Amtrak ridership in Minnesota is up. The Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago, northwest to Saint Paul
, and then west through North Dakota and Montana into Washington and Oregon, gained about 10% more riders in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September. At its largest stop in Minnesota, St. Paul's Midway
station, 147,791 people boarded or departed Amtrak trains in 2008, about 14,700 more than in 2007. At that record pace, a high-speed train service between Saint Paul and Chicago may be in the cards. In addition, a Northern Lights Express line between Duluth and Minneapolis is moving forward.Now on a sixth straight year of ridership growth, added services fill on the Empire Builder line fill up fast. It’s proof that people are using it. Proponents of the trains believe that if they can be faster and more efficient, even more people will choose to ride the rails as well.
Overall, Amtrak gained nearly 2 million new passengers in the fiscal year. The high cost of gas is believed to be a major contributor to the influx of new rail travelers. Amtrak and other rail services’ sudden popularity has gained the attention of the federal government, even. President Bush recently signed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, legislation that provides $14.9 billion for Amtrak and passenger-rail funding over the next five years. That almost doubles current spending levels.
One major feature of the legislation matches grants for state rail service, opening up a whole new horizon for passenger trains in Minnesota. A train traveling at the envisioned 110 miles per hour would make the trip from St. Paul to Chicago less than six hours. Officials in Rochester and Olmsted County would also be interested in linking to the proposed high-speed line as well. Add in the service expected to run the 150-mile trip from Minneapolis to Duluth, called the Northern Lights Express, projected to open in 2012. The proposed line would use existing rails to make their way up north.
Furthermore, Amtrak is also studying a possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha train, which from 1971 through 1979 brought riders through Minnesota, into central North Dakota and then on to southern Montana. The additional services would make stations would give more people the option to ride instead of drive. Think of how connected Minnesota would be and how easy it would be to get to our major cities.