A Comprehensive List of Transit-Accessible Campgrounds in Minnesota, Part 1

Minnesota is the 12th largest state in a nation of really big states, so it’s not surprising that there are a lot of outdoorsy things to do here.  But this nation of really big states is also well known for its lack of mass transit options, so again I wasn’t surprised when I started looking for camping facilities that were accessible by bus or train, and didn’t find too many.

To begin with I looked at camp sites managed by the DNR, basically because their website is pretty good and is the single biggest source of info on camping that I’m aware of.  Also, I’ve camped in a lot of State Parks and generally been impressed with their facilities.  If you’re aware of any other good campgrounds/sites that aren’t managed by the DNR, please let me know in the comments. Unfortunately I couldn’t find an editable map of their parks (wikipedia has all their Geo coordinates, which would have made this task super easy if I’d found it beforehand) so I made my own map on google earth.

I don’t have Jefferson Lines’ network structure memorized, but luckily the esteemed Mike Hicks has already mapped it.  He also has a map of the Rochester City Bus commuter network, probably the network with the largest coverage area next to Jefferson (Rochester appears to serve a larger area than Metro Transit & the opt-outs, although obviously with many fewer routes and stops).  I then filled in a few spots, for example the Mankato Land-to-Air Express stop and the Amtrak stops.

The resulting map looks promising at the state level – lots of campgrounds look like they’re close to bus stops.  But at the full scale of the 12th largest state, distances are misleading.  I’m willing to walk up to 8 miles to the camp site, but the park office can be pretty far from the camp site, so in most cases the bus stop needs to be within 5 miles of the park.  Basically, the camp symbol needs to be right on top of the bus stop symbol to work. Here is the list of the walkable ones, with remote campsites first and car campgrounds second (because if you have to walk 5 miles to the park, you deserve a better quality camp site).

