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Minnesota lawmakers approve funding match required for second Chicago-Twin Cities round-trip

By Bob Johnston | June 29, 2021

Bipartisan support achieved with message that freight rail will benefit from infrastructure improvements

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Passenger train passing under overhead signal bridge on multi-track route
Passenger train passing under overhead signal bridge on multi-track route
The westbound ‘Empire Builder’ departs Chicago on Monday June 28, 2021. Assigned only one Seattle coach and two coaches to Portland, Ore., the train was sold-out between Chicago and Wisconsin Dells, Wis., evidence of strong intermediate stop patronage even with one daily departure. Bob Johnston

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was only $10 million out of a $7 billion state omnibus transportation package, but the legislation signed into law on Monday by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz adds the last required match to a $31.8 million 2020 Federal Railroad Administration grant that paves the way for a second Amtrak round-trip between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

An information campaign to citizens and legislators along the route by Amtrak Government Affairs officials and “Virtual Town Forums” conducted by members of the Great River Rail Commission, elected officials representing 18 local and regional governments from St. Paul to La Crosse, Wis., was able to counteract concerns by Minnesota Senate Republicans initially opposed to funding any passenger rail projects.

The argument: more than $53 million worth of infrastructure improvements unlocked by a $10 million Minnesota grant, along with $6.5 million committed by Wisconsin and $5 million by Amtrak, would provide not only economic benefits to communities by increasing passenger patronage but also improve service for Canadian Pacific’s local freight customers.

Significantly, in this case, CP agreed to preliminary capacity upgrades primarily in the Winona and La Crescent, Minn., areas, rather than attempting to block infrastructure improvements from which its own trains would benefit during the substantial time passenger trains weren’t present.

With the grant matches now complete, a Memorandum of Understanding must be agreed to between the states, Amtrak, and CP for the FRA’s approval before the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Transportation lead the process of establishing agreements resulting in the project’s final design and construction.

Once contracts are completed, the work is expected to take place primarily in 2023, with the new trains added in 2024. According to Amtrak, schedule and equipment service development planning specifics are underway. The general concept is to have the second round-trip leave Chicago at about 11 a.m. (the Empire Builder departs at 2:15 p.m.) and the Twin Cities about 11:30 a.m., after the eastbound Builder’s scheduled 8 a.m. departure.

“Thanks to Governor Walz, a bi-partisan legislative coalition, and the communities working with the Great River Rail Commission, Amtrak is ready to take the next steps to make the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger Rail Project a reality as soon as possible,” says Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn.

8 thoughts on “Minnesota lawmakers approve funding match required for second Chicago-Twin Cities round-trip

  1. The proposed northbound times may permit eastern connections at least off the City of New Orleans, LSL and the Cap. Still an 800AM Chicago departure (leaving the connecting trade to the EB–which can also serve the Cardinal), combined with a SB out of STP around 200–300PM would better have facilitated same-day visits at least as far north as La Crosse and even Red Wing. The SB times are less positive–if the EB is on-time it’s almost like a quasi second section–although I suspect again this is to permit at least some connectivity east of Chicago. But if you look at this as a Corridor there ought to be both AM and PM departures in each direction. The EB rarely is late enough to miss the eastern connections. Of course I’m thrilled to see an actual “evolving corridor” actually emerge, but this schedule is a bit odd. Next perhaps a reliable “Nebraska Zephyr” Chicago-Omaha-Lincoln and a second direct Chicago–Kansas City “Kansas City Chief”? These were strong multi-train markets right up to Amtrak day. The problem as always with new corridor trains crossing state lines is to get multi-state operating support.

    1. Plenty of trains cross lots of state lines from Boston to Virginia without the states being extorted for subsidies.

  2. Is a little weird that the two trains would run so close together. If the existing train were either a true overnight or else a true day train, I could see running the new schedule 12 hours opposite. However the existing schedule is neither a day train nor an overnight — if on time in passes through Milwaukee mid-afternoon in both directions. A schedule 12 hours opposite the existing would mean opening and staffing MKE station 24 hours.

    Heck, even the real MKE – General Mitchell International Airport – is almost deserted after about 8:00 PM and rolls up its runways after about 10:00 PM.

  3. In 1959 both MILW and CB&Q had two day trains between CHI and the Twin Cities.

    Q’s Morning Zephyr left CUS 8.15 AM arriving Mpls 2.55 PM. The Afternoon Zephyr left 4.15 PM arriving Mpls 11.00 PM. Both the North Coast Ltd. and the Empire Builder ran on separate schedules and carried passengers on the Q.

    On the MILW, the Morning Hiawatha left CUS 9.30 AM arr Mpls 5.45 PM; the Afternoon Hiawatha left CUS 1.00 PM arr Mpls 8.15 PM. The Olympian Hi had the same schedule as the PM Hi.

    Mpls-CHI schedules were similar.

    The Q’s Zephyrs ran with two consists and each consist turned the same day at CHI/Mpls and returned. The Hiawathas ran with four consists and each consist returned the next day.

  4. Good news! I wish they would operate the old Arrowhead/Northstar schedule leaving MSP & CHI about 10:30 pm arriving at their end point about 7 am you could connect to any train in CHI with that schedule. I wish they would offer a Business class fare on this train for those who want more peace & quiet, your connections will be limited and dicey with this schedule. But 2024? Who knows what might happen by then this might all be for naught if the political climate changes in MN this may never even happen.

  5. I’m straying from the subject I know but I cannot help but comment on the consist of #7-28. ONE coach CHI-SEA?!?! This seems to mirror what the Lake Shore is carrying for coaches these days: 2 NY coaches, 1 BOS coach. Flynn is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He says he wants to expand Amtrak’s market and ridership but then he fields consists guaranteed to sell out and turn away potential riders. And this: A friend rode #49-28 ALB-CHI. He texted that one of the coaches, I think the one from BOS, arrived ALB with the a/c down. Apparently, the Mech Dept forces got it running and hopefully it held all the way to CHI. But suppose they couldn’t fix? My friend’s sleeping car attendant said the passengers in that car could not me moved because the coaches were sold out. I would have liked nothing better than to have dragged William Flynn and Stephen Gardner by the scruff of their collars into that car to face down the passengers and explain to them why they have to ride for the next 15-20 hours in a car with no a/c. But Flynn and Gardner will never be called to account and the politicians who would be in a position to do so never ride and experience the good, the bad, and the ugly for themselves.

    1. Geez, Mark, no a/c on the Lakeshore? Nothing much changes Mark. I’ll never forget that trip in the 1970’s, Boston to Toledo, mid-winter with no heat. People complain about air travel for reasons which escape me – aviation is far more reliable and far more convenient than train travel, to say nothing of almost infinitely more coverage of places people need to get to. I believe we need trains, many more of them … but if you judge by my ticket purchases it’s almost all by air.

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