MnDOT Demands Another Amtrak Train Despite Big Ridership Decline

MnDOT wants to add a second Amtrak train between Chicago and the Twin Cities. By the front page story in the Star Tribune, you’d likely think ridership on the taxpayer-subsidized passenger line must be on the upswing.

Adding a second daily passenger train between St. Paul’s Union Depot and downtown Chicago, a proposal that has been bandied about for many years, would likely cost from $137 million to $169 million. But it’s unclear at this point how the project would be funded, and by whom, says a new study.

But the paper left out an inconvenient fact on the campaign underway to double down on Amtrak’s underwhelming performance in our state.

A quick fact check shows the number of passengers on the Chicago to Twin Cities route has imploded 23 percent in the last five years, according to the Rail Passengers Association. In 2012 177,600 Amtrak riders boarded or disembarked in Minnesota compared to 136,400 in 2017 on the Empire Builder, the only Amtrak service here.

And remember the $238 million in federal, state and local taxpayers fund squandered on renovating the St. Paul Union Depot that was supposed to revive interest in the 19th century mode of transportation? Amtrak ridership has essentially remained flat since the downtown depot reopened in 2014.

Yet that didn’t stop the paper from citing an outdated previous government study that claims tens of thousands of us are clamoring for more of a service that’s steadily losing customers.

The idea involves adding another daily train in each direction between Chicago’s Union Station and St. Paul, avoiding travel delays occasionally experienced by the Empire Builder as it travels from the West Coast. A previous study by Amtrak estimated 155,000 passengers would take advantage of expanded service between the two Midwestern cities annually.

The most convincing reason Amtrak supporters give for duplicating the failing service? The trains might actually start running on time–or close to it by Amtrak’s standards.

“It doesn’t always leave at 8 a.m.,” said Frank Loetterle, project manager for MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office, while addressing the Ramsey board. “The challenge with the eastbound Empire Builder service is that it has traveled hundreds of miles, so it’s not as reliable as it could be.”

The objective is “to have a train leaving St. Paul on time most of the time,” Loetterle added.

Can there be any doubt that the time has come for state lawmakers to run MnDOT’s passenger rail office off the tracks once and for all?