Remote Camp Sites

  1. Charles A. Lindbergh State Park, Little Falls – bus stop: McDonald’s east of town – distance from stop to park office: 3.3 micamping: 2 cart-in, 38 “wooded and private” drive-in.  The hike to the park involves walking down Little Falls’ Main Street – a bonus in my book – but a good half of it is on the sidewalkless, possibly stroady Lindbergh Drive.  The park itself covers the southwestern flank of the town and, despite appealingly rolling terrain, is a bit small and doesn’t appear to connect to other natural areas.  The bus times are pretty good on this one, the mid-afternoon arrival allowing time to get to the park and set up camp, and the mid-afternoon departure means the hike back doesn’t have to be a scramble.
  2. Moose Lake State Park, eponymous – bus stop: Little Store south of town? – distance from stop to park office: less than a mile, probablycamping: 2 walk-in, 33 “partially shaded” drive-in.  Part of the fun of bus travel is that you never know exactly where you’re going (passionately fought in the Battles of Permanence and Legibility in the Great Rail/Bus War).   Jefferson itself places the stop west of town, Mike put it a bit south of town, but using Streetview and assuming they’d put the bus stop as close to the freeway as possible, I think it’s probably this gas station just off I-35.  That’s a bummer if you’re going to Moose Lake, but it’s great if you’re going to Moose Lake State Park, which has some nice North Woods landscapes and appears to be near some other natural areas, although the camping doesn’t look that great.  Nice mid-afternoon arrival and departure times give plenty of time for hiking to and fro, although the stop looks close enough that the timing isn’t all that important for once.
  3. Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne – bus stop: Expressway gas station south of town – distance from stop to park office: 6-7 micamping: 14 cart-in, 73 drive-in.  This is on the cusp of what I’d consider too far, but since the camp sites are close to the park office, I think it’s doable.  The walk looks pretty nice – much of it is through town with sidewalks or else on a trail through the park, and the third of the trip along a county road has the rare Southern Minnesota trail paralleling it.  Blue Mounds looks like a cool park – a bison herd and prickly pear cactus – although I’m not too excited about prairie camping.  Jefferson helps out as best it can, with a noontime arrival and a choice of two departures, one of which is at a leisurely 3:30 pm.
  4. Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton – bus stop: New Duluth or Fond du Lac – distance from stop to park office: 5-8 micamping: 4 backpack, 3 walk-in, 79 drive-in.  This one’s a stretch.  The park is actually closest to the bus station in Duluth, from which you take a city bus 7 miles southwest to New Duluth, then hike 8 miles down windy MN-210 to the park office.  If you’re a fast hiker or have more faith in the punctuality of Jefferson than I, you can catch one of the two runs per afternoon that go three miles beyond New Duluth to Fond du Lac, but they arrive at 4:38 or 5:58.  But Jay Cooke appears to be worth it – beautiful terrain, dense forest, and real backpacking sites!  Jefferson’s three runs a day give you plenty of options, although the park’s distance means you should probably leave early.
  5. Myre – Big Island State Park, Albert Lea – bus stop: Ole’s East Side Shell – distance from stop to park office: 3 micamping: 4 backpack, 93 drive-in.  Despite the drop-off at the side of an awful highway strip, most of the short hike to the park follows the brilliantly-named Blazing Star State Trail.  This small, freeway-scarred park doesn’t look too promising, but the backpack campsites look nice, especially for fishing.  Albert Lea – the gateway to Iowa – offers an astonishing four or five bus trips a day in each direction.
  6. Upper Sioux Agency State Park, Granite Falls – bus stop: Cenex on the south edge of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 micamping: 3 walk-in, 34 drive-in.  The 8 mile hike down a bleak 2-lane country road is potentially lethal, but there looks to be a treasure trove of hiking here at the confluence of two prairie-draining rivers with the Minnesota.  And if not, there’s a casino.  Granite Falls has a nice little downtown, besides, but it’s probably not worth the 1:30 am bus you have to catch out of Minneapolis.
  7. Sand Dunes State Forest, Big Lake – train stop: Big Lake Northstar – distance from stop to park office: 7 micamping: 6 walk-in, 30 drive-in.  Probably the easiest – and certainly the cheapest – camping to access from Minneapolis, this one probably works for an overnight.  I’m not exactly enamored with the landscape, though, and the hike to the park is through 7 miles of beige exurb.

Car camping only

  1. Minneopa State Park, Mankato – bus stop: Land-to-Air Depot – distance from stop to park office: 4.5 mi.  Mankato is surprisingly rich in multiuse trails, but unfortunately the one to Minneopa is basically in the ditch of 4-lane 169.  This gorgeous park is worth it though, and Land-to-Air Express offers a convenient range of daily runs.
  2. Crow Wing State Park, Brainerd – bus stop: some motel south of town – distance from stop to park office: 8 mi.  Another lengthy highway ditch walk to this one, but the park looks nice.
  3. Carley State Park, Plainview – bus stop: Wedgewood/Southwest Park – distance from stop to park office: 4 mi.  I’m a little dubious about using Rochester City Lines, especially because it requires a lengthy layover in Rochester and only runs on weekends.  I’m not sure tiny little Carley State Park is worth it, but technically it can be done…
  4. Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji – bus stop: Paul Bunyan Transit or BSU – distance from stop to park office: ~7 mi.  Jefferson has two stops in Bemidji, the one from Paul Bunyan Transit looks to be around a half-mile longer but follows the Blue Ox trail the whole way.  If you get off at the college, you’re stuck on a sprawlsy 2-lane.  I know which one I’d choose, if I ever feel it’s worth it to take the 1:30 am red-eye out of Minneapolis.
  5. Mississippi Headwaters State Forest, Wilton – bus stop: Wilton – distance from stop to park office: 6 mi.  Mike had this one mapped but Jefferson doesn’t list it anymore – maybe it’s a flag stop?  I hope so because the wilderness area here is enormous.
  6. Red River State Recreation Area, East Grand Forks – bus stop: Grand Forks Transit Center – distance from stop to park office: .7 mi.  The campground is so close to the bus stop that it’s more a stroll than a hike, but the downside is that the campground is right in the middle of town.  Personally I prefer noisy, bright camping to come with a side of music festival or not at all.  I would like to see the Red River SRA – created to manage the regular savage flooding of the titular stream – but maybe I’ll just get a motel room.

