It is impossible to talk about the history of rail in the northwest quarter of the United States without talking about James J. Hill. Nicknamed the “Empire Builder” (for whom the modern line is named), Hill was born in Ontario but was living and working in St. Paul by the age of 18, where he would stay for most of his life. His purchase of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad in 1873 marked the beginning of a rapidly expanding empire. As chief executive of the Great Northern Railway, Hill oversaw the creation of a railroad conglomerate that effectively controlled all rail traffic in his corner of the country, and would finally be ensnared by the Sherman Antitrust Act at the turn of the century.
Hill was a big advocate of a grand Union Station in St. Paul. One of his last contributions to the city of St. Paul before his death was convincing six other major railroads in the city at the time to finance the construction of a grand station, which was completed in 1926. When Amtrak was first formed, service was moved briefly to Minneapolis before being established more permanently at the new Midway Station between the twin cities in 1978. In 2014, however, Amtrak officially returned to the Union Station as part of a new intermodal center serving Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Transit options have grown at an admirable rate in the Twin Cities. Today, a combination of light rail, commuter rail, arterial Bus Rapid Transit, and regular bus service serve the metropolitan area. The light rail service, known as METRO, currently serves the two cities area. Blue Line operation began in 2003, and was so popular it beat its 20-year ridership projections in just 5 years. The Green Line, started in 2014, reached its 20-year projections in half that time. Both lines essentially operate 24/7 – the blue line closes for an hour from 2:30-3:30 am for maintenance work but the green line currently does not. There are currently plans to extend both lines further out into the surrounding suburbs by adding both light rail and BRT.
When the Northstar commuter rail line was originally planned, it was supposed to extend as far as St. Cloud. That unfortunately has not yet happened. Instead, the train’s northern terminus is in Big Lake, 27 miles north of the Twin Cities. Most lawmakers want to make this extension happen, but the question is how: some say reducing frequency could cut down on costs while extending the train service; others argue that maintaining robust service must be a priority, and propose partial state funding, with additional contributions from county and municipal governments as well.