A Train to Nowhere?

If you read this weekend’s Winnipeg Free Press, you likely came across an article titled Manitoba could join Minnesota in 175-km/h rail link or the accompanying editorial. The article takes a look at the idea of building a high-speed rail link between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota, and suggests that thought be given to extending the link all the way to Winnipeg.

Any such rail link, if it ever becomes reality, is likely decades and billions of dollars away: though early estimates suggest that a Twin Cities-Duluth rail line, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) long would cost about $1 billion to build, rarely has any high-speed rail line been built at anything nearly as low as the proposed $7 million per mile price.

High-speed rail lines rarely cost less than $40 million per mile to build, putting the realistic cost of a Twin Cities-Duluth line at $6 billion or more, and a 380-mile Duluth-Winnipeg connection at a staggering $15 billion or more.

Before governments start being asked for funds to make such an ambitious project happen, there are some serious questions to ask:

Do we really want to go to the Twin Cities that badly? Yes, the Twin Cities are a popular long-weekend destination for Winnipeggers, being the only city within 1,000 kilometres of Winnipeg with a population greater than one million and the amenities that come with that. But a high-speed rail link can’t just exist for long weekend traffic — it would need heavy weekday use as well. There’s little reason to believe that such demand exists.

Do Minnesotans really want to come here that badly?  Much of the tourist trade from the Twin Cities and Duluth is in the form of hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts who are destined for northern Manitoba — the province’s most unique tourist offering — which would be a long, tiring journey by train.

There is unlikely to be much interest among Duluth or Twin Cities residents in visiting Winnipeg for fun, as Winnipeg pretty much follows the same template as any other medium-sized Midwestern town (Minimal nightlife? Check! Bland gastronomy and early dinnertimes? Check! Can sometimes walk an entire block in broad daylight without passing anyone? Check!), and competes with the similar offerings to be found in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Omaha and Des Moines — and Chicago’s genuine big-city experience — all of which are just as close or closer to the Twin Cities than Winnipeg is.

Will the price be right? Based on advance-purchase prices for similarly long rail journeys such as Winnipeg-Saskatoon, Vancouver-Jasper, London-Scotland and Netherlands-Switzerland, a Winnipeg-Minneapolis one-way trip would cost $100 to $200 each way per person, plus taxes and fees. For a family of four, the cost of taking the train to Minneapolis and back for the long weekend would thus cost $800 or more. Would people pay such a price for the convenience of reaching the Twin Cities in 4-6 hours, and would enough people pay such fares to make rail service viable?

What about Customs and Immigration? There are no pre-clearance facilities for passenger trains between Canada and the U.S., and it’s improbable there would be enough traffic on a Winnipeg-Twin Cities run to justify building such facilities at Winnipeg’s Union Station. Thus, on routes such as Amtrak’s Montreal-New York service, the railway cautions that departure times from the border are subject to delays if there are complications. Since a delay of an hour or two at the border would significantly erode the time-saving advantage of a high-speed rail line and lead to missed connections further down the line, this raises questions about whether or not high-speed cross-border rail is even worth spending the thousands of dollars on for a feasibility study, let alone the billions of dollars required to actually construct a line.

A related issue: cabotage. No, that’s not a mis-spelling of sabotage. Cabotage refers to the right of a foreign airline, railway or bus service to carry people between two points in the same country. For example, Amtrak’s New York-Montreal service stops at St. Lambert each way between Montreal and the U.S. border. But, as Amtrak is not a Canadian company, it is strictly prohibited from selling tickets between Montreal and St. Lambert in either direction. (And the law is enforced: in 2002, a Korean airline was fined $750,000 by American authorities for carrying passengers between Guam and Saipan, two U.S.-controlled Pacific Ocean territories). Thus, passengers would either need to change trains at the border, or the cross-border train service would have to be viable without any passengers being allowed to buy tickets between Winnipeg and Steinbach (if operated by an American company) or between International Falls and Duluth (if operated by a Canadian company).

Can it be justified as a political priority? Make no mistake: a high-speed rail line anywhere will require heavy financial assistance from government, and ongoing political commitment for at least 20 years, assuming a rosy scenario that sees early planning start in 2013, construction start in the early 2020s and service launched in the early 2030s. (If you think this is too broad a timeline, I have just three words: Winnipeg Rapid Transit).

It is difficult to argue that a high-speed rail line to the U.S., for which there is little apparent demand, should be made a political priority for a generation. It is even more difficult to argue that investing in high-speed rail would be nearly as beneficial for the economy as much smaller investments in improving Manitoba’s woeful educational attainment rates, encouraging more research and development, or appointing a provincial Transparency Commissioner to bring honesty and openness in government and Crown Corporations up to the same high standards found in Scandinavia.