13 transit-accessible campgrounds isn’t too bad for our too-big-for-transit state, although that probably drops to 7 or 8 when you subtract the ones that probably don’t work or are clearly unpleasant.  On top of that, intercity bus travel, which is often viewed as an economy option,  is actually really expensive – round trip tickets seem to range between $40 (Albert Lea) and $100 (Luverne).  But I remain dedicated to the pointless cause, and will report back here as I learn which parks are amazing and which aren’t worth the walk.  In the meantime, please let me know in the comments if I missed any campgrounds and feel free to report any bus- or train-to-camping experiences you’ve had (in North America, that is – I already know it’s easy to do in Europe).

Viva Zoning and Planning!

The May 17th Zoning & Planning committee meeting is packed with some big ticket items.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to get your email pen ready to pester your council member about this stuff (assuming your council member is on this committee, that is – if you live in one of the seven wards whose council member isn’t on Z & P, you don’t get a voice).  Dock Street is once again on the agenda, along with the A Mill, Peavey Plaza, and a certain revolutionary.

Conceptual track/platform configuration from The Interchange Final Study from 2010

Dock Street is the most directly transportation-related of the four items, since the basis for the appeal by Hennepin County and MnDot of Hines’ proposed apartment complex is that the layout will constrain options in the rail corridor currently used by Northstar and proposed for use by several other future lines.  Action has been postponed for more than a month, but the recent Strib story makes it seem like they’ll actually act on it this time, possibly because Hines made a stink about the delay at the last Z & P meeting.  They have a point, as Hennepin County has known since 2006 that the Interchange was their preferred location for the hub of Minnesota’s rail facilities, and MnDot was given the opportunity to comment on the project in August of 2011 and at that time said only “No formal comment.”

Peter McLaughlin called this a “Kmart moment” with some hyperbole; it’s not clear that the apartments and the rail facilities are mutually exclusive, and based on the 2010 Interchange study it looks like the trail would have to cross Washington at grade anyway.  In that case I would tend to favor allowing the apartments to move forward; for me and others who use the trail to access Downtown an at grade crossing at Washington would actually improve the trail, which currently has awkward access to the area.  It seems like only recreational users would suffer from a grade crossing, although that would also make the trail more expensive to reconstruct.  It also seems like the Interchange is barely feasible due to the tightness of the site anyway, so it may be more worthwhile to spend the money that Hines would have extracted for further easements on a new study of passenger rail station possibilities in Minneapolis.

I hope they know what they’re doing – this would have been a great place to drink a beer.

The A Mill project in this initial phase is merely a reuse of a historic structure; this sort of development typically requires a lot of variances because historic structures were usually built before the zoning code was adopted, but since the structures already exist, these variances tend to be less controversial than they would be for a new structure that’s built to look like a historic structure.  From what I can tell from the complicated site plan, only a couple small additions would be made to the existing A Mill complex to accommodate a parking structure that would somehow be wedged into the center courtyard and mostly buried below the existing ground profile.  So here we run up against the City’s annoying practice of not publishing the actual appeal being heard in the Z & P meeting, and our only clue to the reason for the appeal is that the appellant is Kathleen Flynn Peterson.  They tossed us a bone in the form of the Planning Commission minutes, where Ms Peterson complained at length about the City’s process and made no comment on the form or use of the structure, which is the only thing the Planning Commission (or its appellate body the Z & P committee) has any say on.  As I mentioned last week, I have wistful feelings for the potential of past proposals for this site, but the only thing I don’t like about the current proposals are that they seem to waste the commercial potential of the location on the only beautiful street in Minneapolis.  My guess is this appeal will be denied, and the only significant hurdle the A Mill redevelopment will face will be at the Community Development committee meeting where the project’s financing will be debated.

