The robust history of passenger trains in Minnesota

Minnesota was very fortunate to have pro-passenger railroads that operated some of the finest passenger service in the nation, right up to Amtrak. These railroads as noted below, never made a great deal of money on passenger service but viewed them as service that should be operated in the best manner possible, and as public relations. Even these roads, such as the Great Northern and Northern Pacific, were forced to cut back operations in the 1960's, as publicly funded road and airways drew more and more traffic off their trains. The passenger train as operated by for profit, publicly traded railroad companies, did not die a natural death, they were overwhelmed by the Federal Government transportation policy that funded highways and airways. The railroad's role in this transportation policy was to be heavily regulated, and heavily taxed.

Fortunately, Congress, for a variety of reasons, stepped in and created Amtrak, which saved the passenger train, albeit in a skeletal form. Read on below to discover the rich history of passenger trains in Minnesota.

PASSENGER TRAINS IN MINNESOTA – Post World War II – to Amtrak (May 1, 1971)

The main passenger train network in MN was operated by six freight railroads before Amtrak. Going east to Chicago were the Burlington, the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago & North Western. Going west and north were the Great Northern, Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road. Going south was the Rock Island. The GN, NP and the Burlington latter became the Burlington Northern. The Milwaukee Road went to the Soo Line and then both went to the Canadian Pacific. The C&NW and Rock Island later became part of the Union Pacific.

The Burlington operated some of the world’s fastest trains called the Zephyrs. They were stainless steel silver streaks across the landscape at speeds over 100 mph. Starting in 1935, the Twin Cities Zephyrs operated between the Twin Cities and Chicago along the Mississippi River via La Crosse and Dubuque to Chicago. They did this twice day in 6 hours and 15 minutes from St. Paul. The Twin Cities Zephyrs also introduced the dome car in 1945, a glass enclosed observation deck above the roof of the train. An overnight train called the Black Hawk operated with sleepers for businessmen between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The Burlington also handled through trains from the Great Northern and Northern Pacific to Chicago from the Pacific Northwest. The Black Hawk was discontinued in 1970 and the Zephyrs trimmed back and partially combined with GN and NP through trains just before Amtrak.

The Milwaukee Road competed head to head with the Burlington to Chicago. Starting in 1935, they operated the high speed Hiawatha’s, also in 6 hours and 15 minutes to the Windy City. The Hiawatha’s operated at up to 127 mph and held the world speed record for many years for fastest scheduled point-to-point speeds. The Milwaukee Road route went down the Mississippi River to La Crosse and then east to Milwaukee before turning south to Chicago. The Morning and Afternoon Hiawatha’s provided twice a day service to Chicago. The Hiawatha’s were known for technological innovation and speed. The Olympian Hiawatha competed with the GN and NP trains from Chicago to Seattle with many innovative car designs. The Milwaukee introduced full-length dome cars called Super Domes in 1952 on the Hiawatha’s. The Milwaukee Road also operated an overnight sleeper train to Chicago called the Pioneer Limited. This was popular with businessmen because they could sleep while they traveled and arrive in Chicago at 7:45am ready to do a day’s business before returning to the Twin Cites that night. The Olympian Hiawatha was the first major train in the nation to be discontinued in 1961, ten years before Amtrak. The Afternoon Hiawatha and Pioneer Limited were discontinued in 1970 just before Amtrak. The current Amtrak route to Chicago operates over the former Milwaukee Road Hiawatha route from St. Paul.

The Chicago and North Western also entered the speed race to Chicago with a train called the “400” because it went 400 miles in 400 minutes. This train operated once a day to Chicago in competition with the Hiawatha’s and Zephyr’s. It was successful from its introduction in 1935 through the 1950’s. It was discontinued in 1963. The C&NW also operated service from the Twin Cites to Omaha via Mankato and Sioux City, but this was discontinued in 1959.

The Great Northern, founded by James J. Hill, operated the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle/Portland starting in 1929. This train was named for him and operated via Fargo, Minot, Glacier Park and Spokane. It was a premier train with more dome seats than any other train in the country. It was known for its full-length dome car and its Ranch Car, a coffee shop diner with oak walls, beams, hitching posts, branding irons and cow hide seats. It looked more like a Montana ranch house, than a train car. Great Northern also operated a companion train on a 12 hour opposite schedule called the Western Star. There were other trains such as the Red River and Dakotan from the Twin Cities to Fargo and other ND points; the Winnipeg Limited overnight to its Canadian namesake; and the Gopher and Badger trains to Duluth. The Empire Builder was selected as the surviving train by Amtrak; mostly on its original route west of the Twin Cities. It was shifted onto the old Milwaukee Road Hiawatha route to Chicago to serve Milwaukee.

The Northern Pacific operated the premier North Coast Limited from Chicago to Seattle/Portland starting in 1900. This train operated via Fargo, Bismarck, Billings, Butte and Spokane. It had 4 dome cars, the newest diner in the country, the innovative Slumbercoach sleeper and a stewardess nurse on board. It also had the Lewis and Clark Traveler’s Rest Car with murals hand painted on leather showing the famous explorers route across the west. The North Coast Limited had the same level of business as the Empire Builder right up to Amtrak and yet it was discontinued initially. Then it was brought back by Amtrak to limp along with a shortened train until 1979. The train was almost never operated daily or assigned a full complement of equipment. The Northern Pacific also operated a companion train on a 12 hour opposite schedule called the Mainstreeter. It was discontinued with the coming of Amtrak. The Northern Pacific also offered local service from St. Paul and Minneapolis to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Duluth/Superior, and Mandan, North Dakota post World War II to throughout much of the 1960’s.

