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To a hearty shout of "All aboard!" a throng of travelers carried roller bags and backpacks onto the five silver cars of the new Borealis train in St. Paul. Right on time at 11:50 a.m. Tuesday, the train rolled out of the Union Depot on its inaugural voyage to Chicago.

"The old story is true: When we make it happen, when we put it out there, people come," said Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner before a crowd of about 200 people at the downtown St. Paul landmark. "We are really excited for what this begins."

The new service was in the works for more than a decade and marks the first time since 1978 the Twin Cities will have twice-daily service to the Windy City.

The inaugural service featured a locomotive and five cars populated by train aficionados, local officials and lawmakers, Amtrak employees and workaday travelers. The train clacked and swayed and whistled along a moody Mississippi River in Minnesota. Enthusiastic crowds greeted the Borealis at the Red Wing and Winona stations. At La Crosse, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers climbed aboard, but he then hopped off in Tomah. There were cookies in Portage.

The train appeared to skirt a menacing weather system that threatened Minnesota and Wisconsin in the morning. It sliced through farmland with sprouting crops, the big river's backwaters, industrial parks, a graveyard of propane tanks in the wilds of Wisconsin and front and backyards providing an unparalleled, almost intimate, view of Middle America.

Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner welcomes passengers Candra Thomas and her mother Billie, 87, as Amtrak’s Borealis daily service to Chicago begins from St. Paul’s Union Depot on Tuesday.
Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner welcomes passengers Candra Thomas and her mother Billie, 87, as Amtrak’s Borealis daily service to Chicago begins from St. Paul’s Union Depot on Tuesday.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Onboard, the mood was relaxed. "I would never think of making conversation with the person sitting next to me on a plane," said Angel Morris-Hernandez of St. Paul. He brought his fold-up bike aboard in St. Paul, headed for Chicago. "But here, you can talk to anybody. It's much more stress-free."

Gardner hopped out at every stop, distributed thank-you notes and greeted Passengers No. 1 and 2, Candra Thomas and her mother, Billie. "Hi, I'm Steve," he said.

Red Wing Mayor Mike Wilson strolled along the middle aisle of the cars, distributing tiny Red Wing pins. "Come to Red Wing!" he urged passengers, adding. "This is really a wonderful opportunity for our town."

Others slept, read a book or scrolled on their phones.

Jerome Christenson boarded in Winona, where he's a member of the city council, with his wife, Mary Farrell. Their afternoon plan involved riding to La Crosse for a beer, and then getting back on the train later in the afternoon — just because they could. "I've waited almost 50 years to do this," he said.

There was much train talk among passengers as the Borealis hurtled across Wisconsin's mid-section at top speeds of 79 miles per hour. Karsten Petersen said he has been following the Borealis' progress for at least three years and felt he had to be a part of the historic first run. "I like trains," he said, by way of explanation.

"This is better than what I had hoped for," Petersen added. "I thought it would just run one or two times a week."

Before the train left Union Depot on Tuesday morning, local train buffs and others attended a "celebratory service." A blue Amtrak ribbon was sheared with big scissors.

"We're ecstatic," said Jay Severance, a board member of the rail advocacy group All Aboard Minnesota. Successful Borealis service will make it easier for other passenger rail services to move forward, he said, including the Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth and an extension of Borealis service to Fargo/Moorhead.

Conductor Roy Gentry welcomes passengers as Amtrak’s Borealis daily service to Chicago begins from St. Paul’s Union Depot on Tuesday.
Conductor Roy Gentry welcomes passengers as Amtrak’s Borealis daily service to Chicago begins from St. Paul’s Union Depot on Tuesday.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

The Borealis stops in Minnesota include Red Wing and Winona, as well as service to the Wisconsin Dells, Milwaukee and Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Several speakers Tuesday emphasized the economic benefits the new service will bring to communities along the 411-mile route.

"We are opening up new possibilities for the regional economy," said Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose.

"This is a win, win, win for the economy, our environment, commerce and tourism," said retiring state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who doesn't drive.

"This is a major step with us catching up with the rest of the world," Hornstein said, noting Europe, China and developing countries have better, faster and more efficient rail service than the United States. "All these other countries have invested in rail. We're behind."

Borealis service will feature midday daily departures from St. Paul arriving at Chicago's Union Station about 7½ hours later. Trains will leave Chicago's Union Station midmorning en route to St. Paul. The route will complement existing Empire Builder service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee and Hiawatha service stops between Milwaukee and Chicago.

One-way coach fares from St. Paul to Chicago on the Borealis begin at $41. Some 232,000 people are expected to use the service in the first year of service.

Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst, said more transportation options are "always welcome, provided they are safe, reliable, punctual and pleasant."

"Rail service can be easy and convenient when everything is working well," Harteveldt added. "Unfortunately, Amtrak has a history of trains not being as punctual as it would like, or its passengers expect."

Passenger rail travel is experiencing an upswing of sorts after the adoption of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, which provided $66 billion for passenger rail between major cities (like the Twin Cities and Chicago) and freight rail. At least $12 billion was included for planning and capital grants outside the busy Northeast Corridor.

Capital costs to upgrade freight rail track and stations along the Borealis route were paid by Minnesota ($10 million), Wisconsin ($7 million), Amtrak ($5 million), and the Federal Railroad Administration ($34 million), and supplemented with a $13 million federal grant.

Last year, the Legislature directed the Minnesota Department of Transportation to study transit needs, including rail, along the Twin Cities-St. Cloud-Fargo/Moorhead corridor. The study is due next February.

In addition, the proposed Northern Lights Express service between the Twin Cities and Duluth is being studied. The Federal Railroad Administration is gathering public input on possibly restoring Amtrak service on three routes between the Twin Cities and Phoenix, Denver and San Antonio. An extension of the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha line to Madison and Eau Claire and on to the Twin Cities is being studied as well.

Not everyone was drawn to Tuesday's maiden voyage by all the celebration. Thomas and her 87-year-old mother were traveling from St. Paul to Milwaukee, not knowing it was the Borealis' inaugural journey. They were the first two passengers on the train, greeted by Gardner, the Amtrak chief, and interviewed by four reporters.

"I had no idea," Candra Thomas said. "I just booked the train."