A train sits on tracks at Union Depot in St. Paul

A Trip on the Inaugural Borealis Train

On May 21, Minnesota got its second daily service to Chicago since 1981, when the North Star between Duluth and Chicago was cut back to end at Minneapolis’ Midway Station. Since then, the eastern leg of the Empire Builder has served Union Depot in Chicago from Union Depot in St. Paul, with once-a-day service that often runs late. The Borealis represents part of the Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) efforts to increase state-supported services in the Midwest.

An hour before the 11:50 a.m. departure of the first eastbound Borealis, a ceremony celebrating the first service was held at St. Paul Union Depot. FRA Administrator Amit Bose, an aide speaking on behalf of U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar (who joined via a voice call), state Senator Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), state Representative Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega (chair of the Regional Railroad Authority) and Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner all praised the immense effort required to get this service up and running, around 10 years’ worth of advocacy, planning and negotiation.

An Amtrak executive speaks to the crowd gathered to ride the first Borealis train to Chicago from St. Paul.
Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner at the inauguration event in St. Paul’s Union Depot. Gardner rode the inaugural eastbound Borealis, attending events celebrating the new service along the way.

The Borealis is exciting for rail advocates (including myself) because it is the first state-supported Amtrak route since the 1985 closure of the North Star to Duluth, a common practice at the time, and the first time since 1981 more than one train per day has run between the Twin Cities and Chicago. (Learn more about the history of the Borealis here.)

Stephen Gardner wrapped up his speech with the entire station yelling “All Aboard!” After a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony, passengers were directed to Gate C, which accesses the only remaining rail platform left at Union Depot, of the nine it once hosted. As is common outside of the Northeast, platforms are low-level, and one must climb up the railcar’s stairs in order to get in. Suffice it to say, it is not ADA accessible, though plenty of personnel were present at the station who could help. The stations at Red Wing and Winona were also low platform, which is true for all stations the train serves, including Chicago Union Station.

Passengers board the inaugural Borealis train from St. Paul to Chicago in May 2024.
Boarding at 11:32 AM, the low platforms are a reminder of the age and disinvestment of Union Depot, compared to newer stations which typically have level boarding.

The Eastbound to Winona

My trip was to Winona and took about one and a half hours, the same time as driving. I took the westbound Borealis back to St. Paul towards the end of the day, leaving about three hours of free time in between. The total cost for a round-trip ticket was $25.50, using a 15% student discount.

For that price, however, the seats were remarkably large and comfortable, comparable to the best airline first-class seats I had ever seen! For the moment, Amtrak Midwest (a consortium of Midwest states that runs its own Amtrak franchise) is leasing the equipment from the national Amtrak and using Horizon cars from the 1980s. Amtrak Midwest’s equipment debacle, however, is a story for another day.

Acceleration was barely noticeable, and I didn’t even realize we were moving. Although high winds left us restricted to 40 mph until we had left Hastings, after that we accelerated to 79 mph. Some upgrades in the track between Winona and La Crosse aim to reduce delays in both passenger and freight operations (WiDOT), but will not affect the top speed, due to tight curves and other necessary infrastructure upgrades to bring the top speed to 90 or even 110 mph.

One can tell infrastructure has not been upgraded or maintained to a desirable standard for passenger service, with grade crossings being bumpy, especially if you are in the gangways. It might seem trivial, but you could find yourself in a gangway while waiting in line for the café car.

The menu was standard for a non-long-distance train (shorter than 750 miles), with most hot food options being microwaved or preheated. It is a mere seven-and-a-half-hour journey to Chicago, however, and the prices are reasonable for most items, barebones as it may be.

After waiting behind FRA Administrator Amit Bose in the café line, I ordered some instant noodles and a ginger ale and returned to my seat, only to find Ian Buck from the Streets.mn podcast. (Be sure to listen to that!)

A view out the window of the east-bound Borealis, heading out of Red Wing, Minnesota.
The Borealis East of Red Wing, during a conversation with Streets.mn podcaster Ian R Buck! The track follows the river just Northwest of Winona, limiting our speed to 60 mph instead of 79 mph.

Ribbon-cutting events were held at Red Wing and Winona, with the Winona event featuring CEO Gardner, Administrator Bose and Mayor Scott Sherman, after which the Borealis continued on without me. Passengers stopped to film these events, usually flanked by some local railfans or curious onlookers.

(Holding golden scissors, from left to right) Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner, Winona Mayor Scott Sherman and FRA Administrator Amit Bose cutting the ribbon in Winona.

After getting some ice cream and wild rice soup and exploring Winona, I headed back to the station, only to learn that the Westbound had been delayed by 33 minutes. I later learned that around that time Winona was under a tornado advisory and had an EF-1 (86 to 110 mph) tornado shortly after the train’s departure.

The Westbound to St. Paul

The audience for the Eastbound train was distinctly more press-oriented than the Westbound; only on the Westbound Borealis did I see young children and their families in addition to the rail fans and journalists who took the train earlier that day.

Ultimately, we arrived back in St. Paul 29 minutes late, at 6:58 p.m., each passenger chocked full of pins and card memorabilia celebrating the inaugural service. Perhaps it is saddening that Amtrak’s notorious tardiness was on display on the first day of the first new service in two years, but I nonetheless got the impression that there is a bright future for passenger rail.

The Westbound Borealis passing through Lake City, Minnesota, at 79 mph, right before an onslaught of rain.

Chris Ott, deputy director of the High-Speed Rail Alliance (which yes, advocates for more than just high-speed rail), said the Borealis is the first step to achieving the Federal Railroad Administration’s vision for passenger rail in the Midwest, released in a 2021 report titled the Midwest Regional Rail Plan.

The plan is highly ambitious, with the “Core Express” service the FRA wants between Chicago and the Twin Cities having 24 trains a day per direction. While talking with Chris on the Eastbound Borealis, he noted that this train was important primarily because of the scheduling. Making scheduling more accessible than the long-distance Empire Builder, which is often subject to hours of delays by the time the Eastbound reaches St. Paul, makes it far more convenient to take the train than it previously was.

The FRA’s Midwest Regional Rail Plan, which calls for 24 trains per day per direction between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, the highest planned capacity of any Midwest corridor.

Borealis also puts Minnesota’s foot in the door to Amtrak Midwest, which has seen considerable investment by Illinois and Michigan, and renewed interest in Ohio and Wisconsin, all of which, barring Ohio, are served by Amtrak Midwest. Having a coalition of state governments to coordinate an expansion of passenger rail creates immense potential for network effect, increasing freedom for passengers among the countless other benefits of intercity rail. The upcoming Northern Lights Express, and proposed routes such as West Central Wisconsin Rail to Eau Claire and the canceled ZipRail high-speed rail to Rochester, all stand to gain from a dedicated intercity train to Chicago, even if it isn’t 24 trains per day, yet.

The inauguration of the Borealis also saw a lowering in price in the Empire Builder to $41 starting (previously $88), which is sure to entice more people to take the train, especially since they are now competitive with intercity bus tickets. Day trips to Red Wing, Winona and La Crosse are entirely possible with this new service, and while the FRA works on its elaborate plans for Midwestern rail, I take comfort in knowing this may be just the beginning.

Photography and videography by Colin Jones

About Colin Jones

Pronouns: they/them

Colin is a civil engineering student at UMN Duluth. A transplant from suburban Woodbury, they are an advocate of sustainability, housing reform, and rail transportation. They are also training to be a conductor for the North Shore Scenic Railroad in Duluth.