From the Twin Cities to Chicago in 90 minutes — by train

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published March 1, 1990  | March 1990 issue

Living in St. Cloud, Minn., and working in Minneapolis would mean a 15-minute commute.

Living in St. Paul and working in Rochester would be a commute of less than 20 minutes.

And, believe it or not, living in Minneapolis and working—or at least meeting with a client or attending a Cubs game—in Chicago would mean just a 90-minute one-way trip.

Such scenarios sound like the advance hype for a new airline company, but actually they're the travel times touted for a proposed high-speed, magnetic-levitation (maglev) train between St. Cloud and Chicago.

Sending Maglev to Other Cities

In December, when the plan was jointly announced by the Transportation Departments of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, the proposed route extended from Minneapolis to Chicago, with stops in Milwaukee and possibly Madison, Wis. However, Leonard Levine, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, recently called for adding the Minnesota communities of St. Cloud, Duluth, Mankato, Rochester and Winona/LaCrosse to the route. He also encouraged Wisconsin and Illinois to add smaller cities to the route.

Levine said it is important to add the smaller, "feeder" cities because not only will ridership likely increase, but the rail line would be extended to communities that deserve the service.

But talk of feeder cities and commuting times is still somewhat premature for the proposed rail service—a study of potential ridership and costs has yet to be completed. And, although private investors have expressed an interest in the project, no firm financial backing has been established.

Levine has acknowledged that the rail project, which may cost $15 million per mile to build, will have to be financed by private dollars.

But he is confident. Speaking recently in Bloomington, Minn., Levine told a gathering of transportation officials that he has met with the principal officers of three major New York investment banking houses. "They all said the same thing," Levine said. "This project appears conceptually feasible. It could be financed with private dollars, they said. Its success is predicated on ridership."

With private financing, Levine has said that a high-speed rail line between Minnesota communities and Chicago could be in operation by the turn of the century.

Flying Trains at 310 mph

Maglev trains are the new generation of superfast trains that travel at speeds up to 310 mph. Two maglev trains, in Germany and Japan, are already in existence, and two other plans are under way for Florida and between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The German system, which employs an elevated guideway, is the one most favored in this country. Trains glide above guideways by the force of magnets, and because they never touch the guideways and encounter the friction of normal trains, they are able to reach high speeds. A traveler's sensation is similar to that on an airplane just as it leaves the runway—only without the noise from the jet engines.

In fact, Levine maintains that maglev travel is better than air: no delays, no engine noise, no weather problems and no circling before landing.

Another attractive element of maglev trains, in addition to the high- speed travel, is the likely reduction in travel on Interstate-94 and at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport, according to Levine. If some of the 71 flights per day out of the Twin Cities airport could be eliminated, then noise pollution would also be reduced, Levine said.

In short, Levine believes the time is right for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois to acknowledge their common transportation needs and problems. "The right elements are in place for the high-speed rail issue to gain momentum in crowded corridors. We have gridlock on our highways, and wing-lock at our airports—causing great irritation to many," he said. "High speed rail is operating or is in the planning stages in 17 other countries around the world.... Minnesota can be next."