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Longstanding efforts to add a second daily Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and Chicago received a big boost recently when federal funders kicked in nearly $32 million to help see the project through.

While passenger rail advocates cheered the news, their reaction was a bit tempered because the status of $10 million in state matching funds is uncertain at this point. And, current service on Amtrak’s Empire Builder long-distance line between Chicago and the West Coast will be pared to three trips a week beginning Oct. 19.

Amtrak’s CEO told Congress last month the cut in the Empire Builder’s service — due to a precipitous decline in ridership related to the COVID-19 outbreak — is temporary. But, fully restoring service depends on whether Amtrak can coax some $4.9 billion from Congress in coming months and how the pandemic plays out among skittish passengers nationwide.

“As ridership returns, we intend to restore service frequency to previous levels,” William Flynn, president and chief executive of Amtrak, told a congressional subcommittee. “We remain committed to our long-distance system.”

The pandemic-related cut shouldn’t have any impact on the additional service between the Twin Cities and Chicago, rail planners say.

Better reliability sought

The Empire Builder — named after the storied Minnesota railroad magnate James J. Hill — travels west from Chicago’s Union Station to Portland and Seattle. It makes six stops in Minnesota, including one at St. Paul’s Union Depot.

But passenger rail boosters and planners have long advocated for additional service between St. Paul and Chicago. Eastbound trains from the West Coast in particular tend to arrive late by the time they get to Minnesota.

As Brian Nelson of the passenger rail advocacy group All Aboard Minnesota notes, eastbound Empire Builder trains are often delayed by busy freight traffic in North Dakota, which has priority over passenger service.

But shorter routes, like the one between St. Paul and Chicago, have a better on-time track record, Nelson said.

If all funding falls in place, a second daily train could begin service in 2024, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

Transportation officials say the new round-trip will have a shorter travel time and greater on-time performance and reliability for regional trips, which is important to lure business and student travel.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak passenger Joshua Redman took the Empire Builder from his home in Chicago to visit family in the Twin Cities about once a month. A frequent user of Amtrak on the East Coast before moving to the Windy City, he said it was “a little deflating” to experience the reduced level of service in the Midwest. He recalls one eastbound train he was booked on being 10 hours late.

Redman thinks more consistent service between the two cities is a great idea — particularly because he could work while traveling on the train, not an option for motorists who opt to drive.

Maximizing ridership

Under Amtrak’s current schedule, westbound trains are scheduled to arrive at Union Depot at 10:03 p.m. daily, while eastbound trains to Chicago roll in at 7:43 a.m.

The schedules for the second train between the cities have not been set. But a 2015 feasibility study indicated schedules would be designed to complement, and not overlap, current service.

The second-train project expected to receive $6.2 million in matching funds from Wisconsin and $5 million from Amtrak. Whether MnDOT can coax a $10 million match in bonding from Minnesota lawmakers later this year is unclear.

“We need to come up with the $10 million and get this thing moving forward,” said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office.

“We are all in favor of a train you can count on,” said Winona Mayor Mark Peterson. Many of the students attending Winona State University and St. Mary’s University live in Chicago and would take Amtrak more frequently, he said, as would tourists traveling to the southern Minnesota river town. Plus, the funding would help renovate Winona’s historic train station, as well as nearby railroad tracks.

Katie Jones, an energy-efficiency consultant who lives in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, said a second train “would allow me so much more efficiency.” Jones frequently takes Amtrak to Indianapolis to visit family.

“There so much dignity to taking the train,” she said. “I really love that we have this option.”