She lounges in the chair that faces the wall of windows with passing views of the valley as the sun dances on the Mississippi River that lies within the bordering bluffs. She has plenty of room and she is plenty comfortable.
Nancy Von Arendonk has traveled from the heart of Indiana all the way to the edge of the west coast and now she and her family are returning home.
Uncomfortably packing five deep in a car and hours of sightless plane travel make train travel appealing to her.
“It’s relaxing,” Von Arendonk said. “When I go on vacation by plane it starts when I get off the plane. When I go by train it starts when I get on the train.”
In Minnesota, a dedicated group of people is looking to the future of travel and sees a more advanced rail system as a part of it.
The Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Passenger Rail office look to be the catalysts of this push as they advocate state and federal lawmakers to not only add more trains to the current route from St. Paul to Chicago, but to advance to the next level of train transport, high-speed.
While train travel ranks third behind automobile and airline, individuals such as Mike Rogers, senior transportation planner for the Ramsey County Rail Authority, indicate that one of the big reasons they push for rail is not to eliminate the need for cars and airplanes, but to even the transportation playing field.
“We know that the system itself is already over burdened,” Rogers said. “There needs to be a balance of mobility options. It’s not just that we look at high-speed rail as a cure-all to everything; it’s like a puzzle. Implementing the rail mode gives everybody an additional option.”
Director of the Passenger Rail Office for MnDot Dan Krom said the high-speed rail line would move the conventional speed of 79 mph with one trip a day, to speeds around 110 mph with six trips a day. This would reduce the trip from the Twin Cities to Chicago by two and a half hours. Krom works out of an office of three people, which manages $26 million in state funding, matching $40 million in federal funding for passenger rail studies, including the St. Paul to Chicago high-speed line.
For years, the sight seeing and comfort of train travel has taken a backseat to faster airplanes and more convenient automobiles. But roads and airports are becoming more congested and fuel prices continue to rise.
In 2008, the federal government passed a Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act that laid out, for the first time, an aggressive strategy at the federal level for passenger rail, which once existed in the ’30, ‘40s and ‘50s. States involved with the proposed high-speed line received stimulus money to continue its development.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rejected the $810 million in federal stimulus money for the St. Paul to Chicago high-speed rail line in late 2010, halting the project. Walker argues it'll cost the taxpayers too much to maintain the line.
“We have to have a sustainable, steady funding source at the state level,” Krom said. “We need to have a strong federal partner and we need to have Wisconsin. And all three of those things aren’t in the mix right now.”
Despite this disheartening setback, Krom, Miller, Rogers, Pomeroy and many others who believe in the potential and future of passenger rail continue to work on making it a reality.
The competition for state and federal dollars is also a race that rail transportation is not yet trained for. Jerry Miller, the Chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission and Mayor of Winona, is aware of this.
“You’ve got competition for the dollar,” Miller said. “Not only is transportation competing with transportation, everybody’s competing for dollars. Until we do something different than what we’re doing now to create more dollars I don’t see that competition going away.
The first step in getting support from state and federal is creating a demand for the product.
“That will give you an opportunity to build up the ridership,” Miller said. “And you create a demand for a higher speed.”
It sounds insignificant, but adding another Amtrak train once a day from St. Paul to Chicago could prove to be a big step in developing high-speed passenger rail lines.
“We know that the ridership is there,” Krom said. “We’re not going to go and day one and turn on a switch and all of the sudden we have six trains a day going high-speed to Chicago. If we just add a second train we’re building the demand.”
The St. Paul Union Depot is currently under renovations for light rail and the possibility of high-speed rail. Krom said the St. Paul Union Depot used to have 250 trains a day at its peak.
“It was a way of connecting communities and cities in the state with the largest metropolitan area,” Krom said.
“The interstate highway system, when that was proposed, meant the death of passenger rail. Everybody wanted a car; everybody could move by car, you were free to move whenever you wanted. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was the dismantling of the intricate passenger rail system that we had.”
The trains and railroad lines are not limited to transportation of people. More money for the trains means improvement on the tracks, which as an attended benefit, improves the capacity to haul freight.
Jim Pomeroy, Chairman of the Winona County Regional Rail Authority, claims this is an important secondary function of increased rail capacity. The improvements that would be made to the tracks currently on the Mississippi River Route give the opportunity to increase freight capacity by up to 80 percent.
“Trains, insofar as transporting freight, are by far, I mean it’s not even close, they are the absolute most efficient,” Pomeroy said. “When you’re talking about all the trucks you take off the road with increased freight through rail- it does a lot to extend the life of roads.”
Another added bonus to train travel is the level of comfort and travel luxuries provided to those on board. Patrons are treated to views of some of America’s most beautiful scenery. Seats are wider, more spacious, and softer than any non first-class airplane or car could provide. Long distance travelers are treated to three meals a day as well as a designated car for sleeping. Movies can be watched, phones can be charged and computers can be connected to the Internet for the more technologically savvy riders.
John Koulias, a construction worker traveling from Winona to Tampa, Florida was pleasantly surprised by his first trip via rail.
“(The train is) nice and comfortable, has bigger seats than an airplane,” Koulias said. “We drove up in a rental car and it was so uncomfortable.”
Koulias claimed that overall cost of the ride actually turned out in the train’s favor.
“(Coworkers) ended up paying about the same amount in gas than they would’ve on the train,” he said.
Added railroads in a place that sits almost directly at the median of two giant urban centers gives Winona an opportunity to increase economic value. According to Miller, the town has the potential to become a “spoke” for railroad transportation between St. Paul and Chicago that would have connecting routes to other destinations in Minnesota.
Thirty routes were considered for the high-speed line, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration selected the Mississippi River route that runs through Winona.
Proposed routes that would have run through higher population densities such as Rochester were passed over for structural and monetary purposes. The tracks have already been laid on the river route and buying new tracks would simply cost too much.
Therein lies the obstacle of re-engaging trains as the third major form of transportation. A project which, according to Pomeroy and the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission’s website, could create potentially 15,000 jobs, but is being held back by the financial landscape of the current economies.
“We just want to push our agenda and be positive,” Miller said. “We want to focus on why this river route is the best route for high-speed rail.”
According to MnDOT, the soonest high-speed rail could be implemented is 2016.
Until then the Commission and the Passenger Rail Office will continue to develop other in-state rail projects, push for additional trains to build the demand for high-speed and derail the notion that the train is the vehicle of the past.