News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak Borealis makes debut

Amtrak Borealis makes debut

By Steve Glischinski | May 21, 2024

Ceremonies held in St. Paul, Chicago for new state-supported operation

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Passenger train running along river with city in distance
The first eastbound Amtrak Borealis departs downtown St. Paul on May 21, 2024. Steve Glischinski

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was 43 years in the making, but the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor finally has a second Amtrak passenger train.

In ceremonies in Chicago, St. Paul and intermediate points today, Amtrak and state, local, and federal official marked the first run of the Borealis, new daily service between Chicago Union Station and St. Paul Union Depot. It is sponsored by the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

It was Oct. 25, 1981, when Amtrak discontinued the overnight North Star between Chicago and Midway Station in St. Paul due to funding issues (the North Star segment from St. Paul to Duluth lasted until 1985). That left only the Empire Builder on the route over the last 43 years. That train switched from Midway Station to the restored Union Depot in St. Paul in 2014.

Man speaking at podium
Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner speaks at Tuesday’s ceremonies marking the inauguration of Borealis service at St. Paul Union Depot. Steve Glischinski

In remarks at St. Paul Union Depot this morning, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner welcomed Minnesota to Amtrak’s 18 state partnerships and said this was the nation’s 29th Amtrak corridor service.

“These services account for half our ridership across the United States,” Gardner said. “People are coming in droves to ride trains across the United States.” He also thanked officials from the various government agencies who cooperated to get the service started, including Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. “It might not be so easy to get three states to always be on the same page, and it took some time to get all this organized to make this service a success, but we did it,” he said.

Efforts to bring a second train to the route began over 10 years ago, with lobbying from backers such as the Great River Rail Commission and All Aboard Minnesota. Jack Barbier, a founding member of All Aboard Minnesota, recalled that one of their first steps was establishing a relationship with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We put together a White Paper discussing how we thought a second train to Milwaukee and Chicago could be put together successfully,” Barbier said. “One thing led to another and we worked up to the legislative level, getting legislators to become supporters who helped get legislation passed to fund this train. All Aboard Minnesota became a grass roots organization that has been a driving force behind increased passenger rail in the Midwest.”

Inauguration of the new train was accelerated thanks to CPKC, which asked Amtrak to back Canadian Pacific’s acquisition of Kansas City Southern Railway in 2021. For that backing, CP agreed to allow service to begin before the route’s capital improvements have been completed.

Crowd of people gather for ribbon-cutting
Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner, and Ramsey County Regional Railroad Commissioner Rafael Ortega cut the ceremonial ribbon to begin Borealis service from St. Paul to Chicago.

Most of the improvements will be centered around Winona, Minn., and include rebuilding 2 miles of the existing Winona siding running north of 11th Street, replacing manual switches with two power turnouts, new signals, and making grade crossing improvements at Bierce Street and Prairie Island Road.

The Borealis operates eastbound 3 hours after the Empire Builder, departing St. Paul at 11:50 a.m. Westbound the train departs Chicago three hours before the Builder at 11:05 a.m. It makes all the Empire Builder’s stops, as well as at Milwaukee Airport and Sturtevant, Wis. — stations served by Amtrak’s Hiawathas. The normal consist for the train will be four Horizon coaches and an Amfleet café car, which also has business class seating.

Waiting to take a ride on the first trip was Twin Cities resident Tim Vitelli. “It gives me another option to get to Chicago,” Vitelli said. “I take a lot of trips to Chicago on Amtrak, and this additional train and additional frequency is good news. I think there are a lot of people who get frustrated with the Empire Builder’s timekeeping, so having a train that starts in St. Paul is a big win for everybody.”

Vitelli’s words were prophetic. As crowds began to gather for the Borealis inauguration ceremonies, the eastbound Empire Builder departed for Chicago at 10:08 a.m. – an hour and 18 minutes late.

Passenger train with stadium in background
The first westbound Borealis, 17 minutes late departing Milwaukee, makes its way past Grand Avenue on May 21, 2024. The Milwaukee Brewers’ home, American Family Field, is in the background. David Lassen

7 thoughts on “Amtrak Borealis makes debut

  1. “Twin Cities Hiawatha” a much better name. BTW the MRHA (Milw. Rd. Hist. Asso.) convention is in Winona June 27-30.

  2. Will be interesting to see how total ridership CHI-Twin Cities increases now. Also Empire Builder ridership beyond Twin Cities, that is, presumably, some riders who would have taken the Builder will now take the new train instead, freeing up seats for Builder riders going beyond MSP, a win-win.

  3. At what point do the different state rail agencies learn history, and from each other, to maximize the potential benefits this CHI-MSP train could offer?

    For example:
    1) Unlike competitors “400” and “Hiawatha’s,” the Burlington maxed out asset utilization by turning their “Twin Cities Zephyrs” back to their originating city, even after the schedule was extended beyond the initial 6.5 hour schedule. What are the issues today preventing Amtrak from utilizing this concept?
    2) Amtrak’s frequent “Downeaster” (Boston-Brunswick, ME) continues to have its performance carefully monitored by the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA). To the benefit of passengers, this authority secured permission from Amtrak to staff and operate the cafe/lounge, including provision of food/beverage. As the three state agencies (MN, WI, and IL) mature their operating experience and knowledge, it should be a priority to takeover the staff, operation, and provisioning of the cafe/lounge.
    3) Given the known dismal record of Amtrak’s Horizon cars, particularly during the winter with piping and toilets freezing, what are Amtrak’s plans now to prevent service interruptions that would tank the reliability of this service?
    4) As a frequent rider CHI-MSP (1961-1967), what are the plans to accommodate the numerous colleges en route, particularly before/after holidays and breaks?

    1. I had previously assumed that the Horizon/ Amfleet vs. the Siemens consists on the Hiawatha were randomized, depending on what equipment happened to be available for any given departure. Turns out there is a pattern, the older cars on the Hiawatha that now is extended to MSP. I should know the answer (but I don’t) to my next question: are there any food service cars in the Siemens fleet?

      The photo shows an engine on the point but not the hideous cab-only derated former locomotive at the other end. As on all the other Hiawathas.

    2. Turning around the consist every night at MSP leaves the question how does it get servicing in CHI?

    3. There will be 17 cafe/lounge cars in the Midwest Venture fleet. Minnesota, however, is not part of the Midwest compact that owns the Midwest Venture fleet.

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