The Eau Claire to Twin Cities
Passenger Rail Initiative
In late 2015, a group of private businesses joined together to investigate the potential for a self-sustaining, private passenger rail service to link Eau Claire and other west central Wisconsin cities with the Twin Cities. Although this type of transportation service has been discussed since the late 1990’s, largely as a public, government supported venture, the lack of current public funding for such a service, and the emergence of several public-private and fully private passenger rail projects across the U.S., led this group, now known as the Passenger Rail Organizing Council, to formally begin an investigation into the feasibility of a private venture. The effort is affiliated with and supported by the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition. Since February 2016, the Council has developed plans, performed engineering and financial analyses, designed a service model, and entered into conversations with railroads, potential private operators, suppliers and lessors, and partners. The Council is working with the Union Pacific Railroad in order to define investment goals and operational parameters.
The service as envisioned would sustainably operate four round trips daily from Eau Claire to St. Paul Union Depot initially, with future extension of the service to downtown Minneapolis as a high priority. Fares and transportation costs to travelers would be competitive, and travel time would be 1 ½ hours one way for the full trip. Amenities would include comfortable seating, tables, Wi-Fi service, and basic concessions including drinks and snacks. The station stops, as seen on the map above, would cover the major cities on and along I-94, with bus connections to nearby cities and enhanced transit service in on-line cities. Economic development around these station sites is expected to be a major outcome of the project.
- Service could produce over 900,000 trips per year, 2.5% or more of the travel market
- Fares would be 20-37 cents per mile, or a full-fare St. Paul-Eau Claire cost of $32
- Fare discounts would accommodate regular, reserved, and family travel
- Operation would represent an enterprise with $15-18 million annual revenues located in the area
- Station-area development would attract significant building and provide multi-use facilities, similar to the $220 million + investments recently seen in Normal, Illinois, a city very similar in size and make-up to Eau Claire, along a new passenger rail corridor with all-day service
- Service would promote talent retention for area businesses, increased settlement opportunity for families with multiple income earners, tourism, and other business and discretionary travel
- Trains would bypass major freeway congestion along I-94, particularly west of Hudson
- Conditional approval from Union Pacific and potential operators is allowing advanced planning
- Transit connectivity includes express bus from St. Paul to MSP Airport, Green Line LRT, 22 Metro Transit bus routes, intercity bus and Amtrak connections, taxi and car rental services.
- Future connections could include high-speed rail to Rochester, MN, and Mayo, LRT to Airport
Most significant challenges are still-to-be-identified infrastructure improvement (capital) costs and an existing operational bottleneck at St. Paul Union Depot, but with possible solutions under study.