New Rail Service Twin Cities-Chicago and the Ghosts of the 100 MPH Hiawatha Trains

In June 1947, the Milwaukee Road Railroad introduced the streamlined, herculean Olympian Hiawatha train on the Twin Cities-Chicago route. Adam Burns of American Rails reported that the new “trains became instantly successful and regularly cruised over 100 mph with nary a bump or shudder during the ride.” He added that the “trains could make the jaunt between the two cities in roughly six hours.”

The 1952 afternoon Hiawatha from Chicago to St. Paul was scheduled at 6 hours and 15 minutes. In the pursuit of safety, Milwaukee Road installed “Reduce to 90” (miles-per-hour) signs along portions of the route.

Besides speed, the new trains offered leading-edge comfort. The dining and lounge cars offered angled seating for optimal views -- similar to international airline business class seats today. Moreover, the trains featured the spectacular Skytop solarium cars which it billed as: “the perfect ending to a perfect train”. (See photo.)

As recently as 2010, the Empire Builder route Chicago-Twin Cities-Seattle boasted the best on-time performance in the U.S. Then a pair of conflicting rulings about Amtrak preferred right-of-way over freight trains—one by the Court of Appeals in D.C. and then another by the Supreme Court – devastated long haul Amtrak passenger service.

Since then, freight train operators have been able to cast a blind eye and obstruct or delay any Amtrak passenger train running over their lines. And freight railroads own and maintain the vast majority of U.S. tracks including the Empire Builder route from Chicago through Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle.

Innovation in Reverse Gear

Fast forwarding to today and seemingly technology and innovation have been running in reverse for 80 years. The current Amtrak schedule between Chicago Union Station and St. Paul’s Union Depot is 8 hours compared to the 6 hours and 15 minutes of 1952. Further, the whole Empire Builder schedule Chicago to Tacoma was 24 hours back then — it is more than 34 hours now! And despite the inflated schedule, according to Amtrak, Empire Builder trains running on that line are on time 43 percent of the time. What is going on?

Well if you have rode that train, it’s pretty obvious. As Amtrak terms it, Freight Train Interference often leaves the train stopped, waiting helplessly for freight trains to cross or use the same track. At one point my train sat in one spot in Wisconsin for 55 minutes. In Amtrak’s most current annual statistics, Freight Train Interference accounted for more than 57 percent of total delays on their system. Is there anything more unsettling than a train or plane that is supposed to be moving, stalled in one place for an extended period?

Here Comes More Amtrak St. Paul-Chicago Service

In early January, the Star Tribune trumpeted a headline: “Rail agreement could fast-track second Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago”. Last year state lawmakers agreed to spend $53 million to fund a second Amtrak service over lines that are primarily owned by Canadian Pacific (CP). In order to gain approval for its pending acquisition of Kansas City Southern railway, CP courted Amtrak with a pledge to support that second train service.

Amtrak Media Relations provided this statement: “CP has been an excellent host of Amtrak intercity passenger service year after year and has established itself as a leader in the railroad industry,” said Stephen J. Gardner, Amtrak President. “We welcome CP’s commitment to our efforts with states and others to expand Amtrak service and are pleased to have reached an agreement formalizing CP’s support of Amtrak expansion in the Midwest and the South.”

The good news for Midwest travelers is that CP has been the top-rated host for Amtrak trains running over its lines. It has received an ‘A’ grade in Amtrak’s Host Railroad scorecard meaning that the majority of the time it acts as a good neighbor in minimizing delays over its tracks. For every Amtrak trip similar to the distance St. Paul to Chicago, CP has only been responsible for 18 minutes of delays on average.  

After more than 20 years at Northwest, Continental and United Airlines, I can imagine that airline executives aren’t exactly shaking in their boots over the new competition on one of their most lucrative business travel lanes. With 43 percent on-time performance and transit time more than double that of jet travel, their seats MSP-Chicago must feel like the catbird’s seat.  

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