More than a decade ago, Ramsey County poured $243 million into purchasing, renovating and reviving the downtown St. Paul Union Depot, a 1920s-era transit hub that hadn’t hosted passenger trains since 1971. Situated on 33 acres of riverfront property off Kellogg Boulevard, the neoclassical train depot welcomed their return in May 2014 when Amtrak’s Empire Builder began rolling in a morning trip to Chicago and a return trip at night.
Transit advocates say discontent with Ramsey County’s management of the depot has created a stir within the nation’s long-distance passenger rail provider. An internal Amtrak memo reportedly outlines concerns about the county using the downtown hub primarily as a banquet facility.
That comes on top of worries about crime and loitering inside the cavernous riverfront depot, which is otherwise short on foot traffic. Brian Nelson, president of the rail advocacy coalition All Aboard Minnesota, obtained a copy of the Amtrak memo and recently forwarded it to Ramsey County leadership.
”It is not an official document,” said Nelson, who declined to share it publicly without the author’s permission. “It was written internally, for internal distribution. It offers some recommendations, solutions, at the end.”
Amtrak officials have sought to downplay the internal memo, which they said does not represent the organization’s public views.
“No one from Amtrak with any authority or the ability to speak for Amtrak said that,” said Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based spokesman for Amtrak.
A second trip to Chicago in 2024?
Nelson this month said a second daily Amtrak departure on the 411-mile rail corridor to Chicago is still expected to begin in 2024, as long planned, though key agreements have yet to be finalized between Amtrak, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Canadian Pacific Railway, which owns the tracks over which the trains would operate.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently released a public survey asking potential passengers what kind of ticket prices they would find reasonable between the Twin Cities and Chicago and what amenities they’d like to see on the new train service, such as dining or beverage services and bike racks.
A MnDOT project page indicates track construction would run from 2024 to 2026, though Amtrak officials say they can begin service next year even as construction unfolds.
“We can start the service without all the improvements being done,” said Magliari, in a phone interview. “For example, there’s a second track needed at La Crosse, Wis., around the station. We can operate on the existing track while the second track is being built.”
County officials and other transit enthusiasts have long advocated for Amtrak to add a second daily trip to the Windy City, which would improve service reliability and inject more activity into the Union Depot’s cavernous concourse, head house and waiting room, where homeless visitors and panhandlers sometimes outnumber passengers or patrons of the depot’s bar and bike shop. Those are two of the few vendors that have stuck around amid sluggish pedestrian traffic. A short-lived ice cream and cotton candy store recently closed at the location.
Emergency homeless shelter
During three frigid nights of a cold snap in late January 2019, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office used the depot as an emergency homeless shelter for 100 people.
The next week, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners all but vowed not to do so again.
Nelson said key personnel within Amtrak recently highlighted problems deboarding trains into what they describe as an uncomfortable atmosphere.
“This report is currently circulating within Amtrak’s operating departments and details concerns these personnel have with crime, prostitution, vagrants, drug usage and other issues that threaten both passenger and employee safety,” reads a summary of the memo in All Aboard Minnesota’s November newsletter.
Loitering isn’t the only challenge.
The county has roped and curtained off much of the waiting room, reserving the space for leased events such as weddings, blood drives, Christmas markets, fundraisers and even for a time a church service. Some of those events play loud music that drowns out announcements about train departures, and passengers are left to queue up in a narrow corridor, outside the event area, which offers limited seating.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who chairs the county’s Regional Rail Authority, blasted the memo as irrelevant. He said it’s little secret that downtown St. Paul experienced an uptick in crime during the pandemic, as did other cities, and that homeless visitors loiter outside the transit hub.
“We’ve met with Amtrak. We’ve taken all the security precautions. We feel good about how everything’s going,” Ortega said. “It’s not even a report. It’s a lot of hearsay, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ortega said discussions with Amtrak are on track, so to speak, and have extended to storing some of its trains at Union Depot.
“We’re working out the details,” he said. “These things take time.”
Nelson said he planned to meet with Greg Mathis, MnDOT’s state planning director for passenger rail, on the prospect of a second Amtrak train to Chicago, among other rail projects in the Upper Midwest. Mathis also was scheduled to give an update on passenger rail services on Nov. 18 during All Aboard Minnesota’s 10th anniversary gathering at the Edina Public Library.
Northern Lights Express to Duluth
All Aboard Minnesota also has doubts about how quickly the Northern Lights Express, a proposed passenger rail service from the Twin Cities to Duluth, would roll into action.
The Federal Railroad Administration completed an environmental review and approved the service development plan in early 2018. In May of this year, the state Legislature appropriated $194.7 million for the project.
Still, Nelson said it could be seven years or more before the Northern Lights welcomes its first riders, likely leaving from Target Field in Minneapolis.
“The term has been used that it’s ‘shovel ready.’ While the final design and environmental assessment were pretty much completed, they’re now at the end of their shelf life,” Nelson said. “Those reports need to be updated. To do that, that’s a process that could take up to two years.”
After that, negotiations would have to recommence with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which maintains the 152 miles of tracks. The state would then have to apply for federal matching grants, which are expected to cover 80% of construction costs. “I think people were thinking it would happen faster than it actually is,” Nelson said.
MnDOT officials this month confirmed they have applied to the federal government for the 80% match, and are hopeful of getting Northern Lights rolling sooner rather than later.