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Northern delights: Amtrak’s new Borealis Chicago – Twin Cities service launches May 21

The Borealis will offer earlier arrival to Minneapolis-St. Paul, later departure.

A Milwaukee-bound Amtrak Hiawatha train passing through Metra’s Lake-Cook Road station on the Milwaukee District North tracks. Borealis service will be sort of like an extension of the Hiawatha. Photo: Igor Studenkov

This post is sponsored by Keating Law Offices.

Last weekend many Chicagoans were excited about the appearance of northern lights, aka the aurora borealis, on the lakefront.

But here at Streetsblog Chicago, we're jazzed about the Amtrak Borealis, an upcoming new passenger rail option between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Service for the long-discussed line will start on Tuesday, May 21, offering a second daily train option on this corridor for the first time in more than 40 years.

On the way from the Windy City to the Twins, the Borealis will in downtown Glenview, Illinois, plus eight stops in Wisconsin and two in Minnesota. The new train is, in a way, an extension of the Hiawatha service, which runs six to seven trains per day in each direction between Chicago and Milwaukee. While most of the trains will operate the same as before, one inbound train and one outbound train will come from / go to Minneapolis-Saint Paul. It will travel the same route and make the same stops as the long-distance Chicago to Seattle and Portland Empire Builder until it reaches the St. Paul Union Depot station.

The Borealis will stop at Wisconsin Dells, and take a scenic route along the Mississippi River through most of the Minnesota portion. Amtrak’s official route guide also highlights Winona, MN, with its bike trails and canoeing and fishing opportunities.

Winona Amtrak station
Eastbound Empire Builder passengers stretch their legs at Winona Amtrak station. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The Chicago - Twin Cities section has traditionally been one of the Empire Builder’s busier segments, but the schedule has long been an issue. The westbound train arrives at in Saint Paul Union a little before 11 p.m., and the eastbound run stops there at 8:50 a.m.

The westbound Borealis trains will leave Chicago Union Station at 11 a.m., stopping in downtown Milwaukee at 12:39 p.m. and arriving at St. Paul at 6:26 p.m. The eastbound trains will leave St. Paul at 11:50 a.m., stop in Milwaukee at 5:45 p.m. and arrive in Chicago at 7:14 p.m. Like the Hiawatha train, the Borealis will have onboard wifi, but unlike the Hiawatha, it will have a cafe car that will sell sandwiches, snacks and drinks. Since the train will use the same equipment as the Hiawatha trains, it will not have bike racks.

The Empire Builder Borealis schedule.

The project was spearheaded by the Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota transportation departments. A federal grant is covering the operating costs for the next three years, but afterwards, that responsibility will fall on the three DOTs. While they are tentatively expected to split the costs almost equally, the final agreements haven’t been approved yet.

The nine-year planning journey

The Empire Builder has been the only train service between Chicago and the Twin Cities since 1981. In 2015, Amtrak released a feasibility report estimating that a route could get anywhere between 137,000 and 185,100 riders a year, depending on the schedule and stations served.

The 2022 Passenger Rail Association ridership data analysis, the most recent available, lists the Chicago to St. Paul segment as the Empire Builder’s highest-ridership segment, ahead of Chicago to Seattle (which came in at Number 2) and Chicago-Portland (Number 3). (If this language is confusing, check out the one-page report here.) The Milwaukee-St. Paul segment came in at Number 7, the Chicago-Wisconsin Dells segment came in at Number 8, and two other intermediate segments, Chicago – La Crosse, Wis. and Chicago-Tomah, WI, came in at number 5 and 10, respectively.

WisDOT estimates that the Borealis will get 231,900 riders in its first year.

Westbound Empire Builder picks up and drops off passengers at St. Paul Union Deport at 11 p.m. Photo: Igor Studenkov

In September 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded a $31.8 million Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) grant to cover most of the final engineering and construction costs, which was necessarily to improve capacity on the Milwaukee to St. Paul section. Amtrak pitched in $5 million, and Wisconsin and Minnesota chipped in $6.2 million and $10 million.

