Here’s Why Amtrak’s New Borealis Train Matters

On Tuesday, May 21, Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner (at left in photo above, holding scissors) cut the ribbon for a new train. The new Borealis will run daily between Chicago and St. Paul. Hundreds of people gathered at St. Paul Union Depot to celebrate and to hear an impressive roster of local, state, and federal officials speak. Amit Bose, the leader of the Federal Railroad Administration, called the new train “a win for the Midwest” and “just the beginning.”

The Borealis is allowed to travel up to 79 miles an hour—similar to most other Amtrak service. You might wonder: why does the High Speed Rail Alliance care?

Here’s why the Borealis matters, and what we can learn from its successful launch.

Enthusiastic crowds gathered to welcome the train at stops all along the route, such as this one in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Enthusiasm and pent-up demand for new trains is huge

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has a population of more than three million people. Yet for decades, the Twin Cities has had only one intercity train: Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which travels daily between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. It’s no wonder that such an enthusiastic crowd celebrated in St. Paul for the first run.

Despite threatening weather, similar groups turned out at stops all along the way, in communities including Red Wing and Winona, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Tomah, Portage, and Columbus, Wisconsin. A few of these cities had organized official events to promote the Borealis, but even in communities that hadn’t, people gathered to welcome the train. Trains bring valuable options and benefits to communities, and the people who live there—and elected officials representing them—know it.

The new train serves one of the most important corridors in the Midwest

In 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration released the Midwest Regional Rail Plan. Over several years, the FRA studied a 12-state region, then laid out a vision for a network of trains that would transform travel throughout the Midwest. The line linking Chicago and the Twin Cities is the foundation of the plan’s strategy.

The FRA’s vision calls for hourly, high-speed service on this line (with service to Madison, which is currently left out). The Borealis is just one new train on existing track shared with freight trains. But it is important, because it has brought attention to this line, as well as investment and cooperation with the host railroad, CPKC, to improve its infrastructure.

Launching the Borealis demonstrates that elected leaders and other decision-makers recognize the importance of this corridor, and its future potential. Already, WisDOT has won a federal Corridor ID grant to do initial planning for further Borealis frequencies (and to expand train service to cities that lack it, including Eau Claire and Madison).

Planning much greater frequency for the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor also highlights the need to find new paths, such as ways to increase the capacity of the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor, which is heavily traveled.

Proposed Midwest Network (2021)

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Midwest Regional Rail Plan. A new 186+ mph high-speed line linking Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul—with intermediate stops in Milwaukee and Madison—is the foundation of the plan’s strategy.

Convenient scheduling matters—a lot

Alongside high speed, the Alliance advocates for high-frequency service: at least every two hours, if not every hour. The Borealis is only the second train serving this line, but it has a carefully chosen schedule.

Borealis travelers heading both east and west can expect to reach their stations in the afternoon or early evening, which leaves time for dinner or other plans. For anyone planning to return the next day, later departures leave time the following morning as well.

For most travelers, this schedule is much more convenient than the Empire Builder’s. The Empire Builder also frequently suffers from multi-hour delays as it travels eastbound all the way from the west coast. In addition to a more convenient schedule, the Borealis should be more dependable.

Amit Bose, Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, speaking at the Borealis launch event. 

Borealis shows the importance of multi-state cooperation

Speakers for the Borealis kick-off gave credit to the three states whose support has made the train possible: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The train was years in the making, in part because it’s complicated and difficult for states to coordinate on projects like this over a long span of time. Even with strong support from most of the states, a shift in the political winds in just one can slow or stop a project.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Amtrak, elected leaders, and transportation staff in the states the Borealis now serves deserve congratulations and thanks, but we need a federal railway program to guide and support multi-state projects like this.

The interstate highway system took decades to build, and it cost hundreds of billions, in today’s dollars. It might never have come together—or it might have taken much longer, and resulted in a patchwork of inconsistent standards—if the federal government had not led the way.

Great train service needs and deserves federal planning, commitment, and investment, on a national scale.

Borealis shows the importance of statewide service

In Wisconsin, the Borealis actually does not serve most of the state’s largest cities, including Madison (second-largest, the state capital, and home of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus) and Green Bay (Wisconsin’s third-largest city, and home of the Packers).

But many people live in the Wisconsin communities the Borealis does serve: La Crosse, Tomah, the Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus, Milwaukee, and Sturtevant. The Borealis “travelshed”—the area in which people can access the train reasonably easily—includes about 59 percent of Wisconsin’s population.

Opponents sometimes try to portray trains as serving only people in big cities. In fact, trains are vital to smaller communities, which often lack easy access to airports. A new train like the Borealis helps demonstrates what trains can do, for communities of all sizes. The bipartisan support that this geographic diversity builds will be critical for further service improvements, and expansions to cities that don’t yet have train service.

Wisconsin’s State Rail Plan—with additions shown by dashed lines—could connect the entire state. 

Pictured from left to right: Chris Ott, Deputy Director of the High Speed Rail Alliance and Brian Nelson, President of All Aboard Minnesota, at St. Paul Union Depot on the morning of the first Borealis run.

Borealis shows the importance of advocacy

Despite setbacks and a process that took many years, advocates for better trains supported this project. Alongside Amtrak and agencies such as state DOTs and the Great River Rail Commission, organized labor and advocacy groups including All Board Minnesota, the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers, and All Aboard Wisconsin worked hard for this train. Individual advocates testified before legislative committees, contacted elected officials, and never gave up.

The Borealis is an important step in improved service projected to benefit more than two hundred thousand riders per year in three states. If the dedicated advocacy work that achieved this milestone continues, we can get the high level of service that this critical corridor deserves.

A dude is using an IPad on a station platform wth a high-speed train in the background.

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The country needs an Interstate Railway Program, like the Interstate Highway Program, to take full advantage of the community, economic, and environmental benefits of trains.

Please join with us in asking Congress to create a national railway program to re-connect America with fast, frequent, and affordable trains.

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