Off the Rails

The happening didn’t quite happen, but the trains were pretty groovy.

  • Train cab
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
    Adam Auxier, who owns Altiplano Railtours, was the “train producer” for the Station to Station art happening.
  • train station
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
  • Levi's
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
  • river
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
    Patti Smith was backed by local musicians for the performance at Union Station.
  • depot
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
  • crowd
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
    Patti Smith was backed by local musicians for the performance at Union Station.
  • Band
    Photo by Graham Tolbert
    Patti Smith was backed by local musicians for the performance at Union Station.

Here’s a post-Zen riddle: If a conceptual art train called Station to Station never pulls into the station, does anybody care? That’s what the art geeks and agency peeps gathered together this fall at St. Paul’s Union Depot were left to wonder when Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken’s full-scale toy—a vintage train adorned with freaky-looking LED lights flashing purple and green—never showed up.

Union Depot hosted yurts full of Levi’s merchandise (the denim company had cut an $8 million check to underwrite the project), and punk legend Patti Smith sang a handful of songs backed by a pickup band featuring local musicians Gary Louris and Mark Mallman. Smith hocked a loogie before crushing “Because the Night,” and her one-night stand of a band sounded pretty great, surprisingly, considering they were howling into the cavernous, newly renovated train depot. But the 1,000 people who found out about the show in time—there was minimal heads-up other than an interview Smith did on the Current—presumably paid $25 expecting a close encounter with an electric LED Kool-Aid train. So where was it?

A few hours earlier, I had met with Station to Station’s “train producer,” 31-year-old Adam Auxier, at the Amtrak Station, about six miles away by car. Auxier was born to an Amtrak ticket agent in Centralia, Illinois—a four-hour ride from Chicago—before he moved to Eagan as a teenager with his mom. Now he owns Altiplano Railtours, a tour company that finds and leases vintage cars from the 300 or so that still exist and puts together tours for rail aficionados.

He had just gotten off the phone with the city, and he was obviously trying to tamp down his temper as we sat in a gorgeous golden-age business car named Lambert’s Point, built for the Norfolk & Western Railway in 1914. It was one of six local cars (of nine total) that Auxier had procured for Station to Station. “I don’t do many events,” he says. “But I’ve been working on this one for two years.”

Working closely with artist Aitken and executive producer Molly Logan, Auxier was able to lobby Amtrak to OK the light display, and he helped put together the itinerary: a trip that started in D.C. and went through Chicago and St. Paul before heading southwest toward Los Angeles and San Francisco along the old Santa Fe Railway route. Auxier scouted the stops months ahead of time, and he knew the timing in St. Paul would be precarious. Still, he was hoping that the art train would be the first to grace the newly laid tracks leading to Union Station. So he pushed for it.

“You can see on our tour that clearly it’s a dogleg to come here,” he says.

Borrowing nomenclature from the radical ’60s-era Situationists, Aitken wanted the nine stops on this tour to be “happenings” with concerts and art installations. And he wanted them to happen within sight of the lit-up train. In St. Paul, that didn’t happen.

The track was 30 feet short, and so the train stayed at the Amtrak station while revelers partied at Union Station. In the end, getting stuck in Amtrak limbo had something to do with AT&T screwing up some wiring, which screwed up the track-laying crew’s timing. Auxier knows how complicated railways can be—every egress is measured down to the inch, usually by multiple parties. But this rail stuff is so personal for him—and he’s so proud of his adopted Twin Cities for investing so much in rail lately—that the missed opportunity was agonizing.

After the show, my photographer and I cabbed it from the after-party to the Amtrak station at 1 in the morning. Auxier left the lights on for us. Along with a couple of Amtrak security guards, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine was among the only locals to see Station to Station as it was meant to be seen. To learn more, go to


Car by Car

Vintage train guy Adam Auxier breaks it down.


Lambert’s Point.
This business car was home to artist Doug Aitken during the tour. “If you were like the division superintendent of a railroad and you had to go spend a week in Minot, they would ship this car out there and you would live in it.”

The Taos.
The Santa Fe baggage car was used for, of course, baggage. “All of our luggage is inside, the LED tech, all of the camera equipment, food, provisions, gear. And my sister is moving to San Francisco, so I have a pallet of her stuff in there.”

Silver Quail.
This 1950s-era 11-double-bedroom car built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad is still used on the California Zephyr, which Amtrak runs from Chicago to San Francisco. “It had that San Francisco connection we were looking for.”

Levi’s totally remodeled this Santa Fe coach for the tour and hosted a happy hour here at 5:01 every day. “They used some of the original design cues and then took it 10 steps further.”

Minnesota River.
The Milwaukee Road car is another sleeping car. Wisconsin Valley. Patti Smith’s backup band rehearsed in this car-turned- recording-studio before sound check at the Union Depot.

St. Croix Valley.
Home base for the members of the media who went along for the ride.

Super dome #53.
It has a full kitchen on the lower level, with a huge amount of storage and freezer and fridge space. Chef Leif Hedendal of San Francisco provided meals for the rotating cast of artists and media, as well as the crew.

Cedar Rapids.
The crown jewel of this train, it was designed by Brooks Stevens in the 1940s for Milwaukee Road. Stevens, who created the Miller logo and Harley Davidson motorcycles, installed the first Formica in the United States in this car. More recently, Cuban American artist Jorge Pardo designed seat covers especially for the tour.