At Union Depot, a celebration of a failed transportation option

Today is a big day at Union Depot where Amtrak will make its first passenger stop since the time when it was actually a dependable mode of transportation.

For the sake of the TV crews covering the event, Amtrak brought in a train to show what a passenger train looks like.

Theoretically, the party could’ve just waited for the eastbound Empire Builder, the only passenger train that zips through Saint Paul twice a day, but it’s missing in action. Again.

In March, the on-time performance of the train was only 17.4%. “Train interference” caused only 40 percent of the delays. Tracks and signals accounted for 22% as did “passengers,” according to Amtrak.

The last stop at the Midway train station was to occur this morning around 8. But by then, the train was only in Sauk Rapids, running almost 7 hours behind schedule, or about the amount of time it takes to get in a car and drive to Chicago, or the amount of time it takes to fly to Chicago and back. Twice.

By late morning today, the westbound train, which was scheduled to leave Saint Paul around 10 last night, was already two hours late as it approached Minot, screaming along at 57 miles per hour. It’ll be a 14-hour trip on a 7-hour drive by car.

Amtrak’s initial cure for the delays was to change the schedule starting in April. If a 10-hour trip is arriving 12 hours late, just change the schedule to reflect that it’s a 12-hour trip. Problem solved. This week, Amtrak announced its latest plan to end the delays in North Dakota. It’s going to operate buses.

Make no mistake. Union Depot is a magnificent edifice and the renovation opens up tremendous possibilities – commuter rail from the southeastern suburbs, and an interconnection with local bus routes and light rail. But today’s Amtrak celebration is more about nostalgia than possibilities. The local politicians said all the right things today, but none of them is ever going to actually take the Empire Builder, unless they’re going someplace they really don’t need to be.

At the celebration this morning, Amtrak announced that it had carried more passengers last year than at any time since 1957. It’s a misleading statistic. Amtrak’s focus is on the northeast corridor, where its high-speed trains run fast and on time. You can’t blame Amtrak for putting its money there. It’s a legitimate alternative to most every other form of transportation between Boston, New York, and Washington.

If you wanted to take a train from Boston to New York this afternoon, you have nine different trains you can take and you can be there faster than the time it takes the Empire Builder to travel to Saint Paul from St. Cloud. Three days a week, the passenger load on the Acela northeast corridor train is 100%.

Here? The Empire Builder traffic is down 15 percent from a year ago.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    It does’t help that Congress has been trying to kill off Amtrak for years.

    • I don’t see that changing. Look, I’m with you all. It would be great to ride a train to Chicago. But in a battle between what-could-be’s v. what’s-likely-to-be, I think you have to plan on the latter.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        I understand that. In the U.S. with its car culture, trains are viewed as old fashioned. The North East Corridor succeeds in part because Amtrak owns the rails for those routes. As is mentioned in another comment, part of the deal with the old railroads was that they would allow Amtrak to operate on their tracks. When the host railroad screws up it kills Amtrak’s long haul trains. One solution is to get into a more regional setup. Unfortunately that requires more equipment, which requires more money.

        • Nate

          Amtrak does not own rails on the northeast corridor

          • Jack Ungerleider

            Not according to Amtrak (

            Under the heading “Amtrak Owned Properties” is the following:

            Northeast Corridor: The 363 miles of the 456-mile corridor connecting Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the busiest passenger line in the country, with trains regularly reaching speeds of 125 – 150 mph (201 – 241 kph). Two sections are owned by others: 1) the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (10 miles) and Connecticut Department of Transportation (46 miles) own 56 miles on Metro North between New Rochelle, NY, and New Haven, CT; 2) the state of Massachusetts owns 38 miles between the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border and Boston that is operated and maintained by Amtrak.

          • Nathanael

            Worth noting, where Amtrak or the state government owns the track, the trains run on time MUCH more often. Amtrak & NY also control NYC -Albany NY; Amtrak controls Philadelphia-Harrisburg PA and New Haven CT – Springfield MA; Amtrak and

            Michigan DOT control Michigan City IN – Dearborn MI; state and city agencies control San Diego CA – Los Angeles CA. All of these sections tend to run the trains on time.

