Here's a quick review of my experience on the #261 Mainline Excursion from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Duluth, Minnesota in June of 2016 as well as some tips on railfan travels for future #261 Train Excursions from Minneapolis.
I arrived into Minneapolis-St. Paul Union Station by way of Amtrak's Empire Builder. I used the "Green Line" of the Metro Light Rail to ride from Union Station to downtown Minneapolis where I stayed in the Hampton Inn & Suites. On the day of the excursion, it was a $6 Uber Ride to the Boarding Location from my hotel.
The #261 Excursions board at "Minneapolis Junction" where the locomotive shop facilities are. This is within an active BNSF wye, so plenty of train action even before you board. On the morning of the departure, locomotive cab tours were offered to all passengers as time permitted. To be inside the cab of a mainline locomotive under steam is a really rare opportunity.
Boarding was offered at multiple locations, and large luggage could be checked (this is a 2-day excursion with an overnight in Duluth MN) but I personally brought my carry-on and used the over-head luggage rack on my car.
For this excursion I purchased a ticket in the "Premium Class" Cedar Rapids car. This car is truly one-of-a-kind and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to ride in it. The Cedar Rapids car is placed on the rear of the train and has individual swivel lounge seating, which is reserved, and a rear "solarium" lounge which is open seating to passengers in the Cedar Rapids and Super Dome Cars.
The extra fare for Premium Class included beverages (bottled water, coffee, soda, tea, wine, beer), snacks, and meal service.
The train offered both open vestibules, and 2 baggage cars with open doors allowing for photos and to hear and smell the authentic mainline steam railroading. To stand in a vestibule or baggage door, you did need to wear safety glasses which you can bring along, or purchase in the concessions car.
Soon after breakfast I explored the rest of the train. The open Baggage Car Doors towards the front of the train were a real treat. Since the weather was a bit dreary and cool, the open doors were not as crowded as sometimes, and I hung out for 30-40 minutes listening to the locomotive work. Our train was never held up by signals, or to meet freight trains, although we did make a scheduled stop for the crew to grease the rods and service the steam locomotive. The weather continued to get more cool as we traveled north, and that created some really impressive plumes of steam from the locomotive. At times the Steam would drift past the cars further enhancing the atmosphere.
Around 12:30, a box lunch was served. Ham Sandwich with chips and cookies. We were scheduled to arrive into Duluth at 3:00 PM... “Wow, we are making really good time” I mentioned, noting on my GPS how close we were to Duluth. The train had been traveling at 40-50 MPH, with no delays on the BNSF Mainline. I soon realized why our arrival was not scheduled until 3. In order to get into Duluth, we had to travel along a tight curve in the Duluth Yard. The Curve is almost too tight for the Steam Locomotive, so they travel through at 2 mph, with crew members on the ground, watching for any possible derailments. After passing through the curve, we are no longer on the mainline which means slower running (15 MPH or so). We cross over the Duluth River on an impressive bridge which has a “Swing” section that allows the large ships to travel through if needed. Once across, we travel slowly through the industrial yards, where hopper cars wait filled with rock ballast from the nearby quarries. We see various ship-loading structures.
We arrive into Duluth just before 3 PM. The track we arrive on, is right outside the original Duluth MN depot, which was constructed in 1892, and is now part of the Lake Superior Railway Museum. A Dinner Train was operated by the Lake Superior Railroad Museum on Saturday night, and many #261 excursion passengers rode it.
In Duluth MN, passengers are on their own to arrange a hotel, I chose the Hampton Inn which is located right on the shore of Lake Superior, but several blocks from the station. After arrival into Duluth, it was a bit rainy, so the long walk was not particularly pleasant, but it paid off in the morning when I was able to wake up and take a morning stroll along the shore of Lake Superior before heading to the train station.
On Sunday morning I grabbed a quick snack at the hotel breakfast, and then went to photograph the Lake and Lighthouses in the morning light. I got back to the hotel about 9:45, and had more breakfast, before leaving the hotel at about 11:00. The train was scheduled to depart today at 12 noon. I grabbed a few photos of the historic Duluth Train Depot, and then took some photos of the Cedar Rapids car on the back of the train. After that I settled into my Cedar Rapids Lounge Chair for the return journey. Upon departure we once again had slow running through the quarry yards, and over the bridge. We were served another box lunch, Turkey Sandwich today. Just as we got over the bridge, it began to rain.
