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Country Views: Train travel has surely changed since the ’70s

I read recently that a party travelling from St. Paul to Moorhead during the winter of 1870 – ’71 was able to travel by train from St. Paul to Benson. Benson was the end of the rail line that winter, so those travelers had to disembark and finish their journey in ox-drawn carts. I expect it was viewed as an improvement in transport that they could get to Benson by train but the last leg of the journey was no doubt a chilly business.


One hundred years later, in April 1970, my girlfriend was planning on coming home for the weekend from college in Fargo. I asked her to take the train and to meet me in Alexandria. While waiting for her train to arrive I purchased a ring. When she got off the train I asked her to marry me. She accepted.

The next time we had anything to do with passenger trains, private passenger carriers had disappeared from the rails. But, when my son was 4 or 5, all three of us rode the short-lived Amtrak service from Minneapolis to Duluth to see – what else – the train museum.

So, although I’m not much for nostalgia, trains hold a special place in my memory. I also remember skipping a day of school with Richard Schroeder. It was the kind of spring day when all children should be forbidden to be inside a school. We went down to Sauk Centre, got on the passenger train to Minneapolis, and somehow found our way out to Met stadium to watch the Twins. On the way back we tried out our high school German on some German kids that were travelling across America. Imagine, going from Sauk Centre to Minneapolis and back on the train in one day. Imagine riding the rails across America!

We have ridden the North Star train from Big Lake to Minneapolis and back four times since it began service. Actually, we tend to think of taking it from St. Cloud to Minneapolis since we can catch the North Star Link bus there. The bus takes riders comfortably and inexpensively to the Big Lake train station.

If you haven’t taken a ride on the North Star, you should. It’s comfortable and spacious. It’s well lighted and commodious. It’s less expensive than driving. And it connects directly with trains travelling throughout the Twin Cities.

We recently tried a travel adventure experiment. We got on the North Star Link Bus in St. Cloud at 6 a.m. That’s awful early for me, but adventures have their price. The bus took us to Big Lake where the North Star stood waiting in all its colorful glory. A friendly porter helped us get on board, and off we went zipping past early morning commuters snarled in clouds of toxic exhaust.

“Look! We’re going faster than those cars on the highway,” my wife exclaimed. “Isn’t it wonderful not to be driving!”

“If Anoka is your absolutely favorite spot in the world you’ll want to get off at the next stop,” the conductor joked over the intercom.

We were in Minneapolis by 8 a.m. and on the new Green Line light rail train, headed to St. Paul’s Union Station, by 8:15. To make the light rail connection we had to ride a rather steep escalator up from the North Star station to street level. We could have taken the elevators. Then we went outside and had to decide between the Blue Line, heading to the Mall of America, or the Green Line.

The Green Line travels through downtown, past the new Vikings stadium, through the Midway, past the Capitol and state office buildings, and finally into St. Paul’s lowertown and the depot. The light rail cars aren’t as spacious as the North Star cars, but they are comfortable, bright, and a great way to relax and see the city. We arrived early enough to have breakfast at the Black Dog, just down the street from Union Depot.

After a tasty breakfast we walked back to the beautifully restored and massive depot and got directions to the Amtrak departure door and boarding platform. Our plan was to ride Amtrak to Winona, but, had we chosen, we could have ridden the rails across America. All three of the train systems that we rode had friendly and helpful staff, were comfortable, on time, and a pleasure to use. Train travel in Minnesota is not what it was in 1970 but at least, for some destinations, it’s better than a car – or an ox-cart.

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