Overall, the concept of a Winnipeg-Twin Cities high-speed rail link is definitely imaginative. Political and economic realities, however, suggest that it should be taken no further, as such a rail line would certainly become a “white elephant” under all but the most extreme future scenarios (e.g., a fuel price shock that would make the sharp rises, and the economic troubles they caused, in the ’70s look like a walk in the park by comparison), and is thus impossible to justify as a political priority.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

9 Responses to A Train to Nowhere?

  1. John Dobbin says:

    I thought much the same thing when I read the Free Press story on high speed rail to the city.

    The highway will continue to be the most attractive option. It has already cost and continues to cost over $1 billion for construction if the old rule of $1 million per kilometer of building still applies.

    I think if the government is really concerned in Manitoba about our connection to the U.S., they should look at the decline in aircraft service. Delta has downsized the aircraft on their Minneapolis to Winnipeg route. In 2010, Delta used a Airbus 319, CR9, CR7 and CRJ aircraft. In 2011 and 2012, Delta is only using the CRJ 50 passenger aircraft.

    United Airlines flights between Chicago, Denver and Winnipeg are also CRJ aircraft.

    Hunters are bypassing Winnipeg for other places because the flights to Winnipeg are packed and often overbooked. Many times people are booted off flights that are overweight or overbooked.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    There is at least partial good news on the aircraft front: the 50-seat regional jets are rapidly on their way out. They’re among the worst fuel-guzzlers in the air on a per-passenger-mile basis, and the oldest ones are now about 20 years old and starting to have age-related maintenance issues.

    They’re largely being replaced by larger 70-120 seat regional jets, sometimes turboprops.

  3. Mr. Nobody says:

    Shoot i thought you were talking about the train to Churchill

  4. Riverman says:

    What was not mentioned above is that a high speed rail line can have NO level crossings.

  5. theviewfromseven says:

    That’s a good point, Riverman. At 175 km/h, it’s a completely different ball game: there’s little tolerance for sudden stops, sharp turns or warped rails. Hence the exorbitant cost of building a line.

  6. Purple Rod says:

    I’m not sure if you can classify it as a “High speed” rail line, as it reportedly only reaches a maximum velocity of 175 km/h. The Alberta Government has been considering a high-speed rail line between Calgary and Edmonton for years. I believe the Calgary-Edmonton line will reach speeds greater than 300 km/h.

    The Alberta Government has actually bought a corridor of land between the cities, that it plans on eventually constructing the line on. However, the number of people who commute from Edmonton to Calgary (or vice versa), must be at least 25 times the amount of a Winnipeg-Minnesota line.

    It would be neat to have, but I would not place a rail line between Winnipeg and Minneapolis-St.Paul as a top priority.

  7. W. Krawec says:

    HSR is a non-starter for Winnipeg and Minneapolis-St. Paul. When Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal and Calgary-Edmonton – two clumps of cities much more suited to this type of investment – don’t even have HSR then it’s pretty difficult to make the case for one around here. The cities are just too far apart and Winnipeg is a bit too small to make it a viable proposition. As you point out, there just isn’t all that much traffic between the two places.

    Personally, I’d settle for a bit of competition in the air on the YWG-MSP route.

  8. Portage & Main says:

    Good analysis and I agree that the costs of building a dedicated high-speed line from Duluth would never generate enough traffic or revenue to justify it. Duluth is too far out of the way and adds too much unprofitable distance to the line. It think there is still potential for improved passenger links between Winnipeg and Minneapolis though. More people would fly if the price was not outrageously expensive. If some dedicated souls are determined to forge a passenger rail link between the cities, a far cheaper & easier way would be to run a train to Grand Forks and link up with the Amtrak train to Minneapolis. The rail line is there already; it would just be a matter of getting running rights on it, and here’s the biggie – finding a way to make the route profitable. It wouldn’t be much faster than driving (if any) but if you’re determined to have passenger rail service, it makes a lot more sense than going 200 miles out of your way to Duluth.

  9. Bill says:

    I was in Winnipeg in 1969 and feel a fondness for Canadian/American midwestern experience. We’re a family of people who could learn culturally from each other. Chicago is the giant of the Midwest and should be included for obvious reasons. The Twin Cities are the cultural hub of the upper Midwest between Chicago and Winnipeg. People think in boxes and should try another approach. I’ve read that big oil people are opposed to alternative transportation (e.g. trains), but one can really see the country (i.e. a liberal arts education). The payoff would be tremendous if it could be funded. Yes, I know it’s about money. Whatever happened to enjoying life? For many people, we can only imagine what lies between “here and there.” Wouldn’t it be nice to see and know? Money can be squandered on lobbyistists’ agendas and thwarting political causes. Where does that leave the average person who wants to see the world? It’s a judgment call, and I can’t make it alone. We only live once. Duluth isn’t all bad either. Take a Great Lakes cruise and go somewhere else? Options are nice. No options are dull.

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