An Amtrak locomotive with red detailing, parked at a station.

From the Midwest to Nigeria: An Unlikely Rail Saga

Amtrak recently launched the new Amtrak Borealis service, connecting St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago. Using the existing Amtrak Empire Builder route, the Borealis train has added a second daily service between Minneapolis and Chicago and points between, giving the Twin Cities a second daily intercity train for the first time since 1978.

The new Borealis service departs from Union Depot at 11:50 a.m. and arrives in Chicago around 7 p.m. The existing Amtrak Empire Builder service leaves at 8:50 a.m., arriving just before 5 p.m. Return trips on the Borealis depart Chicago at 11:05 a.m., arriving in St. Paul around 6:30 p.m., well before the existing Empire Builder’s nighttime arrival.’s podcast has discussed, and celebrated, the new line at length.

A social media ad I recently received for the Amtrak Borealis Service. Image credit: Amtrak

Beyond adding a second service, the route will likely see fewer delays than previous services, which had a greater chance of being held up on their longer route from Chicago to the West Coast or vice versa. These delays are largely the result of Amtrak’s shared use of freight rail right of way across the Midwest and beyond, but the fact that the train won’t have opportunities to stall at, say, Spokane, Washington or Whitefish, Montana should mean it arrives more reliably on time in St. Paul.

I’m excited about the new service. Several of my friends will be moving to Chicago later this summer, and the affordable ticket price (starting at $41) will make the train a competitive option for me when traveling between the two metro areas.

Midwest High-Speed Rail Aspirations

When reflecting on these recent Amtrak headlines and the excitement building around Midwest rail, I think back to an earlier story about Midwest rail service that displays some of the causes for American rail projects’ slow-to-nonexistent progress. 

This story goes back to Wisconsin in 2009. Under then-Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat, a proposal surfaced for high-speed rail in the state.  A proposed agreement with Spanish train manufacturer Talgo would see the construction of new high-speed trains in Wisconsin, intended for use on a high-speed rail line connecting Milwaukee and Madison.

A Talgo train set in Portland, Oregon. The same model was to be used in Wisconsin’s High-Speed Rail, painted in the Badgers’ red and white colors. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Early plans also proposed an expansion to connect the system to the Twin Cities, adding to the regional network. That same year, Wisconsin was offered over $800 million in federal stimulus funding to support the project, part of a larger $10 billion effort from the Obama administration to invest in high-speed rail projects in the wake of the great recession.

A few years later, Republican Scott Walker won the 2012 gubernatorial election after Jim Doyle decided not to run for a third term. Walker opposed the project, supporting more investments in roads over rail. Walker ultimately canceled the route, breaking from the democrat’s stimulus plan and creating legal and logistical problems for Wisconsin’s high-speed rail aspirations. In the process, he turned down the over $800 million received from the federal government to support the project.

This friction resulted in lawsuits and negotiations with the train manufacturer. The dispute was ultimately settled with Wisconsin paying over $50 million to settle the lawsuit’s damages, after which the trains were retained by Talgo and stored at an Amtrak facility in Indiana for almost a decade. A 2019 WPR podcast titled “Derailed” discussed the lawsuit in detail.

Wisconsin and Nigera’s Unlikely Rail Relationship

In 2022, this saga took an unexpected turn when Talgo announced that Wisconsin’s trains had found a new home in Lagos, Nigeria. The trains became part of West Africa’s first operational metro system. 

A Wisconsin made Talgo train at a Lagos, Nigeria Red Line Metro Station. Credit: Lagos City Government

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu held a ceremony to commemorate the sale of the trains in 2022, marking the end of Wisconsin’s rail fiasco.

After the event, Johnson was quoted by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reflecting on the saga that had just transpired. “It’s a little bittersweet,” he said. “I’m sending my congratulations to the governor in Lagos State in Nigeria, but also a little disappointed that we missed out on the opportunity to have those trainsets operating here in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin.”

On February 29, 2024, the initial 17-mile segment of Lagos’ planned 23-mile Red Line commuter rail system opened for passenger service in Africa’s most populous city. The same Talgo trains passed over by Wisconsin were warmly welcomed in Lagos, helping to improve mobility and accessibility in the African city.

Lagos Metro Map. Credit: Lagos City Government

Where From Here? For Now, Chicago

This story serves as a reminder of the slow progress American passenger rail has made in the Midwest and beyond in recent decades. While the Borealis service represents a step forward for Twin Cities rail service, it comes after the failure of earlier efforts to provide fast service connecting the Upper Midwest. 

In an election year, it also serves as a solemn reminder of the deep partisan divides that can derail projects, even those already underway with the support of the local, state, and federal governments. 

As we reflect on lost opportunities and await better U.S. passenger rail service, the Borealis train offers some hope as an important step forward in connecting Minnesota to our neighboring states (and connecting me with my Chicago-bound friends). 

About Joe Harrington

Joe is a student in Saint Paul, studying Geography and Environmental Studies. Joe writes on urban planning, environmental policy, and transportation in Minnesota and beyond. Joe also works at Our Streets Minneapolis as a GIS specialist, aiming to create an equitable and multi-modal future in the Twin Cities. Joe is a member of the board of directors at Streets.MN and in his free time loves exploring Twin Cities restaurants, cooking, and finding good places to swim.