The most sweeping rail plan in Minnesota history envisions a high-speed train running to Chicago within five years and a network of passenger trains someday connecting the Twin Cities with Rochester, Duluth and several other cities.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plan, released Thursday, names several possible routes over which a high-speed train from the Twin Cities to Chicago would travel. Developing that route, the plan said, is an urgent first step to securing federal funding that could help build a comprehensive network of passenger trains. They could connect major train hubs in Minneapolis and St. Paul with Moorhead, Mankato and Eau Claire, Wis., within 20 years.

After that, the plan envisions running trains from the Twin Cities to Albert Lea and Willmar in outlying Minnesota and to the Canadian city of Winnipeg.

"It's an exciting time because I think the public is ready for trains," said Myra Peterson, a Washington County commissioner who's been a champion of statewide rail planning. "Every time that we have something that happens in the air like the Detroit incident, the traveling public is more convinced that we need a viable option."

Minnesota's sudden leadership role in statewide rail planning will help in the race for federal money, said Tom Sorel, director of MnDOT. Passenger rail, largely erased from the American landscape 40 years ago, is undergoing a resurgence in popularity as billions of federal dollars come available.

Minnesota's vision wouldn't come cheap, with general infrastructure costs through 2030 ranging from $6.2 billion to $9.5 billion. Those figures don't include detailed engineering costs for specific trains and routes.

"They're not your grandfathers' trains anymore," is how Dan Krom, MnDOT's director of passenger rail, described new high-speed trains -- defined by national standards at 110 mph -- that someday could be running six times a day from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

Commissioned by the Legislature last spring, Minnesota's first-ever comprehensive passenger rail and freight plan also projects that improved freight rail -- already transporting 30 percent of all freight in the state -- will serve to further reduce heavy truck traffic on highways.

Route alternatives

Much of the public debate so far has been over whether a proposed high-speed train to Chicago would follow the existing Amtrak "river route" through Washington and Dakota counties, or instead would run to the Twin Cities via Rochester.

The new plan includes several other potential high-speed routes, including one along Interstate 94 from Eau Claire and another along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, but the plan doesn't favor one over another. Routes would be subject to environmental review to further determine what works.

"An alignment to Rochester is going to take work," Krom said, because no train has ever run from there to the Twin Cities. However, the plan calls for developing a high-speed Rochester train corridor to the Twin Cities whether that route eventually includes Chicago or not, he said.

Rochester's advantage is that trains could run as fast as 150 mph, he said, while trains along the "river route" would run no faster than 110 mph and would be hampered by some "geographic issues" along the Mississippi River.

"I was hopeful that there might have been even more direction provided by the plan," said Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, who wanted a stronger declaration of Rochester's importance as a true high-speed route. "There are corridors that clearly won't accommodate, now or in the future, true high-speed rail."

Peterson of Washington County said she was confident that the river corridor would be chosen for the high-speed trains. Ridership to Chicago on the Amtrak trains that follow that route continues to grow, she said, and the state invested $6.5 million in safety improvements on the route in the past few years.

"The only corridor that is shovel-ready and could have improvements within a few years is the river corridor," she said. "Every dollar we invest in the river corridor is a dollar invested in better freight movement, passenger rail and commuter rail."

A faster train could trim the trip between the Twin Cities and Chicago to five and a half hours, from the current eight. New trains, Krom said, won't resemble current trains with their 1950s and 1960s technology, but instead would be roomier and brighter, with wireless computer connections, business class sections, and new "tilt" technology that would allow them to navigate curves without slowing.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432