Rail company brings passenger trains back to St. Paul’s historic Union Depot
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Passenger trains are again rolling into St. Paul’s historic Union Depot.
“Our beautifully restored building is achieving our vision as a multimodal transit facility and a unique gathering place for people,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, chair of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.
But don’t call Amtrak’s arrival a comeback.
The modern incarnation of passenger rail has never before stopped in downtown St Paul. On April 30, 1971, the last passenger trains — operated by Burlington Northern — ended service to the Capital City, shuttering the transit hub on Kellogg Boulevard. When Amtrak officially rolled into being the next day, it stopped in Minneapolis.
“When Amtrak began May 1 of 1971 — 43 years ago last week — it didn’t serve this station,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, addressing dozens of onlookers in front of the walkway to the depot’s new Amtrak platform in St. Paul. It was in 1978 that Amtrak shifted service to the now-closed Midway Station on St. Paul’s Transfer Road.
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said Amtrak’s arrival at Union Depot is just the beginning. Zelle listed a handful of potential passenger-rail routes from the Twin Cities, including service to Duluth and high-speed rail to Rochester.
Despite his enthusiasm, passenger rail faces plenty of challenges, from funding to competitive disadvantages.
Officials hope that more travel times will increase interest. Amtrak’s Empire Builder offers daily round-trip service to Chicago from the Union Depot, but Amtrak is drafting a study of a possible second round-trip.
“A second departure to Chicago is probably the nearest-term service that could be accomplished,” said Zelle, noting that the added trips likely would require track improvements. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the carrier’s draft study, which would outline funding needs, will be delivered to MnDOT later this year.
After that, the proposed Northern Lights passenger train from Minneapolis to Duluth is probably the furthest along in planning, Zelle said. MnDOT is still weighing the best departure point for a high-speed “Zip Rail” to Rochester, but no decisions have been made about whether it would leave from Minneapolis or St. Paul.
“It could be any of those locations, including the airport,” Zelle said.
Funding for Amtrak and other passenger-rail options remains a difficult subject at both the state and federal levels. Ramsey County’s renovation of the 1920s-era Union Depot cost $243 million, roughly half of which came from the federal government.
Amtrak had been expected to roll in when the Union Depot reopened in late 2012 but was delayed for more than a year because of coordination with three freight railways and the Federal Railroad Administration.
Ortega on Wednesday welcomed Karen Hedlund, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, who spoke of the difficulty in approaching Congress for declining amounts of federal Amtrak subsidies on an annual basis.
Amtrak carried a record 31.6 million passengers last year, including a record 15.4 million on state-supported corridors. Ticket revenue reached a record $2.1 billion. The national carrier nevertheless relies on roughly $1 billion in annual federal funding for new trains, track and operations, on top of growing state contributions.
With more young people and baby boomers interested in urban living, interest in passenger rail is likely to increase.
“In 2013, more people chose public transportation than at any time since 1957, the year President Eisenhower authorized the beginning of the interstate highway system,” Hedlund said.
Nevertheless, passenger rail faces plenty of challenges. For roughly the same cost as a 75-minute flight, an Amtrak trip from St. Paul to Chicago takes more than seven hours. A bus can take about the same amount of time, but often at a lower cost.
Magliari, the Amtrak spokesman, noted that Amtrak — which leases space on freight track — faces its share of freight- and weather-related delays on the Empire Builder. Track upgrades could accommodate faster trains, which would help Amtrak become even more competitive.
Urban mayors have their own reason to hope that’s true. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said that as a young woman, his grandmother arrived in St. Paul from Ireland by way of Union Depot, landing in a “bustling community, a vibrant community. … It was an impression of a city that had a ton of things going on.”
By the end of April 1971, the depot’s nine passenger-rail lines had fizzled to none, and the national “out-migration” of people and businesses to the suburbs was well underway, Coleman said. St. Paul’s downtown has struggled since, but he’s confident that Union Depot’s refurbishment and the arrival of more transit service such as Amtrak, the Green Line and additional bus and passenger rail will continue to spur interest in downtown redevelopment.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.