      • Grow Trains

        A train-less future is only ‘likely to be’ if elected officials don’t hear from you that you want a viable train option. Let them know now!

  • You might note why the timing is so off – Amtrak depends on tracks owned by others, which means it has to wait often for freight. If we invested in Amtrak in the midwest, as they have in the Northeast, it would likely offer a much better experience. But the northeast has the heavy ridership from density that we are not likely to achieve here.

    • Gary F

      Yes, those rail lines are being used to haul oil. Since Warren Buffet owns Burlington Northern, and ships a lot of oil, and is a friend of Democrats, I don’t see a Keystone pipeline being built anytime soon.

  • mplsstpaul

    Minneapolis announces Mayo is opening a clinic Downtown, a new Vikings stadium is being bulit, apts. and condos going up everywhere and St. Paul opens a fancy amtrack station. I really want St. Paul to win but they make same very strange choices.

    • Ryan Coleman

      How many of those projects were built with federal transportation dollars, mplsstpaul? None of them.

      Can you compare Apples to, at least, oranges here instead of a pheasant to an african elephant?

  • Bryan Harmelink

    Jeez, I wonder what could be hogging the freight lines in North Dakota, causing delays? Volatile shale crude… you know, for those 7 hour car rides.

    • MrE85

      You mean volatile shale crude. The tar sand crude comes from Canada.

      • Bryan Harmelink

        You are correct, my bad. Edited–thanks!

  • jeb_r

    Curious how you’re calculating the BOS – NYP being faster than St. Cloud to St. Paul (unless you’re accounting for delays.) The trip from St. Cloud to St. Paul is 3 hours and 8 minutes, and the fastest Acela Express from Boston to New York is 3 hours and 26 minutes.

    Granted, the difference isn’t huge, but it’s still less time on the timetable to get from St. Cloud to St. Paul than from Boston to New York. (And between St. Cloud and St. Paul Amtrak adds about an hour and a half of padding to try and make it depart St. Paul on time, so it’s extremely unlikely someone will actually be on the train for that long…they’ll either be waiting in the St. Cloud Amtrak station or tracking it online. Which still isn’t good, but it’s not quite as crazy slow of a ride once you get on the train, whenever it arrives.)

    Also, the train appears to have been west of Detroit Lakes at 8 AM, not in Sauk Rapids. Though it was probably near Sauk Rapids at 10-10:30 AM, about the time of the ceremony, the text doesn’t seem to make that distinction clear.

    • On time performance on Acela in March was 77%. On the Empire Builder, it’s 17%. I’ll be in New Haven before you’re even ON the train. :*)

  • slickhorrible

    I find it sad that you would call Amtrak failed. It just needs the same type of investment in the rest of the nation that it’s had in the northeast. I enjoy the train and have taken it many times here and in Europe, this country would benefit greatly from high speed rail. We don’t need to decide that it’s failed, we need to do what needs to be done to make it successful.

    • And that’s a fine vision. It’s just not a realistic one and I’m writing about reality. We can dream big; nothing wrong with that. But the likes of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana etc is NEVER going to get a European style rail investment. If there is a significant amount of investment, it’s going to be for the East and West Coast. And even that is questionable. There is ZERO political will in the nation for high speed rail and while that is lamentable, it’s reality.

      • Al Iverson

        We don’t need a European-style investment to succeed; we just need people to care and invest in infrastructure, even if not to that level. I live in Chicago and we’ve actually got something of a hub here and a lot of people use these trains regularly. I take the train from Chicago to Indianapolis and back regularly and the trains are darn near full. The political will may be weak but the end consumer desire is not nil.

      • Nathanael

        It’s a perfectly realistic vision for Minnesota.

        Not in North Dakota, but definitely in Minnesota.

        If Wisconsin hadn’t been stolen by Scott Walker — a very close vote —

        you’d already have “European style rail investment” from Madison to Chicago.

        Minnesota DOT is interested in running a standalone train from St. Paul to Chicago, avoiding all that trouble in North Dakota. Write to your state legislators and tell ’em you want it, and you can get it. It will be successful if you do it.

