Amtrak ridership in Minnesota continues at a record pace, greasing the rails for high-speed train service between St. Paul and Chicago.

Proponents of the service say the popularity of Amtrak's Empire Builder -- now on a sixth consecutive year of ridership growth -- builds a case for trains that can move people even faster.

"They're finding every time they add service it fills up," said Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County commissioner and chair of the county's Regional Rail Authority. "People will use it if it can be on time and efficient."

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said the upswing on Amtrak shows a "rising awareness" of the importance of rail. "Even with the skeletal budget Amtrak has, their ridership is spiking," he said.

Ridership on the Empire Builder, Amtrak's most popular long-distance route, grew nearly 10 percent in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September. At the largest stop in Minnesota, St. Paul's Midway station, 147,791 people have boarded or left Amtrak trains so far in 2008, about 14,700 more than in 2007.

Overall, Amtrak gained nearly 2 million new passengers in the fiscal year, even while the ailing economy depleted business travel on Amtrak's coastal commuter routes.

Suddenly, it seems, Amtrak is gaining financial and political support it hasn't seen for years.

President Bush signed legislation in October that provides $14.9 billion for Amtrak and passenger-rail funding over five years, nearly doubling current spending levels.

A key feature of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act -- matching grants for state rail service -- started a scramble to build a case for fast trains that even a year ago seemed little more than a vision.

Officials in Rochester and Olmsted County have expressed interest in linking to the proposed high-speed line connecting St. Paul and Chicago. A train traveling at the envisioned 110 miles per hour would link those cities in less than six hours. In addition, a Northern Lights Express line between Duluth and Minneapolis is moving forward.

Amtrak is studying a possible revival of the North Coast Hiawatha train, discontinued in 1979, through Minnesota and into central North Dakota and southern Montana.

The Empire Builder passes through six Minnesota stations twice daily -- one train goes east, the other west -- on a 2,200-mile route from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. Ticket revenue for the Empire Builder was up 11.8 percent -- to more than $59 million -- since 2007.

"It's been a great business for us," said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

McDonough sees a connection between Amtrak's popularity and a market for high-speed trains. Faster trains, he said, will attract even more riders.

A 2002 estimate showed that a high-speed rail line between St. Paul and Chicago would cost $1.86 billion to build with Minnesota's portion being $400 million, said Mike Rogers, a Ramsey County senior transportation planner.

Testimony at a recent joint legislative hearing at the State Capitol showed mounting interest in a high-speed train to Chicago that would depart from Union Depot in St. Paul. Other than Amtrak's growing popularity, McDonough said, reasons for this resurgence include Rep. Jim Oberstar's influence as chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee and President-elect Barack Obama's declared support for passenger rail and infrastructure investments.

"Obama's from Chicago and Chicago uses passenger rail a lot. It's amazingly busy," McDonough said.

"I would say we stand a better chance than ever now to have something happen," said Bob Johns, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. "The question is, how does this corridor rank and what political clout is there to make something happen?"

But John Adams, a geography professor emeritus and transportation researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he's not convinced that the high-speed rail proposal will go anyplace. Even if enough money was raised to pay the "enormous" front-end investment, he said, the Midwest lacks enough population density to make the train a practical and affordable service. A high-speed train also would compete with comparatively low fares for bus travel and with an airline industry that would rally to fight it, he said.

"Rail travel in the Midwest hasn't been much more than a leisure operation for a long time," Adams said.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554