In May 2020, FRA awarded the departments $16.2 million to cover the operating costs for the first three years. Once that grant expires, the three states will need to cover the majority of the operating costs.

State reports previously suggested that IDOT would pay 30 percent of the cost, with WisDOT and MnDOT each paying 35 percent. MnDOT spokesperson Julie Bartkey said that the funding agreements are still in the process of being finalized, and any numbers she could give would be tentative.

The rider experience

The Empire currently skips the Milwaukee Airport and Sturtevant, WI stations. In order not to compete with the Hiawatha, the westbound trains don’t drop off and eastbound trains don’t pick up passengers at Glenview and Milwaukee. With the Borealis, it will now be possible to, for example, travel between Sturtevant and Wisconsin Dells without switching trains.

Like all Midwest state-supported services (except the Hiawatha), Borealis will have a cafe car. The press release announcing Borealis’ launch mentions that it will offer “regional items.” Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari declined to elaborate on it, saying that the details are still being negotiated, but he suggested that they won't be too different from the usual selections. (They'd be fools not to offer a Twin Cities-style cheese-stuffed Juicy Lucy burger. - Ed.)

Magliari also made it clear that Borealis won’t use Siemens Venture coach cars, which have become regular fixtures on most Midwest routes over the past two years but only recently started appearing on the Hiawatha. These newer cars have onboard bike racks, UBS chargers at the seats and wider automatic doors that are more accommodating to riders with mobility issues.

Siemens Venture bike rack. Photo: Igor Studenkov

As the Amtrak press release points out, westbound Empire Builder passengers don't get the picturesque views of the Mississippi River, since the train doesn’t reach it until a little after 8 p.m., But westbound Borealis will reach it four hours early, giving plenty of opportunities to see it during the day.

(Pro-tip – eastbound riders looking for the best views should sit on the left side, westbound riders should sit on the right).

One of the narrower sections of Mississippi River, as seen from the Empire Builder. Photo: Igor Studenkov

The westbound Borealis will arrive at Wisconsin Dells at 2:33 p.m., and eastbound train will arrive at 3:40 p.m. This means that, for the first time in decades, it will be technically possible to make a train day trip to the iconic tourist spot. And, for those who want to stay overnight, the new schedule gives Chicagoans more time to enjoy the sights and the attractions. The Empire Builder arrives at the Dells at 6:24 p.m. and returns at 12:54 p.m. the next day.

Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dellls’ Showboat Saloon, as seen outside the Empire Builder window. Photo: Igor Studenkov

In the press announcement, Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omar Osman stated IDOT is "proud" to help add more Amtrak service to the Midwest. "Ensuring passenger rail that’s safe, reliable and accessible is one of the many reasons Illinois continues to distinguish itself as the transportation hub of North America under Gov. JB Pritzker."

Image: Amtrak

Rail Passenger Association CEO Jim Mathews described Borealis as something that "will transform transportation in this busy corridor. Passenger trains mean trips that are taken off of highways and out of the sky, saving lives, limiting pollution, and opening up new possibilities. These new trains also mean new trips that would not have otherwise taken place at all, producing direct returns for the communities they serve."

US High Speed Rail Alliance Executive Director Rick Harnish described Borealis as "progress" and a viable candidate for high-speed rail further down the line. But he told Streetsblog that he was frustrated with how long it takes to launch any new rail service in United States.

"It’s going to make getting from Chicago to St. Paul a lot more convenient," Harnish said. "But we got to make those small steps a lot faster... We knew for a long time that this is a good market. We really need to have a federal program to make [projects like this] a reality."

Update 5/14/24, 12:15 PM: Readers asked whether you'll be able to bring bicycles on Borealis runs. The short answer is no, not in the short term, since the Borealis trains won't immediately have bike racks in the passenger cars, or baggage cars. But here's how to take a bike on the Empire Builder for a Twin Cities - Windy City trip.

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