Groovy plaza man

Peavey Plaza‘s last stand will be taken at the May 17th Z & P, where an appeal from Steve Kotke, the director of Public Works, will seek to overturn the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to delay the demolition of the architectural gem for six months.  It’s sort of ironic that the City is now trying to destroy a historic resource that it claims is too expensive to rehab because it neglected to properly maintain it for decades, basically the exact situation for which the City created the Historic Preservation Commission, obviously thinking only of when slumlords do it, not major corporations/campaign donors.  My guess is that staff is too busy pretending that the bland proposed replacement has anything to do with the serene original to notice the irony.  It may not surprise you that I’m opposed to the demolition, but I expect the appeal to be upheld and our last chance to enjoy Peavey Plaza to arrive shortly.

A substandard, tax-forfeited lot fit for a founding father

Emiliano Zapata probably isn’t used to being the least controversial one around, but at this Z & P committee he may be.  But don’t worry, Emy, that doesn’t mean you’re the least interesting.  Apparently a statue of the founding father of the modern Mexican republic was donated to Minneapolis by the state of Morelos, home to our sister city of Cuernavaca, but no place was ever found for it and it seems to have languished in a supermercado up till now.  Soon it will join such luminaries as my first love Mary Tyler Moore and popular 19th century violinist Ole Bull and be displayed in a public space, a narrow tax-forfeited lot at 12th and East Lake.  But is .08 acres really enough space for this huge figure in the history of our neighbor to the south?  It seems like this might be the ideal place to create Minneapolis’ first reclaimed street plaza.  12th Ave S has T-alleys on both sides, so car access can still be preserved.  Just use planters to block off the space between the alleys and Lake St and you’ll have something closer to the grand plaza Zapata deserves (but small enough to program the smaller, temporary uses suited to reclaimed space without feeling too empty).

More space to roam for Zapata

Reclaiming street space for recreation and biking and walking?  Sounds like I tied it back in to transportation.  Viva Zoning and Planning!

Over the river or through the woods?

Still waiting for a train at Rochester

Mulad, that wizard of railroad wisdom, reminded me that January 12th is the last day to send in comments on the Alternatives Selection Report for the Chicago-Twin Cities “High Speed Rail” Corridor.  Here are my hastily assembled comments:

To: “MWRRIPhase7@state.mn.us” <MWRRIPhase7@state.mn.us>
Sent: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:25 PM
Subject: Draft Alt Selections Report comments

I have two criticisms of the Draft Alternative Selections Report:
  1. It seems improper to have eliminated from the universe of alternatives those routes with physical constraints due to former right-of-way having been developed for other uses.  Examples are on pages 4-7 through 4-12 of Appendix A.  While the report properly considers the demolition of the existing uses to be an extreme impact, it does not consider the possibility of constructing a greenfield route around these physical constraints.  Several routes included in the universe of alternative require construction of new main tracks with the potential for extreme impact, the most glaring example of which is the BNSF river route, described on pages 3-14 and 3-15 of the Draft Selections Report.  The BNSF river route is stated on pages 3-14 and 3-15 to require the construction of a third track “in the Mississippi River” but it still garners the highest rating for Route Characteristics.  If it is worth considering routes that require major construction in the form of an additional track in a protected waterway, it should be worth considering routes that may require a few miles of greenfield bypasses of existing physical constraints.
  2. It seems likely that using population bands as a proxy for trip generation underestimated the potential of the Rochester and Madison metro areas.  These metros contain major trip generators in the form of a world-famous medical facility, one of the largest universities in the nation, and a state capital.  The bluntness of measuring route population by means of a band along the entire route rather than in a cluster around stations is another weakness of the Market Size metric, and one that may have tipped the scale towards the selected alternative (which has a fairly high but diffuse population density but one that would likely be just as well served by alternatives that serve Rochester).  However, the bigger problem with the Market Size metric was ignoring the trip generation capabilities of the unique land uses in Rochester and Madison.
Aside from these two criticisms, the alternative selections process seemed to me to be as fair as possible for a mostly qualitative process and impressively thorough, to boot.  While the recommended alternative is incapable of meeting international standards for high-speed rail, the capital upgrades described in the report will be a significant improvement to a vital rail transportation facility, and are both welcome and overdue.
On top of that, I think their last minute switcheroo to prioritizing the route that needs the least capital improvement is a bit fishy, and unfortunate because it resulted in selecting the route that is capable of the least improvement.  I don’t see why they didn’t sneak some more Rochester routes in there, and potentially basketed Zip Rail along with “HSR.”  But I only made it about halfway through the Draft Alternatives Selections Report, so I didn’t feel comfortable piping up about it.  Frankly, any news is good news on the rail upgrade front.  Even if in some distant high-speed future, a different route to Chicago is used, it’s likely that the selected route will still be used for more local rail travel so the improvements won’t go to waste.

