Construction crews will be testing railroad signals and switches over the next few weeks as they wrap up preparations for bringing passenger trains back to downtown St. Paul.
Heavy machinery on Monday pulled and placed the final section of track that will connect Amtrak trains from the main lines to platforms for passengers along St. Paul's Union Depot. Now, signals to hold freight trains while passenger trains pass, and vice versa, need to be wired and tested.
"It's kind of like rebuilding a road," said Dan Krom, director of passenger rail for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "You've got to make sure that traffic can get on and off the road. It's the same thing with the tracks."
The Union Depot stop for the Empire Builder Amtrak train will open for service after Thanksgiving this year. The last piece of track, 150 feet long, will allow those trains to route off of the Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to stop at the Kellogg Boulevard Union Depot. The trains link the Twin Cities to Chicago.
"Now, they're going to be working on attaching tracks to each other and making sure grades are proper," said Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority spokeswoman Deborah Carter McCoy. "There's still a lot of refinement work that continues."
Crews will also move gravel to ensure tracks are at-grade.
"It's almost like paint trim," McCoy said. "There's detail work that you have to do."
Krom said although signal work will be less visible to the public, it's a large part of the project because 5 percent of the nation's rail traffic moves through the freight tracks along the depot.
"There's a lot of congestion," he said. "So now, hooking up a track to the platform where people get on and off the train involves a lot more switching and train connection so the freight service can continue as it does, and we can still get a passenger train in and out of that depot."
The Amtrak train stop will be moving from the Midway station in St. Paul to Union Depot --- where Empire Builder, under different ownership used to stop about 40 years ago. The Union Depot stop will connect passengers to buses, and next year, with light rail. Amtrak was expected to move its St. Paul stop to the Union Depot last year after the hub underwent a $243 million renovation and reopened to the public for the first time since 1971. But the move was delayed pending agreements with the railroad companies using the tracks.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said an exact date for start of service at Union Depot has not yet been announced, but is expected later this year.
"We will not make a move over Thanksgiving," Magliari said, "because there's too much volume to be disruptive to our passengers to make their travel plans change perhaps for Thanksgiving."
The day before Thanksgiving is Amtrak's busiest day of the year across the nation, he said.
MnDot personnel are also working with Amtrak to add a second daily train to Chicago that would have its last stop at Union Depot, then return south, instead of continuing to Seattle as the Empire Builder currently does.
"We'd have a lot more reliability for passengers. Right now, it's got to come 28 hours from the coast, and sometimes it's delayed because anything can happen between here and Seattle," Krom said. "We'll have our results by the first of the year on whether or not it's feasible and how much it would cost to start a second daily train. But the demand is there."
Researching the idea involves looking at how much train capacity the track currently carries, and those technical details put the planning behind schedule, he said. The idea has been explored for about a year.
"If it looks feasible, it would probably be brought to the legislature for the upcoming session," Krom said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Amtrak was bringing its passenger trains back to the Union Depot after more than 40 years. When the famed Empire Builder train last stopped in downtown St. Paul, it was owned by Burlington Northern. Thanks to train historian Steve Glischinski, who watched the last passenger train pull out of the Union Depot in 1971.