As Minnesota’s Proposed Northern Lights Express Rises in Cost, Chances for Its Construction Fall

Northern Lights Express Route Map» 155-mile line between Duluth and Minneapolis would cost nearly $1 billion.

The Northern Lights Express is too expensive to justify construction.

For inhabitants of northern Minnesota hoping to be provided a quicker route into the Twin Cities, that fact is heart-breaking. Indeed, the initial promise of this 155-mile line, which would run between Minneapolis and Duluth, via Cambridge, Hinckley, Sandstone, and Superior, was exciting for its proponents: it would provide two-hour service along a corridor whose Amtrak operations were discontinued in 1985 and provide for increased economic competitiveness in parts of the state that have suffered as Minneapolis has grown.

The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, which has been pushing the train link since 2007, completed a preliminary study of the corridor last year, and claimed that the project could offer eight daily round trips by 2012 at the cost of just over $300 million — or up to $615 million using a more conservative estimate. New trains would run on a mostly double-tracked corridor at speeds up to 110 mph. With an estimated 3,000 daily passengers, the cost hardly met standards of efficiency even then. Yet the group has already managed to convince the federal government and a series of local bodies to hand over several million dollars in planning funds so far; the hope was that a quick start-up of this NLX project would mean a steady flow of funds and rapid completion. The line would, according to backers, generate $2 billion worth of investments in the affected areas.

But the news this week that state rail officials now estimate that the project will cost up to $1 billion to construct strikes a death blow onto the fantasies of its proponents. While there are certainly reasons to support improved passenger rail, Duluth’s relatively small metropolitan population — at less than 300,000 — means that the corridor will never be able to attract the ridership numbers to make this line more worthy of investment than the hundreds of other rail links in the United States that require significant upgrades. The fact that none of the cities between the Twin Cities and Lake Superior have populations of more than 10,000 people solidifies this argument and throws out the oft-mentioned idea that this project could evolve into a commuter line for Minneapolis’ northern suburbs.

With the Twin Cities’ Central and Southwest Corridor light rail lines in planning, and with the latter line still in need of additional funds — especially if it is to follow a more advantageous route — it would be outrageous to invest so much money in the NLX project. Minneapolis already has a test case for commuter rail with the Northstar line, which opened two weeks ago. It should should spend several years analyzing whether that project can be made into a valuable investment before it spends big on another underperforming corridor.

If NLX proponents suggest that their project would produce significant development in Minneapolis once rail operations commence, the stimulating nature of their proposal seems limited, especially compared to light rail. After all, while a passenger rail line covering a 155 mile distance replaces some air and some long-distance car travel, it can’t do much to transform the daily travel habits of most of its users. On the other hand, a local light rail line allows users to abandon their car use entirely, clearing the ground for transit-oriented development in a much more serious way.

Minnesota, like most states, lacks resources during this recessionary period. Handing over funds to the NLX would be squandering.

Image above: Northern Lights Express route map, from Northern Lights Express

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Allen

    “a local light rail line allows users to abandon their car use entirely”

    No, light rail does not do that. At least no more than riding a bike on the street or taking the bus does.

  • Ari

    Never underestimate the power of having the Chair of the House Transportation Committee and the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee representing the two communities at the end of the line. If funding were something you could bet on in Vegas, this line would have significantly higher odds than it would based solely on its merits because of that. It will be interesting to see how much money is thrown at it in the next transportation bill.

    (As a current Twin Citian, I’d love a train up to Duluth, which is currently a mind-numbing, if not-all-that-congested, drive. But I’m not holding my breath. Let’s have a rail line from Minneapolis to Saint Paul before Minneapolis to Duluth.)

  • What is the shape of the corridor now? Why not simply start a bare bones conventional train? I highly doubt a double track main and 110mph running is necessary here.

  • Start it as a commuter line to Minneapolis’s northeastern suburbs and then extend it to Duluth after Minneapolis is connected to Chicago via the Chicago-Hub Midwest High Speed Rail Initiative. Also, support Oberstar’s efforts for a transportation reauthorization NOW.

  • Dave

    I have to agree with Allen. It won’t be practical to live without a car in the Twin Cities or most other places in the US until there is a lot more transit infrastructure in place. NYC, Boston, Chicago… sure you can do it, but most of us live in suburbs with minimal bus service and significant walk or bike times even to the grocery store (and taxis are not plentiful). Until that changes, I need my car. I will however gladly Park & Ride the LRT into the city to avoid traffic and parking hassles.