        As for the East and West Coast, it’s not questionable at all, the investment in passenger rail is already happening. Look at what Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Virginia, North Carolina, California, and Washington State are doing. Michigan and Illinois are putting in a lot of money for better passengre rail too.

        Wyoming will never have good passenger rail But Minneapolis-St. Paul can have good passengr rail if you bother to write your state legislators about it.

  • LDCornell

    For dependable passenger service, you need to change the system wherein priority is always given to freight service. Imagine if at every interstate ramp there were gates, and passenger cars were only admitted when it would not slow the truck traffic. And at any time, your car could be forced to exit the interstate if overall traffic was slowing truck traffic. I am not necessarily suggesting that we should prioritize passenger rail service, but the single greatest problem is not something that can be magically overcome by Amtrak.

  • davidz

    The Empire Builder as it stands today is a train that doesn’t do anyone much good at all. Between Chicago and the Twin Cities, it could do a decent job of providing reliable transportation. I used to fly that route a lot, and I’d have taken the train even though it takes a little longer, just to be able to avoid O’Hare (or Midway).

    But the eastbound train is so often off of schedule that I couldn’t rely on it. That eastbound train has just spent 2-3 days travelling some of the finest scenery on the planet, and the Builder makes for a fine “cruise” way to see it. But it’s limited as a cruise by attempting to provide necessary transportation along the way. And the late arriving eastbound affects the schedules of the following day’s westbound.

    Amtrak would be a good choice for Chicago-Twin Cities travel with (at least one) additional train, dedicated to that route and going no further west than the Cities. Then the likelihood of schedule problems would be greatly diminished. You could even put it on a slightly different route, thus serving a few more communities along the way [but those would mostly be in Wisconsin and the state government there isn’t responsive to such ideas these days].

    Christopher Mitchell is exactly right — Amtrak owns the Northeast Corridor, and has put a lot of money into making it possible to run trains there with efficiency. There are also millions more possible customers and already overburdened freeways. The population density of most of the North America isn’t as friendly to passenger railroads as is the Northeast. But a decent investment in what we do have would go a long way. We haven’t invested in the rest of Amtrak since the late 70’s.

    In the meantime, we’ve spent a lot of money over 40+ years to not kill passenger trains, but not enough to let them thrive either. Life support is not a good condition to be on, except that it’s better than dying altogether.

  • StephanieAndDavid

    I took the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Seattle about five years ago. It was a lovely trip and everything was (mostly) on time. I love the train but it’s not exactly efficient. If you go, you go because you want to see the countryside go by while you sit relaxing at dinner or with a cocktail in your hand.

  • illudiumQ36

    This is a useful shock piece about the sad truth of US long distance rail. While I realize it’s a here-and-now story and not meant to explore cost-benefits in any depth, you did step into the issue when comparing the Empire Builder to driving. Fuel and highways are heavily if not completely subsidized, so making this comparison, while common among politicians, is not at all up to the standards expected of MPR news.

  • Mark Gisleson

    When I moved to WI last year I left my car at my new address and took the train back to get the UHaul. It was the slowest transportation I’ve ever been on, but an Amtrak employee explained the delays to me.

    The freight trains going in and out of the ND oil fields have absolute priority on the use of the rails. Our train repeatedly sat on sidings without moving while waiting on freight trains. When we were moving, we made good time but we spent a lot of time not moving.

    Amtrak gets the short end of the schedule, and their passengers get the short end of the stick.

  • Lucienne Schroepfer

    We ride Amtrak when we can– to clients- as a family for vacaton whenever– wherever possible. This isn’t all about speedy travel– when you travel on amtrak– you step onboard– and from then until you get to your destination you can work, eat, socialize, look out the window and daydream or or..flying or driving nothing can be done en route. Moreover– its a heck of a lot conveinient to train into a city and be downtown upon arrival. I wish Amtrak wasn’t trying to take care of their time issues with buses because frankly the bus experience is miserable and as such becomes terribly over-priced.