Speed, or How to Get from Phoenix to Minneapolis?

Pop quiz, hotshot.  You need to drive your grandmother from Minnesota to Phoenix.  A nasty sciatic means that 1600 mile trip will take three days, for an overall average speed of around 30 mph.  Once you’re in Phoenix, the need to minimize vacation days will join forces with your hipster sensibility to get you out of that lame-o town as quick as possible.  But there’s a catch – you’re neurotic about air travel, due to its tremendous environmental impact.

Do you go by ground transportation?  There’s no Amtrak in Phoenix, of course, and the Texas Eagle, which picks up in nearby Maricopa, takes 60 hours to get to Chicago (I think part of that is due to a transfer to bus in East Texas because Southern Pacific is repairing some track, although there seems to be a 10 hour layover in San Antonio all the time).  A bus from Phoenix to Minneapolis doesn’t take terribly long (only about 40 hours), but that much time on a bus is itself kind of terrible.

So the least terrible ground route is to catch a Greyhound at midnight in Phoenix, which arrives in Flagstaff about 3 am.  Then you kill two hours in scenic Flagstaff by night, before catching the Southwest Chief a bit after 5.  32 hours later, you’ll be in Chicago just too late to catch the Empire Builder to St Paul.  The Megabus only has redeyes after 3pm so you’ll have to get a 5 o’clock Greyhound.  That’ll roll into Minneapolis at 1 am, only 49 hours after you left Phoenix, giving this itinerary an overall average speed of 32 mph.

Or do you fly, hotshot?  A direct flight to MSP from Phoenix costs the same as ground travel, and takes less than a tenth of the time.  If you’re willing to put up with a layover, the trip takes 5 whole hours but you can save $50.  Will the incredible time advantage and sizable price advantage overcome your neurotic resistance to flying?  Or will you cave to societal pressure and join the cadres of cramped, stressed, timesavers of the sky?  What do you do, hotshot?  What do you do?

This picture is way too classy for my blog

A Three Hour Tour

Don't google "rocket rider" at work

Last week I took the Jefferson 909 from Minneapolis to Duluth.  The trip went fairly smoothly, but I wouldn’t be me without finding a few things to complain about.  It wasn’t a long wait for the first:  the driver must have confused the 8:00 departure time with the route number, since he arrived at the depot at precisely 9 minutes after 8 o’clock.  Not that it’s a problem to spend more time at the Hawthorne Bus Depot, which is clean, spacious, and as comfortable a bus station as I’ve ever experienced.