    As much as I would enjoy rail service between Mpls and Duluth, I also agree with the article that it may not be the best use of limited funding. I’d to know more about the ridership profile. I’m not sure business auto travelers from the North Shore will leave their cars unless their city business is localized and close to downtown. If they have appointments in several suburbs, its probably worth the 3 hr drive just for mobility when you get here – again we need to build up city transit infrastructure. I’ll still root for NLX if Congress wants to fund it.

  • Kyle

    “It won’t be practical to live without a car in the Twin Cities or most other places in the US until there is a lot more transit infrastructure in place. NYC, Boston, Chicago… sure you can do it, but most of us live in suburbs with minimal bus service and significant walk or bike times even to the grocery store (and taxis are not plentiful). Until that changes, I need my car. I will however gladly Park & Ride the LRT into the city to avoid traffic and parking hassles.”

    You’re right, you can live car free in places like NYC, Boston and Chicago, I do. Who is most of us? 58% of Americans live in cities with more than 200K population and 68.5% of Americans live in cities with more than 50k populations. So, the majority of Americans live in urban areas.

    Public transit is not readily available in suburbs, because suburbs are built in a way that is not conducive to public transit, so a car is required. The suburbs won’t change, that is why the are the suburbs. People who live in suburbs chose to live in suburbs. If you don’t want to use your car, then move to a city with good or decent transit, it’s your choice.

  • Lou

    “Public transit is not readily available in suburbs, because suburbs are built in a way that is not conducive to public transit, so a car is required. The suburbs won’t change, that is why the are the suburbs. People who live in suburbs chose to live in suburbs. If you don’t want to use your car, then move to a city with good or decent transit, it’s your choice.”

    I dont know what suburbs you are living in but in many places in the usa chicago, new york, boston, philly, and now even seattle, los angles, san fran, and soon to be salt lake and denver you can live care free and at the very least car light. In nj many of our best suburbs were built with the railroad in mind (montclair, summit, princeton, red bank, and ridgewood. Surburbs existed long before the car became popular and have exellent rail transit to jobs, a strong walkable urban center, and the space growing families desire.

    The choice is not drive in the burbs or leave for an apartment in the city. In many places you can have the best of both worlds. Kyle, why do u try to force this fake choice on people.

  • Yonah, I’m surprised you are simply accepting the cost at face value. This is yet another example of a rail project who’s cost suddenly rises once the state DOT gets ahold of it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed the serious price inflation that went along with the high-speed rail stimulus fund applications. I do not accept that this cost is necessarily accurate. State DOT’s have entirely different incentives that favor making projects more expensive. Now is the time to shop the proposal around and get bids – as a whole design/build package. If the bids come in at a billion dollars, then you can drop the project as unaffordable. But I suspect you could get bids at the earlier study level if you didn’t add too many restrictions.

  • Cameron Slick

    Ari’s is right. This line can be justified as a twofer. Commuter rail service to Cambridge, and even Hinckley (Casino), would be easily justifiable if the asinine Met Council hadn’t signed a contract with BNSF in perpetuity. We are getting royally screwed on track usage, and ridership on the Northstar will suffer.

    Since service from Cambridge to Coon Rapids (Northstar) is only 29 miles and Hinckley 67 miles, the Twin Cities could use half of the upgraded track and all of the rolling stock to run commuter trains throughout the day.

    Having any service to Duluth can be justified as part of the Amtrak system. High speed diesel service to Duluth can only be made possible as an extension of the Midwest HSR System. Since the mainline from Minneapolis to Chicago would be profitable, extending point-to-point service to Duluth would have sufficient riders to the Twin Cities & Chicago to make it worth the extra costs, from Hinckley to Duluth.

    Christopher Parker also has a good point. Many Minnesota municipalities have had small public works projects bid or completed below budget because so many contractors are out of private sector work.

    Also Yonah, bad news on the Southwest Line – it’s not serving the city. I live on Lyndale Avenue which will be torn up next summer and it would have work swell for light rail. But that’s what you get when your MPO has no interest in building a system. Thanks for all the coverage.

  • Scott

    Yeah, I don’t get why MetC keeps on pushing perpetual tracking rights. They did it with northstar by killing a few trips per day. Guess what the #1 complaint is? Not enough trips per day.

    I’d give NLX a chance after a new administration is brought in at the state level to properly analyze these projects. The people involved right now, far and wide, are appointees of a governor shooting for a 2012 election run as a conservative Republican.