  • Andrew Guthrie

    Your facts are simply wrong, as even a cursory glance at Amtrak’s ridership reports would have told you. The Northeast Corridor played an important goal in the recent growth in ridership, however, National Network trains, such as the Empire Builder, have shown impressive ridership growth over the past decade as well–growth hampered primarily not by demand, but by a shortage of available seats due to insufficient capital funding. The Empire Builder’s short-term drop in ridership is entirely understandable given the recent rash of service disruptions due to circumstances beyond Amtrak’s control. BNSF, the host railroad responsible for most of the delays, is undertaking significant capacity expansions, including track work, additional crews and new motive power, but dealing with such situations is not the work of a week. Had you bothered to investigate the issue at all before writing, you would have know the Empire Builder’s on-time performance was excellent until relatively recently.

    The claim that funding levels are unlikely to change and therefore not worth decrying is also disingenuous at best. Numerous examples of highly successful Amtrak service expansions exist outside the NEC–North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, the Pacific Northwest, for example. These services fulfill vital and growing roles in their states–all without a “European-style” investment. The claim that current US rail projects trains are useless unless they equal the TGV is a classic derail, if you’ll excuse the pun, intended only to disrupt the conversation, rather than to shed any real light on the issue.

    Speaking as a member–for the moment, at least–I expect much better of MPR.

    • How often do you take the Empire Builder, Andrew? Perhaps you could describe how your trips dovetail with your needs. I’m interested in how people are integrating rail.

      Take all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains together, and the highest passenger traffic in 20 years is still only about 5 million people, compared to 11.4 million for just the NEC.

      That’s nationwide. It doesn’t take a lot to boast a big-percentage increase when you have a low number as a factor in the first place.

      MSP airport alone handled 33 million.

      There are certainly lines that make sense. The Hiawatha Line, for one, makes tremendous sense. Bakersfield-Oakland makes sense (unless you want to go to Los Angeles, in which case you have to get on a bus in Bakersfield) and San Diego-Los Angeles makes sense.

      All of those might be mighty fine routes but you know where Amtrak operates the ones that make money? The Northeast Corridor. Period.

      If profitability isn’t a requirement, Chicago-Minneapolis/St. Paul makes sense too. But as someone pointed out upthread, it makes no sense to wait for a train from Seattle or Portland to accomplish that. And yet, there we are.

      We could have high speed rail between Chicago and Saint Paul, but we’ll have to figure out how to do that without going through Wisconsin, and someone will have to mediate whether that goes down the river, or takes a detour to satisfy the political interests of Rochester (yes, I recognize the FRA has selected the current route as its preference).

      You can call that doubt disingenuous if you wish, but my view is that’s a poor response to the reality of the country’s economic and political realities.

      Last year, I believe, high-speed rail planners asked for $27 million in planning in the bonding bill. They didn’t get it. This year, I believe, they asked for it again. Last time I checked, they didn’t get it this time, either.. at least I didn’t see it in the House.

      In fact, if memory serves, the last time planners got ANY money was five years ago, and then it was only $26 million.

      That’s not a political environment for rail enthusiasts and planners to achieve a dream. That’s the reality.

      It’s true, as you indicated, that this isn’t something that can happen in a week. It also can’t happen in a year. Or two years. Or three years, if history is any guide. When Wisconsin pulled out of the rail study in ’11, Minnesota’s planners, as you probably know, concluded upgrading the track between here and Chicago would cost $2.4 billion, and would need to be maintained for $10.3 million a year, the study found. And that doesn’t include capital equipment.

      I can’t blame Gov. Walker for pulling out of that and putting his energy into the Hiawatha line between Milwaukee and Chicago. In a world of limited economic resources, that makes perfect sense.

      As with most every other challenge facing the United States, all of them can be solved with enough money. Indeed, in non -NEC areas where Amtrak seems to be doing well, there seems to be a parallel with state supported corridors.

      Nothing I’ve seen in Washington, Madison, or Saint Paul has suggested there’s a big appetite for that here and if there is, I do tend to think the entire idea wouldn’t have disappeared from the public consciousness, save for the occasional President Obama visit looking for some train photo opportunities.

      But, by all means, people who specialize in these sorts of things should chase that dream. The rest of us who have places we need to be in an efficient manner and at the right times convenient to us, are going to drive, take a bus, or take a plane.

