MIPRC & member state DOTs file comments on FRA's long-distance service study
The Congressionally mandated Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Long-Distance Service Study offers myriad opportunities to strengthen the Midwest’s, as well as the nation’s, passenger rail network, from expanding existing services to restoring routes Amtrak inherited but discontinued, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC) said in comments to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Doing so would then provide a strong backbone of essential passenger rail service to both cities and rural communities, upon which the states and Amtrak could then build more frequent shorter-distance (corridor) service.
The extensive comments from MIPRC, developed in coordination with its eight member states’ departments of transportation, follow two regional workshops held by the FRA in February and July, and were submitted on Aug. 21.
This is the first time Congress has ever asked for a comprehensive study on possibilities for expanding long-distance passenger rail service, which is defined in federal law as routes that are 750 miles long or longer from start to end points.
The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, a.k.a. the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, requires the FRA to evaluate the restoration of daily intercity passenger rail service and the potential for new Amtrak long-distance routes. The study must evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail passenger service along any Amtrak long-distance routes that were discontinued or that occur on a nondaily basis.
In its letter, MIPRC said making the Chicago-Indianapolis-Cincinnati-Washington, D.C./New York City Cardinal train – which currently operates just three days per week – at least daily is a top priority for the Midwest.
MIPRC also said that restoring the following four long-distance routes discontinued in 1979 would “greatly enhance the backbone of service that long-distance routes provide” while also allowing the Midwest’s regional plans to then build upon them:
• The National Limited, which ran from Kansas City to Washington, D.C./New York City via St. Louis; Effingham, Illinois; Indianapolis; Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.
• The North Coast Hiawatha, which ran from Chicago to Seattle via the Twin Cities, Fargo and Bismarck, ND, and the middle tier of Montana.
• The Lone Star, which ran from Houston to Chicago via Wichita, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo.
• The Floridian, which ran from Chicago to Miami/St. Peterburg via Indianapolis; Louisville, Ky.; Nashville, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Jacksonville, Fla.
MIPRC said that these restored routes would provide new north-south “backbone” long-distance services for both western and eastern parts of the Midwest, and a new east-west service for both western and eastern parts of the region.
They would provide new service to five cities in North Dakota, plus Wichita, Kan. and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, as well as connections to new services in western, southern and eastern states. Restoring these routes would also strengthen network connections between regional and long-distance trains and begin to establish Kansas City, and possibly Minneapolis/St. Paul, as additional regional hubs (outside of Chicago), with several more trains going through or originating/ending there.
In addition, restoring these routes would provide two more daily trains between Kansas City and St. Louis, and between Chicago and Indianapolis; one more between Chicago and Fargo, N.D., via the Twin Cities; and one more for the current, and proposed extension of, the Heartland Flyer (Dallas-Oklahoma City, with proposed extension to Newton, Kan., via Wichita) service.
MIPRC also expressed support for adding additional frequencies on existing long-distance routes that currently serve the Midwest, but only stop late at night or overnight:
• The Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle/Portland, Ore.), California Zephyr (Chicago-Emeryville, Calif.), and Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles) serving many communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
• The Lake Shore Limited (Chicago-New York City/Boston) and Capitol Limited (Chicago-Washington, D.C.) serving Ohio.
• The Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio) serving Missouri communities south of St. Louis.
While the FRA said during the workshops that it wasn’t certain it could recommend long-distance routes with international connections, MIPRC also called attention to the potential benefits from new long-distance international routes from Chicago and Detroit to Toronto and Montréal, as well as from Minnesota and North Dakota to Winnipeg.
Other new long-distance routes suggested by MIPRC for closer examination include a Chicago-Detroit-Cleveland route that then goes on to the East; and segments of possible Kansas City to Minneapolis/St. Paul routes through Des Moines and/or Sioux Falls, S.D.
MIPRC’s comments included a couple of cautionary notes: “We would remiss if we didn’t point out, however, that extensive growth will require the capacity for Amtrak to handle the growth both operationally and equipment-wise.”
Lastly, MIPRC has long commented that the 750-mile+ threshold for long-distance services to be paid for by Amtrak, set by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, is unreasonable and places an undue burden on states to initiate and sustain new services.
In considering intercity passenger rail routes, FRA may evaluate potential new Amtrak long-distance routes, with specific attention provided to routes in service as of April 1971 but not continued by Amtrak, taking into consideration whether those new routes would:
• link and serve large and small communities as part of a regional rail network;
• advance the economic and social well-being of rural areas of the United States;
• provide enhanced connectivity for the national long-distance passenger rail system; and
• reflect public engagement and local and regional support for restored passenger rail service.
As an integral aspect of this study, FRA has reached out to states, entities like MIPRC and regional and local advocacy organizations, tribal communities and others. Key stakeholders were invited to participate in workshops being held in six “regions”: the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Central, Southwest, and Northwest (some states were included in more than one region). Two workshops have been held in each region thus far; the FRA has said it anticipates at least one more series of workshops before it submits its recommendations to Congress.
The first round of workshops focused mainly on long-distance routes that had been discontinued by Amtrak after its May 1, 1971, inception, while the second set of workshops looked at possible segments for new service, based on the study’s requirements of linking small and large communities, enhancing rural accessibility, and ensuring equitable geographic coverage.
Following each set of workshops, FRA has asked for comments to be submitted within about a month. MIPRC submitted preliminary comments after the first round of workshops; the letter the commission and its member DOTs submitted in August asks the FRA to now consider its preliminary comments as recommendations. The second letter also includes additional comments regarding possible new long-distance routes.
MIPRC is an eight‐state interstate compact commission that promotes, coordinates and supports regional improvements to passenger rail service. Member states include Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota are eligible to join the compact.