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FRA, MIPRC release Midwest Regional Rail Plan: A 40-year look ahead at what could be
Jon Davis
/ Categories: News

FRA, MIPRC release Midwest Regional Rail Plan: A 40-year look ahead at what could be

A Midwestern passenger rail network centered on Chicago, building on current state-supported services, that connects metropolises from the Twin Cities and Kansas City to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Nashville with multiple daily round trips.

That vision, known as the Midwest Regional Rail Plan, was unveiled in an Oct. 13 press conference at Chicago Union Station by the the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission and the Federal Railroad Administration. Among the crowd were several MIPRC commissioners and partners who were present for the concurrent kickoff of the Commission's 2021 Annual Meeting (which continued Oct. 14 and 15 in Detroit, after taking the Oct. 13 afternoon Wolverine to Motown).

“Looking all the way through 2055, the plan addresses key corridor and investment priorities, potential funding strategies, and necessary governance structures identified by the states working with MIPRC,” FRA Deputy Administrator Amit Bose said.

“While America’s interstate highway system and commercial aviation industry are vital and indispensable, rail can and does play a key role in our multi-modal transportation system,” Bose said. “Nowhere is that more evident than Chicago, the nation’s rail hub.”

In the plan, FRA officials say that regional rail plans are “high-level” analyses of options that can be “reasonably supported” by such analyses. Corridor options presented within the future network are those that, in the FRA’s view, are likeliest to succeed. The plan’s release drew coverage from the Chicago Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and industry publications like Trains and Railway Age magazines.

While the Midwest Regional Rail Plan sets nothing in stone, it suggests a system of fast, frequent passenger service that builds off the synergy of viewing the build-out from an interstate, rather than individual corridor, view.

That approach is invaluable, says MIPRC Director Laura Kliewer. “MIPRC looks forward to using this regional development plan to build out a strong Midwestern passenger rail system,” she adds.

In 40 years, it envisions a regional network anchored on a Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Twin Cities corridor at “core express,” meaning it would connect major metropolitan centers with frequent service (up to 24 daily round trips daily).

Corridors that could be either core express or “regional express”– also featuring frequent (up to 16 daily round trips) – include:
•    Existing state-supported routes like Chicago-Detroit (the Wolverine), Chicago-St. Louis (the Lincoln Service), and St. Louis-Kansas City (the Missouri River Runner);
•    New routes from Chicago to Columbus, Ohio, via either Fort Wayne, Ind., or Indianapolis and Dayton, Ohio; Chicago to Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., via Indianapolis; and Chicago-Cincinnati via Indianapolis (raising the possibility of Indianapolis becoming another hub);
•    New regional routes from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio, and Pittsburgh, and from Indianapolis to Cincinnati.

Service from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa, is listed as an “emerging” corridor, which would offer eight daily round trips on shared trackage. Illinois currently is working on building out this corridor from Chicago to Moline.

Indiana Rep. Sharon Negele, MIPRC’s Financial Officer, says the plan, if built out, will mean more choices and more connections for her constituents to Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and other destinations.

“I’m personally excited to see Indianapolis positioned to become a hub on two, and perhaps three, major regional corridors. I’m also pleased to see the plan confirm that new Chicago-to-Fort Wayne service is not only a viable option but considered to be a key addition to the regional network,” Negele says.

Other potential corridors to watch for possible future inclusion in the network include existing state-supported services in Illinois (Chicago-Carbondale Illini/Saluki, Chicago-Quincy Carl Sandburg/Illinois Zephyr) and Michigan (Grand Rapids-Chicago Pere Marquette, Port Huron-Chicago Blue Water); planned new services like the Twin Cities-Superior, Wis.-Duluth, Minn., Northern Lights Express; and new connections:

•    Extending the Heartland Flyer (Dallas to Oklahoma City, Okla.) north to Wichita and Newton, Kan.;
•    From the Twin Cities southwest to Sioux Falls, S.D., and south to Des Moines and Kansas City;
•    From Detroit to both Toledo and Toronto, Ont.;
•    Within Michigan, from Detroit to Grand Rapids and from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo;
•    Within Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to Green Bay, Wis;
•    Within Ohio, from Cincinnati to Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland; and from Columbus to Pittsburgh.

MIPRC Chair Bob Guy noted the Midwest Regional Rail Plan’s map is not the final network design, but conceptual, based on the FRA’s best estimates of optimal routes, city travel pairs and projected future travel demands.

