As Amtrak expands service, replaces cars, riders have high hopes

A second daily round trip between Chicago and St. Paul could serve riders as early as 2024, with new train cars on the way.

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Amtrak’s new and refreshed train cars at Union Station Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Amtrak Executive Vice President Roger Harris in the refreshed Horizon Coach.

In 2019, Amtrak Executive Vice President Roger Harris was at Union Station to show off some revamped coaches. Harris is now president of Amtrak, which plans to add more new train cars, as well as an additional daily train, between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When Steve Moscarelli boards an Amtrak train, he feels like he’s stepping into a parallel universe.

“When you’re on Amtrak, you’re in a bubble,” said Moscarelli, a business traveler. “It’s like being on a cruise, but you’re on land and you get to walk around.”

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Moscarelli, who works in data security in the Midwest, has taken about 300 trips on Amtrak trains nationwide. He’s long held out hope for additional Amtrak routes to Cleveland, Madison, Indianapolis and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Within the next year, the last hope will come out in Moscarelli’s favor.

Chicago, already the largest railroad hub city in America, is also set to benefit from several planned expansions and equipment upgrades that have been years in the making.

Among them: a second daily train to Minneapolis-St. Paul, new train cars for Midwest routes, plus new coaches and sleepers for long-haul routes, as Amtrak retires some of its 40-year-old fleet.

Passengers arrive and depart Amtrak trains at Chicago’s Union Station on April 28, 2020.

One of the busiest cities for trains in the country, Chicago could see 124,000 additional Amtrak riders pass through Union Station next year as a new train to St. Paul, the Great River Rail, is launched.

Scott Olson/Getty

For now, plans call for the new Twin Cities train, tentatively named the Great River Rail, to depart Chicago around 11:00 a.m., arriving in St. Paul at 6:15 p.m.. The new eastbound would depart St. Paul around 11:45 a.m., arriving in Chicago about 7:15 p.m.

Along the way, it’ll save time by making fewer stops than the current train, the long-haul Empire Builder, which leaves Chicago in the afternoon and continues beyond the Twin Cities to Seattle and Portland.

In a 2015 feasibility study, Amtrak expressed hope that arriving earlier would be more convenient for passengers catching other ground transportation in St. Paul and Chicago.

The westbound Empire Builder arrives in St. Paul about 11 p.m., with the eastbound to Chicago leaving about 8 a.m.

The Empire Builder is known for “travel time delays … as it travels from the West Coast,” Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman wrote in a 2020 letter supporting a new route. “Ultimately, [the route] will help both rural and urban communities along the corridor attract and retain businesses, employees, residents and visitors.”

Moscarelli, the business traveler, has started to expect to arrive late if he’s taking the Empire Builder back to Chicago. Lately, he’s been flying one-way to avoid delays.

“Amtrak goes where there’s no highway often, and when you’re on the Mississippi River it’s really a nice trip,” Moscarelli said. “The problem is that on the return to Chicago, or the return from Milwaukee, these trains are very often three, four, five hours late.”

Though Amtrak has not set a final start date, service will begin in 2024, or possibly even later this year, said Amtrak spokesperson Mark Magliari.

The route will add $53 million in capital costs, covered by $31.8 million in federal grants, as well as state funding from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and $5 million from Amtrak.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation expects about 124,000 passengers to make the new round trip in its first year.

Passengers on Midwest regional routes also will eventually get to ride on some of Amtrak’s newest rail cars, part of an effort to revamp the carrier’s fleet.

Workers service trains in the Amtrak Car Yard south of the Loop on September 13, 2022.

Workers service trains in Chicago’s Amtrak yard, south of the Loop. Amtrak will retire some train cars nationwide this year as they approach 40 years on the rails. At right is a double-decker Superliner; the first Superliners entered service in 1979.

Scott Olson/Getty

The new line won’t require much construction, Magliari said. However, Amtrak is still busy assembling a new fleet.

This year’s expansions are part of Amtrak Connects Us, a plan calling for increased service in 160 markets nationwide.

By late 2023 or early 2024, new regional train cars will arrive in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.

That effort is led by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

A request for proposals from manufacturers for new long-distance railcars will go out later this year, though brand-new units won’t arrive for awhile.

Selvakumar Ramachandran will be happy when they do. He lives in England and works in virtual reality tourism. He makes frequent business trips in the United States, traveling by Amtrak whenever he can. On one recent visit, he took three long-distance trips out of Chicago, back to back.

For Ramachandran, a wheelchair user, long-distance train travel has distinct advantages.

“I don’t have to get down from the wheelchair,” Ramachandran said. “I can just get onto the train and get into the bedroom.”

Ramachandran hopes Amtrak’s goals of more regional travel and better infrastructure will coalesce into a better on-train experience for him.

One of his trips this year was on the Empire Builder which, like other Western long-distance routes, uses older Superliner coaches, which have two levels.

“I had to crawl up to the observation car,” Ramachandran said. He hopes new cars will be designed with more attention to accessibility, bringing in single-decker cars on more routes or clustering bathrooms, dining cars and other amenities close together.

“Despite the challenges, travel brings a level playing field,” Ramachandran said. “It brings people together.”

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