Following the Tracks to Duluth

Here is a map showing the route for trains that are expected to run from Minneapolis to Duluth once the Northern Lights Express project is completed. Like my previous map for Amtrak’s Empire Builder, this shows segments of single- and double-tracking (usually sidings) along the corridor. This highlights the places where trains may be able to pass each other, and gives an idea of how much capacity there is on the line.

There aren’t any regularly-scheduled passenger trains on this route today. Amtrak stopped service in the 1980s, though there are usually one or two excursion trips per year operated by the Friends of the 261.

Ever since Amtrak stopped running on the line, there have been efforts to restore passenger service to Duluth. The Northern Lights Express (NLX) is the current project, which is in the midst of Tier 2 environmental review and preliminary engineering.

The Northern Lights Express is planned to have several daily round-trips and end-to-end travel times somewhere between 2 and 2½ hours. On existing tracks, the route is about 153 miles, though abandoned track in and near Duluth has caused the route to become a bit more circuitous than it used to be. Today, the trip would be about 4 miles longer than what it was for earlier passenger trains on the route.

Aerial photo of St. Louis Bay

Bridges at the mouth of St. Louis Bay in Duluth
as seen in 1961.

A notable change in Duluth was the abandonment of bridges across the St. Louis Bay which ran near the Blatnik Bridge (Interstate 535/U.S. 53). Both of these were taken out in the 1980s. Farther south, there was also a realignment the main line leading to a junction at Boylston, Wisconsin. Today’s Target Field station in Minneapolis is also about half a mile farther south than the old Great Northern depot, which was demolished in 1978.

There used to be a few competing services running between the Twin Cities and Duluth—the Great Northern from Minneapolis (today’s route), the Northern Pacific from Saint Paul (closely followed by Interstate 35 today), and another route from the Soo Line which ran further east. Both of these latter two routes have seen big segments of track be abandoned, so they aren’t practical for reuse without huge investments.

Timetable of Great Northern trains to Duluth from 1966.

Timetable of Great Northern trains to Duluth from 1966.

In the 1950s and 1960s, each railroad operated one or two trains per day on their line to Duluth, so their were about 5 daily round-trips in total. I’ve included a Great Northern timetable, which shows the express Gopher train and the local Badger. Both trains ran through Minneapolis and terminated at Saint Paul Union Depot, but for comparison’s sake, I’m going to ignore that last leg.

The express Gopher train took 2 hours 50 minutes northbound from Minneapolis to Duluth and 2h45m southbound, while the local Badger took 3h10m northbound and 3h05m southbound including all of its extra stops. Over the distance of 149 miles, the average speed ranged from 47 to 54 mph across these different trips.

When Amtrak took over the nation’s passenger trains in 1971, Duluth was initially cut out of the passenger system, but service returned after several months. Frequency ranged from one round-trip per day to only a few round-trips per week, down to about one-tenth as much service as there had been a couple decades earlier if all three railroads were counted. The service finally ended in 1985.

What will it take to get passenger service restored to Duluth?

Great Northern successor BNSF Railway owns the tracks today, and there are about 17 daily freight trains on the route according to MnDOT. The same map shows a current speed limit of 50 mph, though it’s unclear if passenger trains would be restricted to that same number (passenger trains are typically allowed to run 10 to 20 mph faster than freight trains on the same tracks).

Between Coon Rapids and Boylston, the average single-track section is about 10 miles long. There is one 16.3-mile section of single-track between Cambridge and Grasston which limits capacity. Another 20-mile section between Andover and Cambridge only has short sidings and might be considered as one segment of single-track.

Excepting a couple of short outliers, the average passing siding on the route is about 1.6 miles long, or around 8,450 feet. Freight trains can be as much as 7,000 feet in length, so there are some sidings where they are a tight fit.

The 20-mile section from Andover to Cambridge probably limits rail traffic to about two trains per hour at current speeds. There’s an upper limit of about 48 trains/day on this line, though that would require a completely even distribution of traffic at all hours with each train operating at a consistent and relatively slow speed.

The most likely schedule for NLX has had 8 daily round-trips. Adding 16 passenger trains to the existing 17 freights would result in 33 trains/day, and that’s with a mix of trains operating under different speed limits. The line definitely needs some improvements to handle that much traffic and leave enough headroom for schedule slips and other disruptions.

It may make sense to double-track the entire corridor someday, though some early estimates for doing that ended up with $1 billion-plus cost figures.

Lengthening the short siding in Bethel and adding another near Stanchfield would chop the longest non-passing segments in half. Combining that with lengthening some existing sidings and adding three or four others would probably double the line’s capacity, making it far easier to add passenger trains to the route while maintaining the ability to move freight and keep everything running on schedule.

