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Amtrak begins service at St. Paul's Union Depot

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Amtrak trains will stop at St. Paul's Union Depot beginning Wednesday night, bringing passenger rail service downtown for the first time since 1971, MPR News reports. Amtrak is closing its station in the Midway area of St. Paul, where it's been located since 1978. It recently signed a lease to operate out of Union Depot for the next 20 years.

The first train on the route between St. Paul and Chicago won't actually arrive until 10 p.m. or so Wednesday night, so another Amtrak train was brought in for a daytime celebration involving various transportation officials, who said the move is another step toward Union Depot's future as a busy transportation hub.

"What you achieved here at Union Depot shows us what's possible," Federal Railroad Administration deputy administrator Karen Hedlund said Wednesday, according to MPR News.

The Depot reopened in 2012 after undergoing a $243 million restoration, but it's been slow going to attract the kind of train and bus activity that was hoped for.

That's changing now with Amtrak's arrival. The new Green Line light rail service begins on June 14, and the Greyhound and Jefferson bus lines, as well as Megabus, recently relocated to the depot.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle told the crowd that other passenger rail routes in various stages of planning could stop at the depot in future years, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports. Those include train routes to Duluth and Rochester, as well as a new high-speed train from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

Zelle said he hopes there will be enough interest in Amtrak service to add a second round trip to Chicago every day. Amtrak is currently studying that possibility, said the Pioneer Press.

While Amtrak is carrying more passengers in recent years -- a record 31.6 million passengers n 2013 -- the bulk of its customers are on the East Coast. Ridership on the Empire Builder route -- the one that goes through St. Paul on its way from Chicago to Seattle -- declined by 15 percent compared to a year earlier, according to MPR News blogger Bob Collins.

One reason is poor on-time performance. In March, the Empire Builder was on time only 17.4 percent of the time, according to Amtrak. Another reason is the expense, Collins writes, since the cost of a train ticket from the Twin Cities to Chicago is comparable to the cost of an airplane ticket, and the trip is a lot faster.

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