and the scenery amazing. Taking Amtrak to Chicago was much less stressful than driving there, and far more comfortable and convenient than flying on a cramped jet into the chaos of O'Hare! When riding the train, I soon realized just how many groups it benefits--from business travelers and students to Mennonite/Amish families and retired folks traveling across the country. 

Busy Year for Commission
2020 was again a big year for the Commission with the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. The commission continued to work together from afar to build support and provide education on the TCMC Second Train project and the legislative request. The Take Action 2020 campaign involved many updates during the regular and special legislative sessions, which saw our supporters making their voices heard to their elected officials. Thank you for your participation and support in 2020!

Other 2020 milestones included:

  • Welcomed Washington County Regional Railroad Authority as a Commission member
  • Engaged legislators through the Commission's lobbyist on behalf of the TCMC Second Train project
  • Had a strong presence at the rally for passenger rail at the Capitol hosted by All Aboard Minnesota in early March
  • Launched a new, mobile-friendly website with new resources on the TCMC Second Train and the River Route
  • Launched Twitter and Instagram pages
  • Moved meetings to video conferencing due to the pandemic to continue collaboration among member cities and counties
  • Worked with organizations along the River Route corridor to express support for passenger rail projects
  • Continued additional public engagement work

´╗┐All Aboard Minnesota
All Aboard Minnesota continues to advocate for more passenger rail options in Minnesota. The group hosted the Rally for Passenger Rail in early March at the Capitol with legislators, passenger rail advocates, and members of the public. The group also worked with the Wisconsin Association of Rail Passengers and the Rail Passengers Association to advocate for the Empire Builder when service reductions were announced.

Passenger Rail in the United States
Amtrak focused on customer safety and advancing technology improvements while the COVID-19 pandemic devastated ridership. Amtrak reported that business is at about 25% of pre-COVID levels with forecasts showing some potential improvement by the end of the next fiscal year. More than $1 billion in infrastructure and fleet work was advanced and ridership came in at 16.8 million trips with total earnings of $801.1 million and operating revenue of $2.3 billion, a decrease of 31.9% over FY 2019.

The Federal Railroad Administration gave a $15.5 million grant to the state of Michigan to create better, and faster Amtrak service by rehabilitating the rail corridor from Ypsilanti to Jackson, a heavily traveled corridor. The Michigan Department of Transportation is confident that the money will help to continue efforts to improve safety and efficiency of passenger trains in the state.

The higher-speed rail project between Chicago and Saint Louis is still in development, while the Hiawatha Service is back to it's original service after an early disruption due to COVID-19. Improvements at Chicago's Union Station also moved forward.

Indiana continues to invest in passenger rail projects. A new expansion of the South Shore Line was announced by Governor Eric Holcomb (R) and is expected to start service in early 2025 that will cost $945 million to be funded by a mix of sources including state and federal dollars.. The governor said, "This vital infrastructure project will immediately result in 1,000 well-paying construction jobs. Unprecedented economic development in the region will now be possible as we connect Hoosiers, while also attracting talent and business to lower taxes, better quality of life and great communities in Indiana."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Amtrak's Downeaster service between Maine and Boston was one of the best performing routes. The service was briefly suspended and is back up to four out of five daily trips while seeing reduced ridership and passenger capacity limits.

North Carolina
Over the past 25 years, the N.C. Department of Transportation has invested more than $1 billion of state and federal funds in state-supported intercity rail projects. There are a number of passenger rail projects in development in the state.

15 W. Kellogg Blvd., Suite 210
Saint Paul, MN 55102
Phone: (651) 266-2790
Header photo courtesy of Amtrak/Marc Glucksman