    I’m really miffed that the Feds haven’t gotten their act together in reforming how new starts funding is figured out. Obviously the CEI calculation causes very strange project decisions. Large ridership aggregation points left to bus service (northstar/foley), express service bus being used as modal trip time comparators to local service light rail (bottineau and comparison to noble and maple grove P&Rs), developed urban dense areas bypassed (southwest), etc. I’m convinced its not going to get better until MetC is concerned about a real system in the area.

  • Kyle

    Pushing a fake choice, I don’t think so. There is a difference between stating an opinion and forcing people to make decisions. I stated my point that you shouldn’t live in the suburbs and complain about the lack of a good transit network. There is a difference between street-car suburbs, which are the suburbs you are probably refering to when you say…

    “Surburbs existed long before the car became popular and have exellent rail transit to jobs, a strong walkable urban center, and the space growing families desire.” and sprawling suburbs.

    These street car suburbs had most of their transit torn up after WWII. So, these street car suburbs are no longer as transit friendly as they used to be. The suburbs created after WWII are sprawl-based, suburbs that are not conducive to public transit.

    But you reference major urban areas…aka cities (Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Fran and so on) and then talk about living a car-free lifestyle, I know, that is what I was talking about in the first place.

    There is also a major difference between suburbs and cities with populations over 50k. These smaller cities used to have transit, but once again was torn up in favor of the car. So, unless you can find a street-car suburb, with great transit (which is possible, especially in the street-car suburbs around Boston) great. But most suburbs do not have good transit.

    I was simply arguing against the comment that most of the U.S. lives in suburbs, which is definitely not true. This is from the census.

  • Having any service to Duluth can be justified as part of the Amtrak system. High speed diesel service to Duluth can only be made possible as an extension of the Midwest HSR System. Since the mainline from Minneapolis to Chicago would be profitable, extending point-to-point service to Duluth would have sufficient riders to the Twin Cities & Chicago to make it worth the extra costs, from Hinckley to Duluth.

    You’re talking decades in the future. The 110 mph service envisioned by the Midwest quote-unquote HSR system will never be profitable. And no, the extension to Duluth is unlikely to be worth the cost, ever – it’s the sort of line that SNCF operates under contract with local money and that the JR companies are abandoning in order to concentrate on profitable urban and high-speed lines.

    Duluth isn’t the center of the universe, despite what some railroad builders think. It’s a small town and Minneapolis should focus its energies on local transit to bring it up to par with European cities its size, such as Munich, Hamburg, Milan, and Rome.

  • DBX

    First, I don’t trust anything that comes out of Pawlenty’s DOT. That agency was already a mess even before Pawlenty and it has been mismanaged and politicized from the very beginning of his administration and it’s not surprising to see them framing the argument to make it unworkable. Look at what happened — ambitious pandering hard-right teabagger governor appoints subnormal water-carrying legislative ally as DOT commissioner and you get the rest of the picture of the last seven years. And this was already an agency that had such a blinkered idea of how to rebuild the MN62 Crosstown expressway in Minneapolis that Jesse Ventura of all people had to stage an intervention. When “The Body” has to correct supposed agency experts on basic technical matters of traffic planning, you know the agency has big problems.

    So, with MnDOT’s input being in all probability as useless as it normally is, what’s the actual situation?

    The current state of rail access to Duluth from the south has been shaped by the very heavy abandonments of the 1970s and 1980s (there was no comparable spate of abandonments to the north, where the rail network was basically run by the taconite mines during that period). CNW (later UP) dropped their line and took trackage rights on Wisconsin Central (now CN) so Duluth-Chicago went down from two lines to one; the old NP line along Highway 61/I-35 was downgraded with the Burlington Northern merger in the early 1970s, and Soo Line abandoned three routes into the city from the 1970s to 1989, leaving just the former Great Northern from the Twin Cities to Duluth. Meanwhile, if anything, the tonnage going out of the port of Duluth grew. It’s one of the world’s largest inland ports. So you’ve got relatively heavy freight traffic on the former NP line, now BNSF, with 12 long trains a day, and FRA Class III (50mph freight, 60 passenger) speed limits. The upgrades the boosters of the project have in mind would substantially increase capacity on the line for both passenger and freight as well as increasing speed (they’d be at 110mph passenger and 80+ for freight).

