People who ride passenger trains – and the workers who run them – are calling on lawmakers to preserve rail service in the face of threats at both the state and federal levels.
Members of All Aboard Minnesota, the United Transportation Union, the Sierra Club and others rallied Friday at the St. Paul Union Depot to support passenger rail. Their action was prompted by President Donald Trump’s proposed budget – which would eliminate all funding for Amtrak. But the rally also highlighted the need for funding at the state level.
If the president has his way, historic and popular Amtrak lines like the Empire Builder, which runs through Minnesota, would be gone. The move would provide little in cost savings, advocates said, since Amtrak covers 94 percent of its operating costs with revenues. Less rail traffic means more congestion on the highways and in airports, they said.
At the same time, passenger rail in Minnesota is just hanging on. In the final days of the session, Governor Mark Dayton convinced legislators to maintain funding for the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Passenger Rail Office. The office oversees several state and regional train service projects, including the proposed Northern Lights Express, the Duluth to Twin Cities passenger service that is entering the final phase of system design and planning with the BNSF railroad for daily, multiple train service.
Rail unions fought hard to keep the Passenger Rail Office, sending letters to lawmakers and media and participating in public hearings.
Continuation of the funding was good, “but it just keeps the lights on,” said Jay Severance, director of All Aboard Minnesota, a non-profit education and advocacy group focused on the expansion and development of intercity rail transportation as a part of a balanced transportation system.
The Legislature needs to devote resources to projects such as the Northern Lights Express, which is ready to move forward with service connecting the Twin Cities, Duluth and communities in between, he said.
Local communities across the state – especially those not served by airports – see the value of passenger rail, Severance said.
“The people of Winona, for example, they realize from a tourism and business standpoint that they need this,” Severance said. “Having good, reliable train transportation would be a big plus for these rural communities.”
Illinois recently doubled train frequency between Chicago and St. Louis, Missouri, and saw the trains fill up overnight, according to All Aboard Minnesota.
“Of all our forms of transportation, the train is the most social form,” said Mathews Hollinshead, chair of the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Eliminating passenger rail “would cut out part of the social fabric.”
Additionally, “the fuel efficiency of passenger trains is very high,” he noted.
The United Transportation Union, whose members operate the trains, see passenger rail as an essential service, said Phil Qualy, Minnesota legislative director for UTU-SMART-TD.
Recent polls indicate 72 percent of Minnesotans would use regional railroad services if they were added, he said. “We can sell a second train to Chicago daily and Chicagoans want to come here to northern Minnesota,” he said.
Participants in Friday’s rally are urging people to call members of Congress to oppose the proposed cuts to Amtrak. They also want people to contact their legislators to keep regional passenger rail service on track.
Learn more at the All Aboard Minnesota website.
The Minnesota Legislature convened Jan. 3 with an agenda including the state budget and longstanding issues such as transportation and health care.