Forty-one years have passed since the last train pulled out of Union Depot in St. Paul. It was Burlington's Afternoon Zephyr up from Chicago, bound for Minneapolis. And, as she rattled down the track and into the foggy distance on that April night in 1971, it's easy to imagine the downcast railroad men in their faded uniforms checking their pocket watches, pushing shut the depot's big doors and thinking, well, this is the end.
But it wasn't. On Saturday, the grand old lady of Twin Cities railroading will emerge from her long nap looking fresh as a daisy. It's amazing what $243 million can do.
The neoclassical landmark at 4th and Sibley is all spit and polish. Out front, there's a new light-rail platform ready to handle Green Line trains when they arrive in 2014. Inside the station, the grand ceiling has been restored to its original mustard and green colors, supposedly reflecting Minnesota as a place where prairie meets forest.
The impressive arched concourse that stretches out over the tracks toward the Mississippi River has been magnificently revived to the point that you can almost see the ghosts of bygone travelers and hear the loudspeaker's low-pitched litany - "... stopping at Minneapolis, Anoka, Elk River, St. Cloud, Sauk Center, Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Fargo. All aboard!"
The Twins Cities has done poorly at protecting historic buildings, so this restoration is particularly welcome. Constructed between 1917 and 1926 by railroad magnate James J. Hill, Union Depot hosted nine railroads in its 1920s heyday. Passengers were funneled through 18 gates to as many as 280 trains a day. But Hill saw the depot as more than just a transportation beehive; it was St. Paul's grand living room.
That's still the intention. Union Depot now again offers a stunning community gathering place that, we hope, hastens a comeback for downtown St. Paul. Surely it will accelerate the revival already underway in artsy Lowertown, where a new Saints ballpark will soon join the Farmers Market and Mears Park as prime attractions. To include within the depot a bicycle center, with lockers, showers and direct links to the trails along the city's majestic riverfront, is a touch that's especially sweet.
But there are sour notes as well. Like the bald man who paid $50 for a haircut, Union Depot may lack the transportation activity to justify the cost -- at least in the near term.
Amtrak trains will visit only twice a day when service shifts to the depot next year. A year later, in 2014, Green Line trains will arrive and depart 225 times each day, but the vast majority of riders will step off and on at other stations, and the light-rail platform isn't actually in the depot. Jefferson Lines will move its St. Paul intercity bus operations there, but Greyhound will stay in downtown Minneapolis. About 360 Metro Transit buses will stop every weekday.
But all of this, when set against the 20,000 daily rail passengers who trooped through the depot in its heyday, adds up to a tiny fraction. Whether this trickle can attract the hoped-for retail outlets is doubtful. Likewise, the Northstar Commuter line's failure to attract anticipated riders casts a worrisome shadow on future commuter lines. And Wisconsin's move to block the Chicago-Twin Cities high-speed rail project hurts the depot's prospects, at least in the near term.
Still, critics should understand that Union Depot isn't mostly about now. Indeed, all transit investments are less about the present than the future. Transportation systems take decades to mature. In its infancy the interstate highway system seemed grossly overbuilt, but traffic overwhelmed it within two generations.
Public transit stands at a similar point. It offers an alternative mode and lifestyle that's likely to fit a future market that rewards spatial efficiency, energy conservation and environmental prudence. Union Depot -- and Hennepin County's Interchange project at Target Field -- are bets on that future.
In the coming decades, four-hour rail service to Chicago is quite likely, as are fast rail trips to Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud. BRT (bus rapid transit) along the Gateway, Rush and Red Rock corridors is likely by 2025. A streetcar link on Robert Street is under study, and some mode of fast transit from the depot to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport seems inevitable. Light rail is already a popular fixture, but ridership is expected to zoom when the Central, Southwest and Bottineau corridors open to form an actual system with dozens of key destinations, including Union Depot.
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough acknowledges that the station has arrived ahead of its passengers. "This will take patience," he said.
At least we have an elegant place to wait for the train.