John Brewer and Frederick Melo, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published April 02 2014
Amtrak's Empire Builder returns to St. Paul's Union Depot on May 7
Beginning May 7, Amtrak’s Empire Builder will arrive and depart from the Lowertown transportation hub and usher in passenger rail service after a 43-year absence.
Amtrak’s current station, at 730 Transfer Road in St. Paul’s Midway, will shut down for passenger service after the Chicago-bound Empire Builder departs in the morning. Union Depot will later see its first passenger train about 10 p.m., with service to Seattle and Portland, Ore.
A new Amtrak schedule, inspired by heavy freight traffic along the Empire Builder’s western route, goes into effect April 15. The schedule is expected to be temporary as Amtrak struggles to keep the Empire Builder on time along the congested tracks it leases from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
“The train is going to leave the West Coast three hours earlier than it does today,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago. “There’s no change between St. Paul and Chicago in either direction.”
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, chairman of the county’s Regional Railroad Authority, said he was never worried that Amtrak might not move in. Greyhound had backed out of starting up at Union Depot in 2012, but it reversed course and rolled in a few weeks ago.
The 1926 depot reopened in 2012 after a $243 million renovation. The depot replaced the fire-destroyed original structure, which was built in 1881 by the St. Paul Union Depot Co., whose partners included James J. Hill. The St. Paul businessman was nicknamed the “Empire Builder” for his Great Northern Railway, which linked the Twin Cities and the Pacific Northwest.
At its peak in the 1920s, the new station served up to 20,000 people a day. The last passenger train left Union Depot in 1971, and in 1974, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Amtrak had been expected to leave its Transfer Road station and relocate to the refurbished Union Depot in late 2012. But a complicated schedule and signalization agreement among Amtrak, three freight rail companies, the county and the Federal Transit Administration took longer than expected, as did a new rail connection from the mainline tracks to the depot’s passenger platform.
“Ramsey County is our landlord, and they’ve been working with the freight rail to accomplish the technical issues of getting in and out of the station,” Magliari said.
Amtrak travelers will be able to connect to more than 500 destinations through intercity buses (Greyhound, Jefferson Lines and Megabus), Metro Transit and Minnesota Valley Transit Authority bus services. A contract with a bicycle shop is under negotiation, and Metro Transit’s light-rail service between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis is about 10 weeks away. The Green Line, whose last downtown St. Paul station is in front of Union Depot, begins operating June 14.
The Amtrak schedule will have the westbound Empire Builder arriving at Union Depot at 10:03 p.m. and departing at 10:10 p.m. daily. Beginning May 8, the eastbound Empire Builder is scheduled to arrive at 7:52 a.m. and depart at 8 a.m. daily.
Amtrak officials, who are retaining the Midway station site for other business, have been in talks with the Minnesota Department of Transportation about adding another Chicago-bound train to the depot, but nothing is imminent. As ridership climbs, county officials hope to see the depot someday host high-speed rail to Chicago.
“They’re studying a second train, and the numbers are super-favorable,” Ortega said. “I expect to have two trains coming in a short time.”
Given its hefty price tag, the depot has drawn some criticism for lacking steady, visible activity beyond its Christos restaurant tenant and a smattering of cultural offerings, such as free yoga classes and movie nights.
“I haven’t done a project yet (without critics). There’s always someone that looks at the glass half-empty,” Ortega said. “It’s doing very well. More and more folks are discovering it. It’s only going to get better.”
Amtrak has a 20-year commitment for Union Depot. The lease agreement covers 3,800 square feet of space for passenger ticketing, baggage handling, VIP lounge, office and staff areas. The national passenger rail service will pay up to $144,586 for the first year as a share of operating costs. That cost will increase at 3 percent annually for the 20-year term of the lease. Amtrak has the option to extend the lease for an additional 20-year term.
On the Web
For more information on the Union Depot, visit www.uniondepot.org.
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