Duluth passenger rail project slows down to speed up

A map of the proposed Northern Lights Express rail service from Duluth to St. Paul. (MnDOT)

A map of the proposed Northern Lights Express rail service from Duluth to St. Paul. (MnDOT)

When I was writing daily newspaper editorials 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of passenger rail service. Looking back, it was a tailer-made issue for an editorialist. It cost money. It had statistics. There were maps.

Plus, the opposition would have to go on the record against trains. Since trains are awesome machines that go WOO WOO WOO! and I could just imagine rolling around with a late 1950s-vintage Eva Marie Saint in the sleeper car I wasn’t worried about the opposition.

At the time I imagined the restoration of passenger rail to Duluth and the Iron Range as a method of connecting economic activity to our region.

It’s been many years since I’ve written a train editorial. But the issue is pretty much where I left it.

The Northern Lights Express proposal seeks to connect Duluth to St. Paul via existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail lines. The arrangement would be similar to the way Amtrak uses BNSF lines to send the Empire Builder out West.

The original proposal would have created a high speed line, allowing “bullet train” service that would have cut down on the time it takes to get to the Twin Cities. However, the $1 billion price tag was a nonstarter for raising the necessary funds. Using existing lines and trains that travel no more than 90 miles an hour will cut costs in half.

There is a tradeoff there, which project advocate John Ongaro explained at a recent meeting in Duluth. However, Ongaro said that the train should still be popular with younger people, who seek environmentally friendly public transportation in greater numbers than their parents. From a story in Business North:

“They have a different attitude, compared to some of us old timers, about climate change. They’re big believers, and I think some of us are becoming big believers, in the fact that the amount of carbon that is being emitted is having a big impact on the global climate. Eight times less carbon, per person / per mile, is emitted when you take the train,” Ongaro said.

He also noted that governments are considering the imposition of a mileage tax to generate funds to maintain traditional roads and bridges. Taking the train would offer a way to avoid paying that type of tax.

Minnesota is part of a nine-state Midwest passenger rail commission. The goal is to build a high-speed network with Chicago as hub.

“I think this is really something our community should be focusing on. Anything we can do to add to our competitive advantage … sounds like a no-brainer,” Ongaro said.

Today, I’m still open to passenger rail in Northern Minnesota. In practice, I can see it adding economic options and opportunity. But I’m far more cautious, or at least skeptical, because of the cost.

There’s an argument for investing in commuter transportation, even if it costs more to run than it makes. (Spending money on rails reduces consumer costs from driving, for instance). But the worst thing would be an unprofitable line that doesn’t serve passengers’s needs. That’s the unresolved issue that will determine where the Northern Lights Express goes from here.


  1. Even with an expensive price tag, I don’t see how people could be against it. Populations are going to explode over the next 30 years, and car travel is going to be a nightmare. If states don’t have a viable rail system in place that connects major cities, the quality of life for everyone will go down, both in terms of traffic jams and air quality.

  2. I live in Duluth. Three of our kids live in the Cities. As my husband and I age we would really appreciate being able to take the train when we visit them instead of having to drive.

  3. Gerald S says

    In addition to the stick that Paul cites, there is potential for a very nice carrot.

    Even at 90 miles an hour, this would make commuting to work in the Twin Cities from the Duluth area and south possible for many workers. Changes in communication service have made the model for this a lot better in the last five to ten years. If the trains have good WiFi on board and good cell connectivity you could hop the train at 8, settle down and do paperwork and calls, arrive at work by 10, and then leave at about 4 and reverse the process, mopping up phone calls, correspondence, and other paperwork and be home for dinner at 6, with four hours of a ten hour workday spent productively on the train.

    This sort of commute is common in many larger cities, with the ability to use the train as an office allowing the commute time to be productive rather than staring at the windshield for 45-60 minutes of dead time each way, as many Metro residents do now.

    Lower real estate prices, more access to outdoor recreation, and a more livable community are all potential rewards for people who make the move. Rapid growth of population and stimulus to the economy by the spending for everyday purchases and for housing are the benefits for the northern towns and cities. The one possible sticking point would be schools, but demand for more effective schools by the new residents raising families could be a plus in the long run also.

    Transportation infrastructure changes have been at the heart of many changes in the economy and in lifestyles for the last two centuries. This could be a big change in this one.

  4. There is currently a shuttle van service from Duluth/Scanlon (Cloquet) to the airport that is efficient and reliable. And apparently, it can pick up and drop off people at other points besides the airport. I guess people think of it as just a pre and post flight arrangement, but it could be used for personal needs if the user has someone to pick them up at the other end. The parking is free.

    We flew last week from a southeastern state to MSP and then took the shuttle van home, which is 100 miles north of Duluth. The total transit time, from my son’s apartment, in the other state, to our Minnesota home was 10 hours/ 45 minutes, which seemed like magic. That was my first experience with that van, but my husband has used it a few times and he likes it because he can sleep for almost two hours between the plane and getting back into his car.

    Just mentioning this because we do have other options besides cars already.

  5. I can’t imagine a larger boondoggle than a train between Duluth and Minneapolis. Anybody who doesn’t have a car and needs to get between the two cities should check out Jefferson Lines and Skyline Shuttle. I recently used Jefferson Lines to get to the Minneapolis Airport and it was great. Wifi the entire trip down for $25. Bus picks people up at UMD and the bus station on 46th Ave W. From West Duluth to the first stop in St Paul is about 2 hours 15 minutes. That’s the same length of trip that they’re claiming this new train will take, and we know it always takes longer than they tell us. Plus, the bus can use present infrastructure (roads) without a ridiculous price tag for a train.

    Suggestions of a high speed bullet train between Duluth and Minneapolis is laughable. We don’t have the population density (at either location) and never will have the population density to justify a project. And please don’t suggest people are going to live in Duluth and commute to Minneapolis every day. It’s just not going to happen. This is the project that just won’t go away no matter how many times the public says they don’t want to pay hundreds of millions (approaching $1 billion) for something we don’t need anyway.

  6. You sum it up well Todd..

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