    As for passenger traffic, there’s certainly a lot of potential. Interstate 35 has become quite congested at peak periods — summer weekends, and increasingly with the casinos along the route, weekday evenings. The traffic does not drop below 50,000 a day until you’re about 50 miles out from downtown St. Paul, and only the stretch between Hinckley and Moose Lake is still below 20,000 a day for a year-round average. In other words, this is a busier road than, say I-88 or I-80 in Illinois west of Chicago, and also busier than most of I-35 from the Twin Cities to Kansas City, but not as busy as I-80 through Iowa. The casino traffic is a big part of the story. An estimated one-third of the projected rail ridership on this line would be casino traffic, mostly to Hinckley though there are also casinos in the Duluth area. The casino traffic is absolutely critical in terms of potentially enabling this line to get by only on capital funding, without operating subsidies.

    The winter weather in this region is horrible as well — I speak from experience — and there’s much more incentive from that to quit driving than you might have in a fairer climate. But the surveys that have been done so far make very clear that passenger rail at 60mph or even 79 is a non-starter — it has to actually equal or beat driving to be viable.

    The thing to remember about high speed rail in general is that a core high speed rail network will never make it if it does not have mediium density feeder services like this one — or for that matter good local transit in the cities it serves. This is a route that would help feed a broader rail network, and as for the local transit Duluth has a fairly good local bus service with good and growing ridership and a U-pass scheme for the college students — of which there are about 25,000 in the area.

    Intermediate speed rail like this 110mph proposal is useful because it is a key strategy for building up both freight and passenger rail capacity on an already overtaxed national rail network. Frankly, we’re in a burgeoning crisis on both oil scarcity and CO2 emissions, and it may be that an interstate-scale national program of this kind of rail development is needed as we move to more efficient modes of long-distance transportation.

    So let’s first cut through the Pawlenty obfuscation, let’s get a good handle on the numbers ranging from ex-car trippers to commuters to casinos, and also see what freight railroads are willing to contribute (or determine how much it is sensible to effectively subsidize freight as well as passenger infrastructure) before writing this particular scheme off.

  • DBX

    Looking quickly at the StarTrib article it very quickly becomes clear why MnDOT came up with $1 billion — double-tracking the ENTIRE line as opposed to just the congested parts of it, and assuming that each trainset could only make one round-trip per day rather than two. The MnDOT numbers might be reasonable for 14 or 15 roundtrips per day, but that’s not what’s being proposed.

  • The thing to remember about high speed rail in general is that a core high speed rail network will never make it if it does not have mediium density feeder services like this one

    No, the thing to remember about HSR is that a low-traffic commuter line to a metro area of 300,000 is useless as a feeder. The more transfers and long connections you put on an HSR line, the less likely people are to ride it. A 20-minute subway in Minneapolis would work well as a feeder; a 2.5-hour Amtrak line from Minneapolis to Duluth, not so much – people might as well fly direct from Duluth to Chicago.

    Like the federal-aid highways of a hundred years ago, those 110 mph lines are just another urban-rural subsidy. Subways and electrified regional rails for urban areas are old technology, and have none of the pizzazz of 110 mph diesel intercity rail, to say nothing of the potential to draw lines on a national map.

  • DBX

    And Alon, if your general ideas about HSR are adopted by policymakers, we’ll never see a wide scale intercity rail revival in this country. Feeder lines are absolutely critical in Europe, as the Beeching abandonments of the 1960s brutally showed in England and as the smarter policies of recent years have showed in a more positive direction. To take one example, in your world, there’d be no Ski Train in France because they’d never let the TGV even to Albertville, let alone Bourg St. Maurice — passengers would have to fend for themselves beyond Lyon because that’s as close as the true HSR LGV gets to the mountains.

    If your views are those of the FRA, we’d better hope for some dramatic advances in hybrid and plugin car technology because realistically that’s what everything between the coasts will depend on.

  • hmmm.. why not start on standard rails? Why do they need to make it bigtime at start. I think they should start with low cost like 300M$ on their first estimate.. then generate some income first before they do their dream train which cost 1B$

    • Nathanael

      I suspect because in this case it’s not that much less expensive to build a 79 mph line than it is to build a 110 mph line. Most of the cost is in bridges, building completely new trackbed, stations, buying trains, etc. — it’s just not significantly cheaper to make it slower, and it loses you a lot of passengers.

      I could be mistaken, but generally the cases where it’s cheaper to go slower are the cases where there are existing, functioning tracks to work with, or downtown areas where straighter routes cost more in land purchase, or hilly areas where faster routes require more civil engineering. This route has little of any of those features as far as I can tell.

      Though maybe it does. I’d like to see the cost breakdown for that billion — are there specific elements jacking the cost up? (For instance, would it be more effective to single-track much of it?)

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