Based on this cost estimating methodology from MnDOT, adding these sidings would be relatively inexpensive, probably around $40 million. However, since higher speeds are needed on this line to attract as many passengers as possible, it would only be one modest component of the total cost.

It’s possible to dial the expenditures up or down on the route in order to target a “sweet spot” of benefits versus costs. As I mentioned in a post last month, if a passenger service is able to control its operating budget properly, it should be possible to pay off infrastructure cost through fares.

Previous studies have suggested that the Minneapolis to Duluth corridor could attract 900,000 or more annual rail passengers if the speed and frequency of service were high enough. This puts the Duluth line at or near the zone where it could make sense to for a private operator to put in around $2 million per mile, or around $300 million total, particularly if they received a low- or no-interest loan for the buildout.

It would be a challenge to construct a fast, frequent service for that amount. But even if federal, state, and local governments had to cover the remaining amount in a public-private partnership, it could accelerate development of one of the most important transportation links in Minnesota.


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7 Responses to Following the Tracks to Duluth

  1. Nick Hannula April 6, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    If rail service is ever restored, in my opinion its northern terminus shouldn’t be the Duluth Depot. It would be better to build a new station on the north side of Railroad Street opposite from the DECC, directly under the skywalk. This would provide easy walking access to the Canal Park area and the heart of downtown. And the adjacent DECC parking ramp and lots would serve any parking needs.

  2. Andrew B April 6, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

    So long as the tracks from Superior to Duluth get a heft upgrade. That hourlong grind in on the 261 was ridiculous into town was infuriating.

  3. Cameron Slick April 10, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

    Having just made this run I can speak to the current state of the BNSF Hinckley subdivision.

    Passenger trains (in theory) can run 59mph, and would be boosted to 79mph with CTC (currently it runs under a slightly inferior system – track warrant with automatic blocks signals).

    BNSF limits train length to 6,400 feet. I’m not sure how many trains they run, but CP only makes two roundtrips per week, both of which are overnight trains to Superior. We also have grain trains that run to Rice’s Point seasonally. The UP runs at least two daily. So capacity isn’t a huge issue, either.

    Now, negotiating with BNSF is a different story, entirely. They are greedy bastards when it cones to passenger operations. The Met Councils pays $48 annually for track rent and operations to just Big Lake. For that amount they could rebuild the Monticello subdivision from the power plant to St Cloud in less than two years, and service the northwest suburbs (parallel with the Bottineau corridor). With state and local ownership of the rail beds/bike trails from Hugo to North Branch, and Hinckley to Indian Point Park in Duluth, as well as ownership of the bridges in the Twin Ports, a much cheaper, faster line could be built in the NP Skally corridor, which could also be part of a commuter rail project.

    • Nathanael April 12, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

      I agree with Cameron. It’s proven to be very expensive to share tracks with freight, because BNSF is very greedy. (So are CP and UP.) Although there would be NIMBY issues, in the long run it would be cheaper to rebuild one of the abandoned lines which is owned by the state & local governments.

      • Cameron Slick April 13, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

        The actual timetable speed is 50mph. I didn’t understand it either, since anything under Track Warrant Control is supposed to be 49 for freight, with or without block signals, but that’s the damn truth.

        Some other issues about routing in the Twin Ports area that are largely independent of the route leaving the Twin Cities: bridges. There are only two remaining, the BNSF bridge, which cuts from Superior west to Duluth, and is rather circuitous and busy; the CN bridge, further south in Oliver, WI, which would completely bypass Superior.

        The long-term plan for Amtrak, Minnesota, and Wisconsin should be to build a bridge capable of handling the weight of vibrations of trains when either the Blatnik or Bong bridge are to be replaced, with a strong preference for the former.

  4. Nathanael April 12, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    I can tell you something about the speed limits.

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_speed_limits_in_the_United_States

    With a 50 mph speed limit (it’s probably actually 49 mph), the track is maintained to Class 4 track standards, which would allow 80 mph running by passenger trains.

    However, the 49 mph limit is probably actually due to the absence of a block occupancy signal system — this would restrict passenger train speed to 59 mph. Installation of modern signalling would allow 79 mph running. However, any passenger train installation would be required to install PTC, which would eliminate any signal-system based restrictions on speed.

    So with the track in current condition, and the new signal system required for regular passenger train operation, top speed would be 80 mph. Additional trackwork would be required to allow higher speeds than that.

  5. Cameron Slick April 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    Nimbyism notwithstanding, rebuilding the Skally Line would be 96 miles of new track out of 155, all of which could be built immediately for 110mph, and designed for at least 150mph.