Our route

The Hawthorne Depot features LED displays at every gate door to inform travelers of the route number departing from that gate and every stop made along that route – a pretty swanky feature for a bus station.  Still, I was afraid I had gotten on the wrong bus when we finally pulled out of the station (only 20 minutes late) and started heading up Hennepin and across the river.  Maybe Jefferson thinks it’s a tour bus company, but it chooses the least direct route to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, going all the way over to the University-4th St exit over two miles from the depot.  Recall that it was shortly after 8 AM, still the thick of the morning rush, so of course we waited for multiple complete phases at several intersections, the bus chugging away in its frantic effort to flash-freeze its passengers.

A Better Route

Google recommends taking Hennepin south through the Bottleneck to 35W from the Hawthorne Depot, which might not be too sensible at rush hour either.  I don’t see why they don’t take the exit to 94 that’s just six blocks from the Depot, then cut across 694 to 35W.  Are they afraid of the loop in the cloverleaf?  My guess is they take the convoluted route for the reason that should be most embarrassing: sheer inertia.  According to the timetable, some routes stop at “U of MN, University Ave”, so apparently even those routes that don’t make that stop still travel as though they do, even when it causes delay due to traffic congestion.  Anyway, is it really appropriate for an intercity bus route to be making the local trip from the U of M to downtown, duplicating the dozens of local buses making the same trip?  If they are making this stop as a supposed service to their customers, they should really charge more for it, and only make the stop (and take the convoluted route) when reserved in advance.  I couldn’t get their online scheduler to give me the option of the University Ave stop at all, though.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to run an intercity bus company.  I imagine it’s very difficult to train and then schedule drivers for these long and often intricate routes.  However, in the interest of greater competitiveness with private automobiles and the profits that presumably follow, I’d think it would be worthwhile to create routes that are a bit more responsive to the congestion frequently found in larger cities.

I see the lakes - where's the forest?

We made it onto 35W at about quarter to 9, and it seemed as though it would be smooth sailing from there on out.  Instead we had barely passed the confluence with 35E when the bus exited the freeway again.  Of course it is reasonable for even an express bus to make some intermediate stops, but the Forest Lake stop really gets my goat.  For one thing, according to Google it adds 15-20 minutes to the trip.  That is particularly annoying when you’re already running 45 minutes late, and when no one actually gets on or off the bus on this lengthy detour, as happened on my trip.

Fine, add 10% to the total travel time, it’s worth it because the Forest Lake stop is at the center of a dense, walkable, transit-rich location and therefore is ideal to serve with intercity mass transit, right?  Nope.  The Forest Lake Transit Center is 2 miles south of Forest Lake in a landscape of hobby farms, low-density tract housing, and scattered speculative retail.  If it were in a city, you could say it was a block off of Highway 61, but it’s a mile from the nearest major intersection, so its utility for a transfer point for future transit routes is highly dubious.  It seems to have been placed there entirely at the whim of the speculators that attempted to develop the area, apparently before the market stalled.  The presence of a Washington County Service Center – in the far northwestern corner of the county and therefore impossible to ever become central to users – is corroborating evidence for the “developer collusion” theory.

The rest of the trip was frustratingly uncomplainworthy, even pleasant.  Jefferson’s Rocket Rider buses have lots of leg room, although I can’t vouch for the functionality of the advertised wi-fi.  We made it to Duluth only 15 minutes late, which was nice.  Although the way we made up that half an hour only managed to irk me:  we skipped Cloquet, presumably because there were no reserved trips starting or ending there.  That means, of course, that Jefferson’s policy and technology allows skipping un-reserved stops, so we could have skipped Forest Lake, and we could have taken a more logical trip out of Downtown Minneapolis.

Well worth the journey

All in all, intercity bus is a pretty good way to get to Duluth.  The train will be faster, more reliable and more comfortable.  Unfortunately my trip ended another two hours from Duluth, in a small city not served by any intercity mass transit, so I had a friend pick me up and drive the rest of the way.  I’m sure I could find something to complain about on that segment of the trip, too, but I’ll hold off in the interest of repeating the trip someday.


