Anyone wishing to travel between Winnipeg and the Twin Cities have in recent years had but two choices: fly or drive. Overnight train service vanished in the late 1960s and Greyhound abandoned the route a few years back. Unlike most Canada-U.S. pairings of major cities, there is no direct ground transport between them.
But there could be if Canada wanted to make common cause with Minnesota to build a high-speed rail link from Winnipeg through Duluth to Minneapolis.
Such a rail link would be particularly noticed during our lengthy winters -- when icy roads and airports paralyzed by snowfalls make flying or driving unpleasant propositions at best; hazardous and undependable at worst.
Now, an initiative by the State of Minnesota, the Northern Lights Express project, is proposed to upgrade existing rails to allow 175 km/h passenger trains to run between Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Every county, city and major town through which the route passes as well as the Mille Lacs Ojibwe Nation -- owner of the Grand Casino at Hinckley, backs the project.
Proponents assert hundreds of thousands of new passengers will use the service, with resulting economic activity in the billions.
Skeptics claim public subsidies of up to $83 per passenger would be required, and that the projected cost of $1 billion is understated.
Proponents point out the environmental imperative for much higher-capacity, energy-efficient transportation services (i.e., rail) for the near future, while defenders of the status quo would instead spend the money repairing crumbling older infrastructure and building new or improved highways.
Anything's possible at this point.
But for now, an important milestone has been reached. On Sept. 2, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the Minnesota Department of Transportation would receive $5 million to complete initial engineering and environmental reviews for the project.
The grant comes from the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program, which has on two previous occasions awarded $2.2 million and $500,000 for preliminary work on the line.
MNDOT has committed to providing $3 million of state funds. While minuscule compared to the eventual costs of the completed project, the commitments attest to the seriousness with which it is being explored.
This should be food for thought on Broadway and Main Street, and for all interested in the challenges and opportunities of intercity mass transport.
Obviously, Minnesota has demonstrated its interest in the proposition. It would seem logical it would, if approached from the Great White North, readily partner with Manitoba in looking into extending the service to Winnipeg.
After all, Minneapolis and Winnipeg, the two cities of the "upper Midwest" have enjoyed a long and close regional relationship.
Over and above that, by broadening the scope of study in such a fashion, a long-standing corridor of travel and commerce that is (from end to end) rich in natural and man-made attractions, would simultaneously be brought into the picture: The iron-mining centres of the Mesabi Range; the parks, campgrounds and resorts of Rainy River and, Lake of the Woods; the 7 Clans Casino at Warroad; La Broquerie with its French and, Steinbach with its Mennonite heritage. Both sides of the border stand to gain from such a co-operative venture.
Via and Amtrak would likely welcome a new route: There is pent-up demand now for alternative travel means between these destinations (although of undetermined amount) and the availability of such a service would likely unleash it.
It has been found, furthermore, that in just about every case where new rail service is introduced -- whether intercity or commuter -- it has generated much more traffic than had been anticipated.
Passenger volume, in turn, encouraged economic development along the rail line (because a railway is a permanent structure as opposed to a bus route).
Most beneficial for all concerned would be the wholesale improvement to the overall network of the passenger-rail providers on both sides of the border.
In particular, it could remove the hamstring created by the absence of cross-border service from Detroit-Windsor westward all the way to the Pacific coast.
Americans would thereby be enabled to connect conveniently in Winnipeg to the Vancouver-bound Canadian or the Omnitrax to Churchill.
Canadians could connect to the eastbound Empire Builder (destined for Amtrak's Chicago hub).
As point of interchange, Winnipeg would stand to witness a surge in tour-bus outings, hotel-room bookings, and other related activities.
Of course, for the whole concept to fly, the consent of CN Rail (which owns the trackage that would be used) would need to be obtained.
Railways typically object that adding passenger trains would hamper their freight operations and would require control-signal upgrades.
But would one or two passenger trains daily really be that disruptive?
After all, there once was frequent passenger service with steam and early diesel engines operating with the control-signal infrastructure of the day and with greater frequency of all sorts of trains at speeds not much inferior to the present.
The railway line involved also happens to be the one CN has designated as its major international portal in the Prairie provinces along which most eastbound freight flows to Chicago and beyond via a U.S. border crossing point at Fort Frances, Ont.
Accordingly, it is in good repair and should require only modest roadbed stabilization and improvements to track geometrics in places to render it suitable to host modern, fast passenger service.
To eliminate customs delays that could encumber schedules, pre-clearance in Winnipeg and Minneapolis could be copied from present practices at airports.
The Via Union Station at Main and Broadway already handles passenger service -- four daily trains would little strain capacity since there are presently only 12 Via trains per week.
Meanwhile, Amtrak equipment already has been tested here -- in 1984, a trainset of Amtrak bi-level, "SuperLiner" cars came up to Winnipeg from Minneapolis on a successful trial run. Compatibility, therefore, does not seem to be a problem.
In short, this is an idea whose time may or may not have come: but there is every reason why it should be investigated thoroughly and objectively. A small investment now might fetch large, long-lasting benefits down the line: we'd be myopic not to at least do the homework.
Peter Lacey is western vice-president for Transport Action Canada, a public-interest group concerned with public transportation. Jeff Lowe co-wrote this article with him.
Northern Lights Express website is at www.northernlightsexpress.org