It’s also parallel and complimentary to Amtrak’s Connects US plan, he added.

“Our states understand from experience that a multistate, collaborative approach to passenger rail development serves our citizens, transportation systems, economies, and ultimately, each state, best,” Guy said. “Its holistic approach will bring increased travel and economic benefits to every corridor and every state with improved and expanded passenger rail service.

“By working with all our states, the FRA, Amtrak and freight rail partners – and prioritizing a coordinated, systematic plan, the Midwest will continue to build and expand on our strengths.”

Kansas DOT Secretary Julie Lorenz, who serves as the chair of the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials (MAASTO), agrees.

“Passenger rail is becoming an increasingly important transportation mode to meet the travel needs of both urban and rural communities in our region,” she says. “The Midwest Regional Rail Plan has been an important process, because it gave states seats at the table and opportunities to stress the importance of passenger rail to them and the region.”

MIPRC’s future role?

The plan proposes a larger role for the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission. Its executive summary states the FRA “will continue to work closely with the MIPRC and Midwest states to advance and elevate the MIPRC as a governance structure with the clear authority, responsibility and mandate for overseeing and implementing the outcomes of the Midwest’s intercity rail planning initiative.” 

While the FRA plan recognizes that MIPRC’s 21-year presence gives the Midwest a leg up compared to other regions on governance, it stresses that “predictable funding streams” will be necessary to build out the plan’s proposed corridors. 

Other challenges to expanding governance identified in the plan include “protecting states’ sovereignty and interests, creating a more robust structure without predictable funding streams, and addressing approaches to complex capital and operating cost allocation issues and multi-state roles and responsibilities.

“Future governance structures will need to address complex issues related to planning and implementation, funding schemes, prioritized investments and service operations and system maintenance within the context of state and host railroad policy, financial, and regulatory approaches,” the plan’s executive summary states.

History/background

The Midwest Regional Rail Plan builds on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which was launched in 1996 by nine Midwestern state DOTs. The new plan takes into consideration states’ rail plans, and input from freight (host) railroads, Amtrak, commuter services in Chicago and Minneapolis which share tracks with freight and intercity passenger rail, metropolitan planning organizations and other interested parties.

The plan projects how people will travel and what “ride share” a regional passenger rail network could win. Data was modeled by the FRA’s Conceptual Network Connection Tool (CONNECT) to set current and future baseline conditions.

Modeling assessed ridership, operating and maintenance costs, capital costs, cost-recovery ratios, and other key performance indicators for potential corridors, resulting in detailed data on route performance, network interactions, and potential service levels. It also identified potential hubs to aggregate service, appropriate service tiers for each corridor, and crucial network interactions.

“This holistic approach resulted in recommendations for a full network compared to standalone corridors,” the plan said.

The FRA began regional passenger rail studies in early 2011, with its Southwest Regional Rail Plan which was issued in September 2014. The MWRRP began with a letter from MIPRC (on behalf of the 12 Midwestern states involved in it) indicating interest in having the Midwest be one of the next two to be done.

The FRA in late 2015 chose the Midwest and Southeast. The study began in 2017, with MIPRC and 12 state departments of transportation – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin – as main “stakeholders.”

Meetings were held in-person, as well as via phone or Zoom from 2017 through 2020 – and included an update in 2019 of the FRA’s CONNECT model and underlying data about trip modes.

According to the FRA, regional rail corridors are defined in terms of the geographic markets that must be served for the corridor to fulfill its full potential (i.e., “corridor-defining markets”), and the appropriate level or levels of service in each corridor in terms of generalized categories reflecting general service characteristics (i.e., “service tier”).

“As such, regional rail plans focus, first and foremost, on ruling out those options for a region’s future intercity passenger rail network that the analysis demonstrates would be particularly disadvantageous, and only presents more precise conclusions where they can be reasonably supported by that analysis,” the plan says.

Regional rail plans do not define specific alignment or rights-of-way (including existing or abandoned rail lines) that would be traversed by each corridor; intermediate geographic markets (i.e., those beyond the “corridor-defining markets”) that would be served by each corridor; or service characteristics (e.g., frequency, trip times, fares, train capacity, etc.).

The full Midwest Regional Rail Plan report released on Oct. 13 can be accessed here.

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