Apparently a large storm was coming into Duluth, and we just missed it. Looking back (easy to do from my seat in the Cedar Rapids), dark skies and lightning were visible in the distance. We traveled through the tight curve once again, this time entering the BNSF track and, after clearing the wye and yard, were once again clear for mainline speeds. After a few minutes I ventured up to the baggage car to listen to the engine... what a treat that was! There was a significant grade leaving Duluth and with a 10 car train, and no diesel assistance, the #261 put on one of the best shows I’ve heard in my Train Chasing life. It’s always a treat to see large steam locomotives in operation, but to hear one working hard at mainline speeds with no assistance is a real treat.
After the uphill climb, I started to venture back towards my car, stopping at some open vestibules along the way. Open Vestibules are not only a great place to hear the locomotive, they are also a great place to meet fellow travelers, and the various crew members as they walk throughout the train.
In the afternoon, Premium Class Passengers in the Super Dome and Cedar Rapids cars were treated to an appetizer buffet in the lower level of the Super Dome. A nice selection of hot and cold snacks were available.
Towards the end of the trip, we encountered some delays. Signal issues had caused the train to stop at each signal, and proceed at a restricted speed. I personally was fine with this, because I was not ready to get off the train. I didn’t want this trip to end! Of course we did eventually arrive back to the 261 Yard. We passed the yard, and backed into it, so those of us in the Cedar Rapids Car had a great front row seat as we shoved into the yard.
Once off the train, I hung out and watched some of the switching operations, the #261 ran around the train, was serviced, and then was coupled to the Cedar Rapids (previously the rear of the train) in order to switch the cars and trains around as needed. Many Mainline Steam Locomotives would find this job beneath them, not the #261, she does her own switching thank you! :)
I chose to ride in the Premium Class "Cedar Rapids" Car. This is a unique observation car called a "Skytop Lounge", the only one of its kind currently in operation. It's a really neat car, kept up to museum quality with VERY comfortable individual lounge chairs assigned to you. The individual swivel lounge chairs, access to the rear of train solarium, and at your seat beverage service are all good reasons to book the Cedar Rapids if it's available. The Super Dome offers the same type of service, and great views from the second level dome. The seating in the dome is basically coach seating in the dome, so you are paying for the view (which is well worth it) more than anything.
I've included photos of the #261's other classes of service including the First Class "Wisconsin Valley" Lounge car and the standard coaches.
If you are wanting to stay in your seat for most of the trip, the extra fair for the Cedar Rapids or Super Dome is certainly worth it as the views are much better because of the uniqueness of those cars. If you like to take advantage of the open vestibules and open air baggage cars, Coach is more than adequate. As a Railfan I certainly enjoyed the uniqueness of the Cedar Rapids and the ability to explore the entire train, but future trips I think I will go in Coach.
In Duluth MN, the most convenient hotel by far is the Radison Hotel - Duluth. It is located literally across the street from the Duluth Train Station where the train arrives and departs from. I chose to stay at the Hampton Inn Duluth Canal Park, which is located right on the water, near several nice restaurants and shops as well as the waterfront walkway with scenic views and lighthouses.
In Minneapolis MN, any hotel in downtown Minneapolis should be a short (5 minute or so) drive to the boarding location. I chose to stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Downtown, but railfans will want to take note that the former 1899 Built Milwaukee Road Depot now houses the Residence Inn Downtown Minneapolis Downtown at the Depot and the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, the Depot both by Marriott.
St. Paul's Union Depot was constructed in 1917 and served passengers until 1971. In 2011, a total restoration began to transform the station back to it's former glory as a railroad and transportation terminal. If you are traveling to Minneapolis-St. Paul by Amtrak, the Empire Builder (serving Chicago IL to the East and Seattle WA and Portland OR to the West) arrives daily. The Metro Transit Green Line Light Rail serves St. Paul Union Station and downtown Minneapolis.
The Metro Transit Blue line connects downtown Minneapolis with the Mall of America in Bloomington, it also passes the Minneapolis St. Paul International airport if you are flying in or out for the excursion.
In addition to the Blue and Green Line Light Rail, Metro Transit also operates the Northstar, a commuter rail service that operates on the BNSF mainline from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minnesota using Bombardier Bi-Level Commuter Coaches and MP36PH Locomotives.
This excursion was scheduled to be repeated on June 9-10, 2018, unfortunately it was cancelled due to Amtrak Change of Policy. The #261 will most likely operate excursions in October of 2018 out of Minneapolis.
For Tickets and more information be sure to visit www.261.com