Amtrak won't operate out of St. Paul's Union Depot until sometime early next year, another in a series of delays frustrating rail fans and downtown backers who can't wait to see train passengers going through the grand old station once again.

The good news, said the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, is that the train is still on track.

The authority, which consists of County Board members, on Tuesday unanimously approved lease and operating agreements with Amtrak that guarantee the national passenger railroad will base its Twin Cities service at Union Depot for the next 20 years.

"This really is a big deal. It's been really three years in the making, [with] numerous, numerous meetings. I know our staff has worked extremely hard on this one," said authority chairman Jim McDonough at Tuesday's meeting.

Just when Amtrak will arrive in downtown St. Paul, however, remained unclear. Track work to ensure the train can safely navigate in and out of the busy freight yard near the depot is substantially complete, but signals and switches still require testing, said authority spokeswoman Deborah Carter McCoy.

McDonough's best guess is that Amtrak will be at Union Depot by mid-February.

"Certainly, there's some disappointment here, but in the scheme of long-term investments to make sure we get everything right, we're going to be in a good spot," he said.

"We've got assurances from three freights" — Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific — "that Amtrak will be running into the Union Depot."

Amtrak had been expected to move as early as last year from its Midway station to Union Depot, which reopened last December as a regional transit hub after a $243 million makeover directed by Ramsey County. But the freight-owned train corridor through downtown St. Paul is congested, adding to the complications, and the plan also required a rail connection to the depot.

There had been hopes that Amtrak would pull into the station in time for Thanksgiving and then Christmas, but it now appears that won't happen.

"Safety is the No. 1 issue … It's way more complex than I could have imagined," McDonough said.

The lease entitles Amtrak to use space in the new Kellogg Entry building for ticketing, baggage and offices, and a glassed-in area off the waiting room upstairs for a VIP lounge.

The railroad will pay $144,586 for the first year, an amount that will grow by 3 percent each year for the term of the lease. Amtrak has an option to extend the lease for another 20 years.

Amtrak runs its Empire Builder service between Seattle and Chicago through the Twin Cities. Ridership hit an all-time high last year, with more than 120,500 passengers passing through the Midway station. That was a 19 percent increase over 1997, echoing a national trend in ridership growth.

The Jefferson bus line began operating out of Union Depot in January, with a daily schedule of 18 arrivals and departures.

Metro Transit, which also began service at the depot last winter, will add a route in early December offering service from Union Depot down W. 7th Street to the airport and Mall of America.