      Oh, and thank you for being a member!

      • Nathanael

        Incorrect! In addition to the NEC being profitable, Lynchburg-DC service in Virginia is also profitable and has been since the day it opened.

        It’s also worth noting how Amtrak officially defines “profitable”. About 50% of the “costs” assigned to a train are allocated costs: fractions of the costs of running a central reservations office, operating a train maintenance shop, stuff like that. The cost of operating each station is assigned to all the trains which stop there, divided by the number of trains. That stuff is *really expensive*. Running the trains is, comparatively, cheap.

        So the more trains Amtrak runs (particularly more trains on the same tracks) the lower the “costs” are for each train. Amtrak needs to expand.

        There are a whole lot of other trains run by Amtrak which are profitable on a “marginal” basis: in other words, if the train was discontinued, Amtrak would lose more money than it does by running the train. This includes the Auto Train and the Silver Meteor as well as a bunch of the state-supported corridors.

        “Nothing I’ve seen in Washington, Madison, or Saint Paul has suggested there’s a big appetite for that here”

        Everything I’ve seen in Minneapolis, Madison, and St. Paul says there is a big appetite for passenger rail service here. So you’re wrong. Sure, there are places with no interest (Edina comes to mind), but there’s lots of interest where it matters.

        Governor Walker was an idiot who ended up costing his state more money in contract-breaking penalties than the cost of operating the train and maintaining the tracks for a decade. You should damn well blame him. And everyone in Madison does. His move was a deliberate “screw Madison” move.

        • I’m really not sure that merely disagreeing with me constitutes I’m wrong. But maybe. I’m talking about is the spending of money. So, you’ll have to show me where there’s a big pent up urge on the part of politicians to spend that kind of money because I’m not seeing it and the bonding bill would Exhibit A.

          My guess at this point is if that kind of money gets spent in this state, it gets spent on the southeast corridor.

          Also, please provide some source material on profitability. Here’s what I’ve found.

          By the way, I do take rail when i got to Chicago. First, I fly to Midway, then I take the EL into downtown.

          Flying: An hour and 15 minutes for $84. Amtrak: Almost 8 hours if it’s running on time. $87.

          Flying: Dozens of choices of when to leave. Amtrak: One choice.

          It’s absurd to believe see this as a reasonable and/or significant transportation choice in 2014.

  • Aconitum

    I’ve taken a sleeper car to Chicago and back, several times, and really love it …. it is such a relaxing way to travel, and the meals and service were great. I love seeing the sunset over the river, coming north… but have opted to fly the last several trips becuase I can only go by train when I have a whole extra day to spend traveling, and don’t care what time I arrive. Of course, it hasn’t helped any to have Wisconsin’s benighted governor flatly opposed to any discussion of high-speed rail from MSP to Union Station in Chicago.

  • Dustin A Ducklow

    I don’t understand the point of taking a train. I guess it’s a nice relaxing luxurious mode of travel but flying is cheaper and faster than taking a train which I think is strange. Also if you don’t mind being cramped at times Megabus makes trips to Chicago for as low as $15 and they are almost always on time unless there is bad weather.

  • AJ9000

    When I was about 8 years old, my brother and I took a passenger train from downtown Minneapolis to Union station in St Paul just for fun. One of my memories is that the train was nearly empty as was the Union Depot terminal where we arrived. This was in the mid 1960s. Even back then it was clear that the trains had no customers nor any economic justification. Without Lee Ann Chin’s restaurant moving into Union Depot some decades ago there would have been no reason for anyone to set foot in there. Now we have a heavily subsidized version of the same hollow economic failure. Rather than spreading the cost among the hapless taxpayers who had little say in this boondoggle, economic justice should make everyone who locally voted for the Democratic Party in 2008 and 2010 be assessed a forced levy on their bank accounts of at least $10-15K per voter to cover the renovation cost. Then it should be supplemented by at least $400 to $600 annually to make good the union contracts for the employees working there twiddling their thumbs to an empty hall. Then when Liberals bring their out of town visitors to see how progressive they are, they will have borne the cost instead of shoving it onto the rest of Minnesotans.

