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Amtrak's Empire Builder train makes a stop in Fargo on its way from Chicago to Seattle. All Aboard Minnesota hopes to increase daytime rail travel between Fargo and Chicago. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Group pushes for more Fargo-to-Chicago passenger rail service

FARGO — Expanded daytime passenger train service from Fargo to Chicago with stops in between could become a reality if Minnesota lawmakers can be sold on the idea.

That's the goal of a nonprofit group called All Aboard Minnesota, which is hosting a public forum on the subject Wednesday, Sept. 26, in St. Cloud, Minn.

Currently, Amtrak's Empire Builder route accommodates long-distance travel between cities like Fargo, St. Cloud, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, with trains reaching Fargo at about 2 or 3 a.m.

Under a proposal that's been studied by the Minnesota Department of Transportation State Rail Planning Office, a new service would be set up that would start with passengers boarding in Fargo in the morning and heading east from there, ultimately arriving in Chicago, said Brian Nelson, president of All Aboard Minnesota, a passenger rail advocacy group.

Nelson said the plan for expanded long-distance service is a superior option to other transportation plans being discussed, including efforts to extend Northstar commuter service from Big Lake, Minn., to St. Cloud.

Nelson said Amtrak would likely be the leading entity if any plan moves forward on expanding Fargo-to-Chicago passenger service.

He said the plan, the cost of which would be shared between Minnesota and Wisconsin, could grow the number of Minnesotans using long-distance train service by 150,000 to 200,000 riders a year and generate about $8 million in revenue for Minnesota.

Currently, about 140,000 Minnesotans use long-distance train service each year, according to Nelson.

He said the cost to Minnesota taxpayers for setting up expanded service is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million a year, far cheaper, he said, than building new highways, which can cost millions of dollars per mile.

The idea comes at a time when long-distance train service has been facing headwinds from some in the federal government, including President Donald Trump, who earlier this year advocated cutting funding for Amtrak.

However, Congress ended up passing a bill that provided Amtrak, which is run like a for-profit company but is partly funded by the government, with a budget increase.

Still, Nelson said Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has proposed cuts to long-distance routes, which Nelson said could impact the Empire Builder.

He said All Aboard Minnesota opposes such cutbacks and is working in support of a U.S. House bill that would require Amtrak to keep all long-distance routes intact.

If you go:

What: Public forum on expanding daytime passenger train service between Fargo and Chicago, hosted by All Aboard Minnesota

Where: Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, Minn.

When: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26

Dave Olson
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