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Amtrak to start new Chicago-Twin Cities service through Wisconsin later this month

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by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
May 7, 2024

In the first major expansion of passenger train service in Wisconsin in more than a decade, Amtrak is adding a second train from Chicago to Minnesota’s Twin Cities later this month.

The new Borealis service, which will start Tuesday, May 21, will give travelers a second choice of trains daily between the two metro areas. It’s the first of what could be at least four Amtrak expansion projects funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that Congress passed in 2021 and President Joe Biden signed.

Amtrak projects the route will have 232,000 passengers in the first year of operations.

“People want different ways to travel — they want other options,” said Susan Foote-Martin, vice president of public relations for the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers WisARP). “They don’t want to be stuck in traffic anymore.” The route of the new Amtrak Borealis service, which starts May 21 and connects Chicago and the Twin Cities through Wisconsin. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

The Borealis is an extension of the popular Hiawatha service that connects Chicago and Milwaukee, currently with seven trains a day. The only other Chicago-Twin Cities service currently available is on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which has daily service through Wisconsin and Minnesota connecting Chicago and the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s a welcome addition to the system,” said Scott Rogers, vice president for governmental affairs at the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce.

Westbound from Chicago, the Borealis will have stops in Wisconsin in Sturtevant, Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. It will continue on through Winona and Red Wing, Minnesota, terminating in St. Paul.

In Western Wisconsin, “there’s been tremendous interest all along” in expanded passenger train service, Rogers said. “Whenever it’s come up the general public has been very interested in having an alternative transportation option.”

While Eau Claire isn’t on the Borealis route, Rogers said there is the possibility for shuttle service between the city and Borealis stops in Tomah or Red Wing.

Eau Claire and Madison are also part of another proposed expansion route in the state, and state and federal transportation officials are looking at a third route connecting Milwaukee through the Fox Valley to Green Bay. In addition, Amtrak along with Illinois and Wisconsin are eyeing additional Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains.

Another service corridor from the Twin Cities to Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior in Northwest Wisconsin is also under consideration, said Rogers. A proposal for new service from Eau Claire through Menomonie and Hudson to the Twin Cities has also won a federal grant for preliminary planning.

Rogers said that proposal, supported by the West Central Wisconsin Rail Coalition, which he chairs, is considering competitive bidding to contract with an independent rail service provider that would operate the trains.

The prospect of expanded rail passenger service in Wisconsin has been around since Republican former Gov. Tommy Thompson was in office, said Foote-Martin. Thompson was an enthusiastic Amtrak booster during his four terms as governor, chairing the Amtrak board of directors.

In Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle’s second term, Wisconsin was designated as one of the locations for high-speed rail service by the administration of President Barack Obama. The service would have connected Milwaukee with the Twin Cities through Madison.

Republican Scott Walker made opposition to the project a key issue in his 2010 campaign to succeed Doyle (who didn’t run again). After Walker won, Doyle essentially ended it before leaving office, pointing to its inevitable cancellation by his successor. Some train advocates felt he never should have stopped the project.

Nevertheless, Foote-Martin said the state Department of Transportation remained open to expanding passenger rail, and the infrastructure law has enabled new investment.

With funding through the infrastructure law, the federal Freight Rail Administration (FRA) in the U.S. Department of Transportation invited states to submit proposals for development and planning grants. The Borealis service was able to be added first because it uses the same route as an existing train, the Empire Builder.

The FRA rated the route as having “the most potential to carry people throughout the Midwest,” Foote-Martin said. Repairs and upgrades that are needed along the route can be made while service is underway. “The route is in very good shape.”

Amtrak has started booking trips for the new Borealis service, pricing tickets at $41 for coach and $98 for business class. The passenger service is promising free WiFi service on board along with a café car and reclining seats.

Westbound trains will depart Chicago just after 11 a.m., arriving in St. Paul at 6:30 p.m. Eastbound trains will leave St. Paul trains at 11:50 a.m., arriving in Chicago just before 7:15 p.m. By comparison, the westbound Empire Builder departs Chicago just after 3 p.m., arriving in St. Paul just before 11 p.m.; the service’s eastbound trains leave St. Paul at 8:50 a.m. and reach Chicago just before 5 p.m.

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