All Aboard Saint Paul - Next Stop Duluth or Chicago

Last month (I guess technically last year!), a report was released that indicated ridership on Amtrak rails in Minnesota is up.  The Empire Builder gained about 10% more riders in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September.  The Empire Builder is Amtrak’s line which travels from Chicago to Saint Paul before heading west through North Dakota and Montana into Washington and Oregon. At its largest stop in Minnesota, which is St. Paul's Midway station, 147,791 people boarded or departed Amtrak trains in the fiscal 2008 year. That is about 14,700, or 10 percent, more than in 2007.

At that pace, a high-speed train service between Saint Paul and Chicago may be in our future. Additionally, a Northern Lights Express line between Duluth and Minneapolis is already moving forward.

It’s no fluke, either.  The Empire Builder is on its sixth straight year of ridership growth.  Whenever services are added to the line, they fill up almost immediately.  Proponents of the rails believe that if the trains can be faster and more efficient, even more people will choose to ride.

Overall, Amtrak gained nearly 2 million new passengers in the fiscal year, with the high cost of gas the most likely contributor to the influx of new rail travelers. Amtrak and other rail services’ sudden popularity has gained the attention of the federal government.  Before leaving office, former President Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, legislation that provides $14.9 billion for Amtrak and passenger-rail funding over the next five years. It nearly doubles current spending levels.

One feature of the bill matches grants for state rail service, opening up new options for passenger trains in Minnesota.  A train traveling at the proposed 110 miles per hour would make the trip from St. Paul to Chicago less than six hours. Officials in Rochester and Olmsted County are also be interested in linking to the high-speed line. Add in the service expected to run the 150-mile trip from Minneapolis to Duluth projected to open in 2012, called the Northern Lights Express, and Minnesota would have rails in all the right places.

Furthermore, Amtrak is also studying a possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha train, which from 1971 through 1979 brought riders through Minnesota, into central North Dakota and then on to southern Montana. The additional services would make stations give more people the option to ride the train instead of drive. Think of how connected Minnesota would be and how easy it would be to get to our major cities.

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