ST. PAUL -- A planned second Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago is much closer to reality now that $10 million was set aside for it in the state’s omnibus transportation funding package signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz over the past weekend.
The funding, combined with those committed by Wisconsin and Amtrak, results in a full match for a federal grant awarded last year — and a green light for final design and construction of the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger Rail project (TCMC Second Train). Service is expected to begin in 2024.
The proposed second train was held up last year after the Minnesota Legislature declined to provide the $10 million in matching funds in the bonding bill.
“This is a great day for passenger and freight rail, and a great day for Minnesota,” Hastings City Council Member Mark Vaughan said in a Monday statement by the Great River Rail Commission, in which he serves as chairman. Members of the commission, representing 18 local governments, have long advocated for the expansion of passenger rail service in Minnesota.
Minnesota now joins the federal government, Wisconsin and Amtrak in funding the $53.3 million capital portion of the project to be used for final design and construction of freight rail track and signal improvements in and around Winona and La Crescent. A $31.8 million grant was awarded to the project last year from the Federal Railroad Administration, and Wisconsin committed $6.5 million and Amtrak dedicated $5 million, as well as additional funding to upgrade a station in Winona.
The next step is having an agreement on a memorandum of understanding between the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, and Amtrak and Canadian Pacific, the host railroad. If approved by all parties, the agreement would go to the Federal Railroad Association to begin the process of accepting federal grant dollars.
The Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation would lead the process of establishing the agreements, and final design and construction of the project.
Building on Empire Builder
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train currently makes a daily stop at Union Depot in St. Paul — one westbound and one eastbound — on its route between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago. It also stops in Red Wing and Winona.
The TCMC Second Train would add another daily round-trip passenger train between Union Depot and Chicago Union Station. Top speed is 79 mph, and it is expected to carry 124,000 passengers annually.
“This improves flexibility and mobility, improves freight movement, improves safety at intersections and boosts tourism,” said Kevin Roggenbuck, a senior transportation planner with Ramsey County Regional Rail.
No additional stops are planned for Minnesota, Roggenbuck said.
Like the Empire Builder, the TCMC Second Train would make six stops in Wisconsin, including at Wisconsin Dells and Milwaukee, before ending in Chicago.
Back from pandemic
A year ago, Amtrak announced that starting Oct. 1 it would reduce service on the Empire Builder line and 11 other long-distance routes to three times a week instead of daily service because ridership fell significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said Monday that federal COVID-relief funding allowed them to restart daily service on the Empire Builder line on May 24; all other 11 routes are also back to daily service and full capacity.
Throughout the pandemic, trains like the Empire Builder held up better than some of Amtrak’s short-distance routes, Magliari said.
“A lot of places we serve with these trains, we are the only travel option. And we found that people actually change their travel plans to match when the train was going,” he said.
Based on current and future travel bookings, Empire Builder ridership is “strong,” Magliari said. Nationally, Amtrak bookings are more than halfway back to pre-COVID numbers, he said.