    • Nathanael

      The trains were very unpopular in the 1960s (thanks to lots of brand new, free, uncongested expressways built in the 1950s)– it’s why passenger train service got reduced so much.

      It’s been 50 years. Trains are now packed, nationwide, even though they have very high ticket prices. It’s not the same world.

  • Patrick Guernsey

    If the trains can run fast and on time on the East Coast, they should be able to do it here. Just like with everything else, passenger rail infrastructure has been obliterated. Fast, cheap rail is possible, we just need to put the right resources into it. The idea that passenger trains can run on freight lines is a proven failed business model.

  • Nathanael

    The Empire Builder situation is a mess, certainly — mostly due to trouble in North Dakota, where BNSF underestimated how much traffic there would be and tried to run too many oil trains on too little track.

    MnDOT is in discussions about getting a train which just runs St. Paul-Milwaukee-Chicago. This would be successful because it would be much more reliably on-time. But it would require state government support (due to a federal law called “PRIIA”).

    Amtrak’s success extends far outside the Northeast Corridor — the Milwaukee-Chicago trains are booming, as are the Detroit-Chicago trains (despite endless troubles in Michigan), as are the upstate NY trains, the Seattle-Portland trains, etc. Amtrak’s success just doesn’t extend this far, because nobody wants to ride a train which is 7 hours late.

    Amtrak’s success *could* extend to Minneapolis-St. Paul if the state government supported a Chicago-St. Paul standalone train. It would be relatively cheap to run and highly effective — not like the Empire Builder.

    • I believe the study said a $2 billion investment and $10 million a year not including capital costs. As I said, I don’t see that money being spent.

      If tracks are going to owned by the state, the state needs to build new track. BNSF isn’t going to give their tracks away.

      The oil trains are cited most often as the cause of delays, but freight traffic isn’t going anywhere. As a reader pointed out, the railroad just increased the number of fertilizer flat trains under pressure from Congress.

      The moving of goods is MUCH more important than the moving of people by rail.

      • Nathanael

        That’s for faster trains than you actually need, and if I’m not mistaken for Madison service (which costs a lot due to the need to build tracks through a swamp)

        A standalone train on the existing scheduie, but running on time, would be pretty cheap to run and quite popular.

        The oil trains are not causing problems east of St. Paul, they’re causing problems west of St. Paul.

        • Nathanael

          Oh. I should also make it clear why Twin Cities-Chicago trains can be successful.
          (1) Lots of people going between Twin Cities and Chicago. (Contrast empty North Dakota.)
          (2) Unbelievable, constant highway congestion in the entire state of Illinois. It starts as soon as you hit the state border.
          (3) Congestion at O’Hare. And Midway.

          (4) O’Hare is an hour’s travel away from Chicago. Minimum.

          Being able to run into Chicago past all that congestion is valuable enough that a lot of people will choose a train even though travel through Wisconsin will be slower than flying (faster than driving, though). The thing is, the train needs to run on time, which means you simply can’t have it starting out in Seattle, it has to start in the Twin Cities.

  • ArtStoneUS

    When I moved to North Carolina, I needed to return to Chicago to pack my stuff. Charlotte is on the old Southern RR mainline from Atlanta to Richmond.

    The best option Amtrak has leaves Charlotte at 1:30 AM in the roughest part of town. If the train stays on time, it arrives in Washington DC around 9:30 AM. With a 6 hour layover in DC, I then catch a 17 hour train that uses the B&O mainline through West Virginia and Pittsburgh and gets to Chicago around 9 AM – total time about 33 hours.

    If I object to catching a train at 1:30 AM, there are two other options – going to Philadelphia and riding via the Pennsylvania mainline or riding to New York ride via the New York Central route. Those options require an overnight hotel stay in Philadelphia or New York.

    US Air (or whatever they are called now) has nonstop CLT-ORD flights about once an hour. With all carriers, there are 16 non stops that take 2 hours. If I’m not in a rush and change planes, there are 95 options.

    Even taking a “Chinese bus” or Greyhound would get me there faster and less expensive. People have voted with their dollars what they want. Amtrak is a prisoner of railroad routes that were built in the 1800s. Nothing can change that