Amtrak will launch new Chicago-Twin Cities service via Wisconsin later this month. • Wisconsin Examiner

Amtrak will launch new Chicago-Twin Cities service via Wisconsin later this month.  • Wisconsin Examiner

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

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

Amtrak expects the route to have 232,000 passengers in its first year of operation.

“People want different ways to travel – they want different 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 begins May 21 and connects Chicago and the Twin Cities through Wisconsin. (Courtesy of Amtrak)

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

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

West from Chicago, the Borealis will make stops in Wisconsin in Sturtevant, Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. The journey continues via Winona and Red Wing, Minnesota and ends in St. Paul.

In Western Wisconsin, “there has been tremendous interest all along” for expanded passenger rail service, Rogers said. “Every time it came up, the general public was very interested in an alternative transportation option.”

Although Eau Claire is not on the Borealis route, Rogers said there is an option 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 to Green Bay via the Fox Valley. Additionally, Amtrak is looking at additional Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains with Illinois and Wisconsin.

Another service corridor from the Twin Cities to Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior in northwest Wisconsin is also being considered, Rogers said. 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 Railroad Coalitionof which he is chairman, is considering making a competitive bid for a contract with an independent rail service provider that would operate the trains.

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

During Democratic former Governor Jim Doyle’s second term, Wisconsin was identified by President Barack Obama’s administration as one of the locations for high-speed rail. The service would have connected Milwaukee to the Twin Cities via Madison.

Republican Scott Walker made opposition to the project a key issue in his 2010 campaign to succeed Doyle (who did not run again). After Walker won, Doyle effectively put an end to it before resigning his office, pointing to its inevitable resignation by his successor. Some train advocates believed he should never have stopped the project.

Nevertheless, Foote-Martin said the Department of Transport remained open to expanding passenger rail, and that the infrastructure bill has allowed for new investments.

With funding through the Infrastructure Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s federal Freight Rail Administration (FRA) invited states to submit proposals for development and planning grants. The Borealis service could 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 move people through the Midwest,” Foote-Martin said. Repairs and upgrades needed along the route can be made while the service is in progress. “The route is in very good condition.”

Amtrak has started booking travel for its new Borealis service, with tickets costing $41 for coach and $98 for business class. The passenger service promises free WiFi on board, along with a café car and reclining seats.

Westbound trains leave Chicago just after 11 a.m. and arrive in St. Paul at 6:30 p.m. Eastbound trains will depart St. Paul at 11:50 a.m. and arrive in Chicago just before 7:15 p.m. By comparison, the westbound Empire Builder departs Chicago just after 3 p.m. and arrives 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.