The Rock Island operated south out of the Twin Cites to Kansas City-Dallas-Houston and to St. Louis. It provided daytime service to and from Kansas City via Des Moines. The Twin Cites to Texas route was served by the Twin Star Rocket starting in 1945, providing daily service to Texas with sleepers and a lounge car. The train also had through coaches and sleepers to Phoenix and Los Angeles via the Golden State train from Chicago to LA. They transferred in Kansas City. This was a successful train with lots of ridership until the Rock Island fell on hard times and could not financially support the train. The Rock Island cut service to Dallas and Houston in 1964 and back to Kansas City in 1966. The train was discontinued in 1969, two years before Amtrak. Station agents from that era report that the train loaded phenomenal numbers of people bound for Arizona, California and Texas before it was downgraded. A companion train from the Twin Cities to Kansas City and Dallas was called the Kansas City Rocket and started in 1937. It ran overnight to Kansas City with sleepers. Twin Cities to St Louis was served by the Zephyr Rocket, in a joint operation with the Burlington. It operated overnight to and from St. Louis with sleepers. It was discontinued in 1967.

In 1959 St. Paul Union Depot handled 70 trains a day with 35 arrivals and 35 departures. By 1970 on the eve of Amtrak, it handled 18 trains a day with 9 arrivals and 9 departures. With the creation of Amtrak, St. Paul and Minnesota was reduced to 4 trains each day. Now Amtrak only provides 2 trains a day.


Before Amtrak, passenger trains were operated by the private freight railroad companies on a for profit basis. However passenger train service was always marginal and became unprofitable as the Federal, State and Local government poured billions of dollars into competing highways and airways, especially after World War II. No Federal or State dollars were invested in rail passenger trains. They were expected to operate on a free enterprise model with private capital for operations, trains and tracks while their competitors lined up at the government trough for their capital investment dollars. Airlines were provided with the air traffic control system and airports for no charge. Airlines didn't pay anything for airports in user fees until after 1971. Railroads were even forced to pay special property taxes to subsidize new airport construction. The Interstate Highway System was built by the Federal and State governments charging users with a gas tax, which always lagged behind the actual costs. Today the gas tax in Minnesota only covers about 20% of the cost of providing and maintaining the present road system.

The passenger train was king until after World War II. It was at that time that the improved road and airline system started to make inroads into the railroads passenger train business. Once airline safety improved, the businessman was the first to shift to airline travel in the 1950’s, especially after the advent of the jet in 1958-1960. Average travelers continued to use the trains into the 1960’s with a jump in coach travel from 1960-1966. Then the new freeways started to open up and the trains saw a significant loss of traffic during the last half of the 1960’s.

Half of passenger train revenue had always been mail and express. In 1967 the Post Office diverted almost all of the mail off the trains and United Parcel Service took the express business away. The railroads started discontinuing major trains in the early 1960’s, but after the Postal Service decision in 1967 it became a rout. Trains were being discontinued each month. By 1970 Congress had to do something or there would be no trains left. The railroads were clamoring to stop the losses on passenger train service. The result was the creation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. Amtrak was charged with the task of improving and preserving a basic skeletal network of trains across the country and with absorbing the losses. This relieved the freight railroads of the financial burden and saved the passenger train. In exchange the railroads allowed Amtrak to operate over their track networks at minimal cost. When Amtrak began, half the trains operating were discontinued, with most never to return. Although Amtrak was set up as a government owned for profit corporation with the hope of improved efficiencies from a national operation, no one ever expected it to be profitable. The private freight railroads were given some stock in Amtrak in exchange for their entry fee into Amtrak.

PASSENGER TRAINS IN MINNESOTA – Amtrak takes over – May 1, 1971 – Present

Amtrak began in Minnesota with just the Empire Builder operating from Chicago to Seattle. A few weeks after start-up a Senator Mike Mansfield from Montana was able to force Amtrak to restart the North Coast Limited via Bismarck, Billings and Butte on a three days a week limited basis. The train was renamed the North Coast Hiawatha and latter extended to Chicago and Seattle on its own, rather than linking up with the Empire Builder at Minneapolis. The train occasionally ran daily in the summertime, but was never given a full complement of cars like the Empire Builder. The train was discontinued in the national cutback of train service in 1979 for economic and political reasons.

In 1975 train service was restored between Minneapolis and Superior with a train called the Arrowhead. The State of Minnesota assisted with the financial cost of operating this train. The train departed Superior in the morning southbound and Minneapolis in the evening northbound. Service was extended to Duluth in 1977. At that time the schedule was changed to departing Minneapolis in the morning and Duluth at diner time. The result of the schedule change significantly boosted ridership from 38,000 per year to 80,000. In 1978 the train became the North Star and operated from Chicago as an overnight train in each direction continuing on to Duluth on the same schedule as before. This service continued until 1981 when the train was again cut back to a St. Paul-Duluth train on the same schedule. The train was discontinued due to lack of Minnesota funding in 1985.

Since 1985, the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder has been the only Amtrak train to serve the state.