What’s the history behind passenger trains at the Union Depot?

A question about the history of Amtrak passenger trains in the Twin Cities surfaced this week after we published a story about the trains moving from their Midway station in St. Paul to the St. Paul Union Depot later this year.

Did Amtrak’s Empire Builder train ever use the St. Paul Union Depot station? Now, we know the answer to that question is: no.

We heard from several sources that the Amtrak Empire Builder train is returning to Union Depot, after leaving the station in 1971. And that seemed to be the popular belief. Although the Empire Builder did in fact use the station, it was not an Amtrak train at the time.

We posed the question to Amtrak staff, and even they had to do some digging to find out. So, why is the history of Amtrak in the Twin Cities so confusing?

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Steve Glischinki, a correspondent for Trains Magazine, contacted us and said Amtrak never used the Union Depot, and explained why there is so much confusion about it. Glischinki is the author of eight books on railroads, the latest being “Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012” published last year.

He says the Empire Builder did in fact use the station starting in 1929 -- but that was when the train was owned by the Great Northern Railway, and later Burlington Northern. And when Amtrak took over the train in 1971, the same year that the last passenger train left the Union Depot, it actually moved the Empire Builder over to a Minneapolis station --- the former Great Northern Station.

“In fact, at the time, St. Paul was upset that they were being 'skipped' by Amtrak for Minneapolis,” Glischinki wrote to us.

Then, Amtrak moved to the Midway station in St. Paul in 1978, where it still runs today, he said.

Glischinki says he witnessed the last train leaving the Union Depot before Amtrak started in Minneapolis.

He wrote:

I was standing on the platform of the St. Paul Union Depot on the evening of April 30, 1971 when the last train left the depot, and saw it with my own eyes.  I was 14 years old at the time. The next day my dad drove me over to the Minneapolis GN Station, and we watched the first Amtrak train to arrive. I have a photo of that event taken by a Star Tribune photographer that is on page 153 of the book I wrote last year “Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012” which shows the first Amtrak train breaking a banner that says “Minneapolis Welcomes Amtrak” that was taken on May 1, 1971 at the station in Minneapolis.

“I think one of the problems here is that 42 years have passed since the last train used the Depot, and people jumble the facts,” Glischinski wrote.

What do you recall about Amtrak in the Twin Cities? Share your insights about its history.