Visual aid

My dear, departed friend Tony Graves, piano genius and one of the nicest men ever to grace this mean little world, used to say that America was the greatest country because it gave him a High School diploma even though he never could read.  I don’t  agree – it seems to me a rather difficult feat for those who don’t meet a narrow, mainstream definition of what an American should know and think (or not think).  Unlike Tony, I believe that anyone who manages to graduate from those teenage penal facilities has just managed a spectacular achievement.

My sister just graduated from one of Davidson County, North Carolina’s holding tanks for adolescents, and I recently went to view the ceremony (and thereby missed Open Streets).  This was such an important occasion that I chose to fly despite my antipathy toward commercial air travel.  I’ve taken the train and the bus out there before, the former enjoyably and the latter miserably, but my job is a major restriction on my freedom at the moment.  So through the air in an aluminum tube I went!

When I’m planning a trip I often find myself comparing my options to similar distances on other continents.  This is usually the result of a thought process that goes

  1. I wonder if I can take a train to _____?
  2. The train to _____ takes three days!  I wonder if I have that much time off?
  3. I used up all my vacation days writing in my blog!  %#$@$(@$*!!!!
  4. I bet if I lived it Europe the train wouldn’t take so long.

Charlotte is about 950 miles from Minneapolis as the crow flies, a distance comparable to that between Berlin and Barcelona, or Beijing and Chengdu.  So I searched for travel times and fares for flying, training and busing on the same dates between the three sets of cities.  (Already the futility of this exercise is obvious – the differences in size, function and wealth of these cities is naturally going to lead to differences in transportation between them – but hey it makes me feel better to think about it).

Here is a crudely reproduced table showing the shortest one-way travel time and lowest two-way fare between each of the cities (usually the shortest travel time was not the lowest fare anyway, so I decoupled them):

A few notes:

  • For some reason I couldn’t get the train fare for Berlin to Barcelona – I tried a few different sites but none of them could estimate it.
  • My guess is you could find a quicker and cheaper bus trip from Berlin to Barcelona, but I don’t know of any site that creates itineraries.  Eurolines seems to specialize in shorter-distance red-eyes, and although the website led me to believe this trip is direct from Berlin to Barcelona (34 hours on a bus sounds miserable), I’d guess it is a composite of some shorter routes since google says the car trip between the two cities is only 18 hours (a couple hours shorter than Minneapolis to Charlotte by car).  The site said the trip from Berlin to Barcelona was only possible three times a week, but there are daily trips between Berlin and Paris, and Paris and Barcelona.  Qui sait?
  • I’m not sure the Beijing – Chengdu train trip is anywhere near accurate – there are some websites that will give you estimates for train travel in China, but if you decide to buy the site actually books the tickets in China.  I’m not sure if they adjust the fare up if it ends up higher or if they just pad it extensively.  Apparently bus travel similarly has to be booked in China, although I couldn’t even find a website with sample itineraries.

Looking over the times, my frustration really is justified.  It seems that Amtrak is uniquely slow and expensive.  The sad thing is that it can’t even be explained by long transfer times – if you don’t count the 8 hours between trains, the travel time is still 33 hours, much longer than train travel in Europe or China.  The bus times are more favorable, but multi-day trips on buses can really be physically draining.

Even in Europe air travel is still much shorter than taking the train at this distance, and probably cheaper as well (from memory I’d guess that this Berlin-Barcelona trip is $250-300).  The aggressive plan for completing more high-speed rail lines will certainly make travel times more competitive, though it may make fares less competitive.

Who knows if plans for medium-speed rail in the USA will ever get off the ground, much less evolve into a national network?  Buses are getting better at shorter-distance trips, but until you can get up and walk around on a bus, it just won’t work very well outside of regional travel (although bus lanes without speed limits on the interstates might cut travel times enough to make it tolerable).  We’ll see if the USA will ever graduate to a multi-modal transportation system.


