At Union Depot, a celebration of a failed transportation option

Today is a big day at Union Depot where Amtrak will make its first passenger stop since the time when it was actually a dependable mode of transportation.

For the sake of the TV crews covering the event, Amtrak brought in a train to show what a passenger train looks like.

Theoretically, the party could’ve just waited for the eastbound Empire Builder, the only passenger train that zips through Saint Paul twice a day, but it’s missing in action. Again.

In March, the on-time performance of the train was only 17.4%. “Train interference” caused only 40 percent of the delays. Tracks and signals accounted for 22% as did “passengers,” according to Amtrak.

The last stop at the Midway train station was to occur this morning around 8. But by then, the train was only in Sauk Rapids, running almost 7 hours behind schedule, or about the amount of time it takes to get in a car and drive to Chicago, or the amount of time it takes to fly to Chicago and back. Twice.

By late morning today, the westbound train, which was scheduled to leave Saint Paul around 10 last night, was already two hours late as it approached Minot, screaming along at 57 miles per hour. It’ll be a 14-hour trip on a 7-hour drive by car.

Amtrak’s initial cure for the delays was to change the schedule starting in April. If a 10-hour trip is arriving 12 hours late, just change the schedule to reflect that it’s a 12-hour trip. Problem solved. This week, Amtrak announced its latest plan to end the delays in North Dakota. It’s going to operate buses.

Make no mistake. Union Depot is a magnificent edifice and the renovation opens up tremendous possibilities – commuter rail from the southeastern suburbs, and an interconnection with local bus routes and light rail. But today’s Amtrak celebration is more about nostalgia than possibilities. The local politicians said all the right things today, but none of them is ever going to actually take the Empire Builder, unless they’re going someplace they really don’t need to be.

At the celebration this morning, Amtrak announced that it had carried more passengers last year than at any time since 1957. It’s a misleading statistic. Amtrak’s focus is on the northeast corridor, where its high-speed trains run fast and on time. You can’t blame Amtrak for putting its money there. It’s a legitimate alternative to most every other form of transportation between Boston, New York, and Washington.

If you wanted to take a train from Boston to New York this afternoon, you have nine different trains you can take and you can be there faster than the time it takes the Empire Builder to travel to Saint Paul from St. Cloud. Three days a week, the passenger load on the Acela northeast corridor train is 100%.

Here? The Empire Builder traffic is down 15 percent from a year ago.