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All aboard: Amtrak returns to downtown St. Paul, but not without challenges

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Amtrak CEO
Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman was on hand for the return of passenger rail service to downtown St. Paul on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

After 43 years, passenger trains again are pulling into Union Depot in St. Paul. Amtrak's Empire Builder arrived from Chicago Wednesday night before continuing on to Portland and Seattle on the Pacific coast.

• Update (10:25 a.m. Thursday):Union Depot still waiting on second train

Ramsey County, the federal government and other funders spent more than $240 million the past few years to refurbish the train station as a regional transportation hub serving Amtrak, light rail and buses, and the return of passenger rail to downtown St. Paul is being heralded as a major civic event.

Touring the platform
Eliot Haycock, of Houghton, Mich., tours the platform at Union Depot on Wednesday.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Still, the first passenger train to arrive at Union Depot since 1971 was more than an hour behind schedule, reminding rail proponents that Amtrak faces some major challenges in the Upper Midwest.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman talked about what his immigrant grandmother saw when she got off the train in the heart of the city's bustling downtown in the 1920s.

"She had the first impression of a new land that was a home for her for the rest of her life. But it was an impression of a city that had a ton of things going on," he said.

While downtown St. Paul has much more going on than it did a few decades ago, Amtrak passengers arriving on the Empire Builder late at night won't see the same bustling rail platforms Coleman's grandmother did 90 years ago.

Coleman and Boardman
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, left, chats with Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman on the Amtrak platform.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Last night they were instead greeted by dozens of railroad buffs lined up on the platform. One of them, 67-year-old Eric Wood, of St. Paul, said the event brought back personal memories of when his father worked as waiter, steward, and later an inspector for what became the Burlington Northern railroad. In the late 1960s -- the company's final years in the passenger business -- Wood also worked for the railroad in the summers during college.

"I was a train porter," he said. "At that time they called them porters, now they're attendants. I helped people on and off on the trip between here and Seattle. It was a wonderful experience for me."

While the Empire Builder's arrival was an occasion for nostalgia and reminiscing, its tardiness highlighted the present-day problems on the route. The booming oil business in North Dakota means the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad is running more and more tank car trains on the rails it owns and shares with Amtrak.

With newly-extended timetables, the trip from Chicago to either Portland or Seattle is scheduled to take 49 hours. But Gary Israelson, Amtrak's superintendent of operations for the central region, admits it often takes longer.

Train departures
A board displays the departure times of Amtrak trains at Union Depot.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"We've been about 52 to 53 hours," he said. "It's been pretty routinely of late. We've had some days we've gotten in only an hour or two late. It just kind of varies here and there on how they handle us."

While all the oil trains have been a persistent headache for Amtrak, Israelson says BNSF is spending $400 million dollars to upgrade its tracks in North Dakota, which could eventually help reduce delays. But that will mean westbound Empire Builder passengers will have to take a bus from Fargo to Minot through the end of September.

For some train passengers who aren't in a hurry, the delays are expected and not a big deal. Nancy Anderson flew to Chicago with a friend Wednesday morning just so they could be among the first to ride to Union Depot.

"It was fun to be on the train and so relaxing to just glide along and look at the countryside and not have to worry about driving, not the headache of flying," she said. "Just get on the train and go."

While passenger trains only pass through St. Paul twice a day, Amtrak says it's studying the possibility of adding a second run from Chicago. Meanwhile the historic station is becoming a transit hub downtown. Megabus, Jefferson Lines and Greyhound all use Union Depot as a terminal for inter-city buses. And on June 14, the Green Line light rail will begin running on the street out front.

The first regularly scheduled eastbound Empire Builder was scheduled to arrive at Union Depot this morning.