America’s Rollercoaster

Amtrak isn’t just a National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it’s a rollercoaster.  It seems like every time I ride it, I have an experience so superlative it’s almost mystical.  And every time I ride it I swear that I will never ride it again.

Some things never change

I took the Empire Builder to Red Wing last weekend to visit a friend of mine who lives in Wabasha.  If there were a bus (or a jitney or a rickshaw) that went directly to Wabasha, I would not have taken Amtrak.  Unfortunately, in this state that most consider to be part of the first world, of Minnesota’s 446 outstate cities with populations greater than 1,000, there only 57 with intercity bus service.*  That means that those of us who prefer to travel without impacting others’ lungs often have to ask their friends or family to meet halfway.

After transmitting my sensitive financial information to an unknown online entity, all I had to do was stroll up to the station and pick up my tickets.  Possibly because of the true American pastime, queuing, boarding Amtrak trains isn’t that different from boarding an airplane: endless lines of nervous people clad entirely in sweats wait with only a vague idea of the purpose, and ultimately are confronted with an amiable but apathetic anachronism doing the work of a bar code reader.  It’s even possible for a nude image of you to be generated and viewed by a total stranger, but most people catching the eastbound Empire Builder aren’t feeling that imaginative at the 7:50 a.m. boarding time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden trains in about a dozen other countries, and none of them checked tickets prior to boarding.  I remember enormous, serpentine lines in China, but I’m pretty sure they were just to get on the train.  Americans appear to be either uniquely untrustworthy or uniquely paranoid – and I’m pretty sure this was the case before the Tragic Events of September Eleventh as well, although I admit that I didn’t save space in my cluttered memory for the boarding protocols of decade-old train trips.

At least someone didn't forget their camera

Speaking of my defective cabeza, I made the biggest mistake of my life prior to departing by neglecting to charge my camera battery.  That means I wasn’t able to capture any blurry images of what was the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken.

St Paul is really a beautiful rail city – the moment where the train joins the edge of the bluff and the wide expanse of the valley presents itself just in time for the train to duck under the High Bridge – exciting stuff.   On top of that, it was the morning after a snowstorm had coated all the trees, creating a sparkling wonderland of the already-scenic blufflands south of St Paul.  But that’s not all – high water had created a sea out of the bottoms south of Hastings that we dumped on some of the Native Americans that we didn’t kill or banish, so it gave the appearance of gliding on a causeway over a broad lake.  Beautiful, even with the nuclear panner plant.

But, as always with Amtrak, the engine of magnificence was tugging a caboose of frustration.  Whenever I meet someone who has taken Amtrak a lot, I always ask him or her what their longest delay was.  For me, it was the time the Empire Builder derailed in Chicago’s Union Station – in the station – and it was delayed at least 6 hours, although there was also a memorable 3 hour delay in the cornfields of northern Indiana, which purportedly was just because the freight railroads were backed up.

The delay this time wasn’t memorable – an hour late getting into Red Wing, and 45 minutes late getting into St Paul, pretty standard Amtrak time (if you look at the photos on the site I nicked the above pic from, a majority of them have captions noting the tardiness of the pictured train).  The westbound Empire Builder gets into St Paul at the obnoxious hour of 10:30, when you are guaranteed a substantial wait for any city bus you’d want to catch home from the train.

And that’s the highs and lows of Amtrak: the most comfortable way to travel in the USA, often breathtakingly beautiful, and usually some interesting society, but nearly unusable due to low frequency and dismal reliability. As for me, I’ll take it to the bluff country again, but I bet that at least once on that trip I’ll swear to never take it again.

*Ok, to be fair, there are only 69 cities outside the 7-county metro with populations greater than 5,000, so the situation really isn’t atrocious.  Still, the entire Iron Range is without intercity bus service, and I am irked that I can’t visit my ancestral homeland of New Ulm (pop. 13,522) without asking my astigmatism-prone grandmother to drive to Mankato to pick me up.