The massive red "1st" signs high atop the First National Bank building illuminated downtown St. Paul's skyline late Wednesday night as a crowd of onlookers sat in shadowed bleachers at the north end of the Union Depot yard — waiting.
Waiting, too, were passengers, federal railroad officials, the news media, train enthusiasts and Ramsey County commissioners. As the hours passed, they fidgeted, squirmed and paced with growing anticipation of the approach of Amtrak's No. 7 train — the Empire Builder — on its way west.
And they waited.
And waited some more.
Then, shortly after 11 p.m. and with a powerful blast of its horn, the Empire Builder announced its much-anticipated arrival — more than an hour late. No matter. As the first passenger train to stop at St. Paul's historic Union Depot in 43 years approached the platform, brakes squealing, the expectant crowd erupted into applause. Passenger rail had officially returned to downtown St. Paul at a $243 million refurbished depot that, officials hope, will encourage regional transit development for years to come.
"The past is back, and it's improved," declared Seth Hawkins, a 71-year-old local rail lover who was taking the Empire Builder to North Dakota. Hawkins, whose father worked for the Long Island Railroad, had earlier treated 25 friends to dinner at Christo's restaurant in the depot in anticipation of the historic moment. He said he's had a love affair with trains since he was a boy.
"I have been committed to passenger rail ever since."
The key will be whether it grabs the rest of us.
Earlier Wednesday, during ceremonies to commemorate the significance of the day, officials acknowledged that train service will have to improve its on-time performance if it is to attract a new generation of travelers. To do that, said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, it will have to add trains and routes and become more convenient to riders.
It's happening elsewhere. While Boardman and Karen Hedlund, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, bemoaned unsuccessful annual battles with Congress for more rail funding, 19 states — such as Michigan and Illinois — are filling the funding gap by paying Amtrak to provide supplemental service. Charlie Zelle, state transportation commissioner, said talks are ongoing in Minnesota about similar rail service enhancements. There also is talk of a train to Duluth, and perhaps a second dedicated line to Chicago, as well as service to Rochester and Milwaukee.
The result of such partnerships is that Amtrak is seeing record ridership: 31.6 million passengers last year and ridership records in 10 of the past 11 years.
But officials acknowledge building ridership here is going to take time.
"Now there are four trains," Hedlund said. "There ought to be 20."
'It's about time'
By Wednesday night, Aaron Hurlburt just wanted to get going to Devil's Lake to see his girlfriend. He planned to stay with her as long as "she can stand me, I guess." Loaded up with a backpack and other bags, he said you can't beat the $60 fare "as long as you don't mind waiting."
For the record, the first passenger to officially step from a train onto a Union Depot platform since 1971 was Tim Pomaville, a Chicago native who was sporting a Chicago Blackhawks cap. Pomaville was in St. Paul to attend the funeral for his uncle, longtime local hockey coach Vic St. Martin.
"It's pretty nice," said Pomaville, a little dazed by all the attention and cameras clicking as he exited the train.
Thursday morning, with the first eastbound Empire Builder into St. Paul five hours behind schedule thanks to continuing conflicts with freight trains and oil shipments in North Dakota, patience would surely be tested. Yet, for a group of passengers who say they have come to relish the relaxed pace, reasonable rates and more comfortable seating of trains vs. planes, the long wait wasn't much of a hassle.
After 43 years, what's a few more hours?
Kip Plourde, a Chicago resident who works in sales, said the wait and the ride and the Wi-Fi allowed him to get work done online. "I'm a new convert to rail," he said.
Patrick Shirey, an adjunct professor of marine biology at Notre Dame, agreed — even though the train, scheduled for an 8 a.m. arrival, still hadn't showed up by noon.
"A lot of people use this mode of transportation," he said. "But you don't buy a train ticket if you're on a tight schedule."
Sharyn Fahey of Wyoming, Minn., has been taking the train since the late 1980s. A fear of flying, and a desire to get to know her fellow passengers, keeps her coming back to Amtrak, she said, despite wait times that have gotten longer because of the booming oil fields.
"You meet people," she said. "You see things. Nature, wildlife."
Finally, by 12:55 p.m., after nearly five hours — and four decades — the wait was over for Fahey and her fellow passengers.
"Time to go," she said, wheeling her luggage down the platform. "It's about time."