When Amtrak’s Empire Builder rolled into Winona on a recent morning, St. Mary’s University student Shawn Pruitt hoisted his suitcase and requisite bag of laundry into the train’s midsection and hopped aboard.
Like many millennials, the Chicago native does not have a driver’s license and relies on Amtrak to connect him to home five or six times during the school year.
“I had finals yesterday, but if there had been a later train, I could have been home by now,” observed Pruitt, a psychology major.
A recent survey found that four in 10 college students in Winona have taken Amtrak, which rolls through town twice a day — one train traveling east, the other heading west.
But more than half the 664 Winona-based students who participated in the query said they would ride more frequently if additional service were available, according to a study conducted by the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission (MIPRC) in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Which plays right into Dan Krom’s wheelhouse. As director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office, Krom has been spearheading efforts to add a second daily train between Union Depot in St. Paul and Milwaukee, as well as passenger rail service to Duluth.
These efforts have taken on a certain urgency during the current legislative session. The omnibus transportation bill calls for eliminating Krom’s office, which consists of a three-person staff and an annual budget of $500,000 — an appropriation that hasn’t budged since 2009.
“There’s a different feeling at the Capitol now toward anything with a steel wheel and steel rail,” Krom said. The Republican majority has not seen fit to fund light-rail projects, either.
Krom hopes the MIPRC survey will bolster the case for more service, not only from Winona, but also from other college towns along Amtrak’s Empire Builder route.
The commission received 19,200 responses to a questionnaire it sent to colleges along current Amtrak routes in nine Midwestern states in an effort to assess whether passenger rail service is important to college students, faculty and staff.
Nearly a quarter of respondents said they had taken Amtrak to and from school, with two-thirds indicating passenger rail service is an important resource to attend college. More than half said they support more frequent train service.
The first survey, released in 2016, included 2,381 respondents from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota State University-Moorhead and St. Cloud State University, the results of which were similar to the broader group.
“We know that young people increasingly don’t want to own a car, plus we thought there’s really great potential with so many colleges and universities across the Midwest to boost [rail] ridership,” said MIPRC Director Laura Kliewer.
Winona, a river town of some 28,000 residents in southeastern Minnesota, was not among the initial group surveyed. Krom said local officials urged a supplemental study, noting that the city is home to St. Mary’s, as well as Winona State University and Minnesota State College Southeast’s Winona campus.
More would use train
The Winona results, released in March, show that 55 percent of those responding said they would take the train more if additional service were available; 41 percent said they took the train at least once to and from Winona during the school year. Sixty-seven percent said Amtrak was an important benefit to the school.
John Pyle, St. Mary’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, noted that many students come to Winona from the Twin Cities and Chicago area. “And for many of them the train is a comfortable and safe way to travel to Winona,” Pyle said. He said a second train would get used even more.
Krom estimates that a second train between St. Paul and Chicago would add 130,000 passengers a year on Amtrak, up from current annual ridership of 157,000. In fiscal 2016, service on the Empire Builder line increased 5.8 percent over 2015, according to Amtrak. While Minneapolis-St. Paul was the top stop in Minnesota with 96,539 passengers coming and going, Winona was the second-busiest stop with 18,893.
MSU student Madeline Balka said she took the train home to Illinois several times when she was a freshman and sophomore, but she now has a car and drives. Additional rail service might be helpful because it’s hard to work around Amtrak’s schedule, Balka said. “Sometimes you’d have to miss a class to get on the train,” she said.
Other students said Amtrak’s fickle on-time record is a drawback as well, though it does send passengers texts if trains are running late. Another challenge involves getting students to the train station from campuses that may not be within walking distance, like St. Mary’s.
The Minnesota survey of the non-Winona schools indicated 52 percent of those surveyed didn’t know the “logistics” of taking the train, 32 percent didn’t know where to catch it, and 21 percent weren’t sure how to buy a ticket.
MnDOT is now conducting environmental studies to assess the feasibility of adding a second train to Milwaukee. (A separate line already operates between Milwaukee and Chicago.) Krom says that additional service could begin as soon as 2020.
It’s unclear how much adding service would cost — Krom says it could be at least $100 million and involve multiple funding partners, as well as the state of Wisconsin. Meantime, President Donald Trump’s budget calls for Amtrak service to be eliminated throughout much of the country — and that includes the Empire Builder.