Duluth train finishes major stage of environmental review

Planned route of the Northern Lights Express train from Minneapolis to Duluth.
Planned route of the Northern Lights Express train from Minneapolis to Duluth.

The proposed Northern Lights Express train from Minneapolis to Duluth (“NLX”) took another step forward on Monday last week when the long-awaited Tier 1 Service Level Environmental Assessment was finally released. Initially expected to be completed by October 2011, the environmental review was delayed as the scale of the project was reassessed after early cost projections came in higher than expected. Since 2007, the route has been planned to operate at a top speed of 110 miles per hour, though the proposed length of that fast section of the route was reduced in 2011, lengthening the typical end-to-end travel time from two hours flat to 2 hours and 17 minutes. Today, the $820 million service is planned to have eight daily round-trips with six total stops: Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Duluth in Minnesota, plus Duluth’s twin port of Superior, Wisconsin.

One of the first comments I got after posting a link to the EA last week was a question: “Why do we need an environmental assessment to run a daily passenger train to Duluth over existing tracks?”

That’s a good one to ask, and I don’t have a very good answer. The route has existed for well over a century, and passenger trains ran on the line until 1985, so it’s worth asking why something that is partially a restoration of former service should require an extensive environmental process. However, the proposal does push beyond the historical level of service considerably. A full history may reveal more, but this 1951 timetable shows just two daily round-trips along the route, plus another three on parallel railroads (both of which have seen major chunks of the route abandoned). In order to achieve eight round-trips a day and to allow faster speeds, a new parallel track is planned for 41 miles between Isanti and Hinckley. Most of the rest of the route would be limited to speeds of 79 or 90 mph, while this new segment of double-tracking (where there has historically only been a single track), will be the section dedicated to 110-mph operation.

Some other shorter segments of additional track will be installed in Minneapolis, between Fridley and Coon Rapids, and on the northern end in Superior. However, all of these are expected to fit within the original right-of-way granted to the railroad in the 19th century. There is certainly some call for the Environmental Assessment, though it shouldn’t be treated any more significantly than a typical highway widening. Ultimately I’ll answer the question with a question: Was the Northern Lights Express put through any more hoops than a project to add lanes to a freeway? If this review was more complicated than that, then some priorities need to get straightened out.

Another comment I received related to the pace of construction for the route. Wouldn’t it be better to start out with one or two trains a day and then scale it up incrementally?

That has certainly been considered, but there are many examples from around the country which show that incremental builds take ages to complete.  Among the dozens of routes Amtrak operates nationally, only a handful of corridors have 8 or more daily round-trips today, a level of service that would be considered modest in Europe.

In the Northeast, only the  Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, DC and branches off of it from New York to Albany, Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and DC to Richmond have 8+ daily round-trips.  In the whole rest of the country, only two other corridors in California do as well: Los Angeles to San Diego, and Sacramento to Oakland.

A few other routes have five to seven trains each direction each day. Why should a route to a relatively minor metropolitan area of 280,000 people be at the same level as these major corridors? Another very good question. There really should be many corridors across the country that see that much passenger train traffic or more. This route is also planned to have an average end-to-end speed of 67 miles per hour, and there’s only one route anywhere in the U.S. running faster than that today: The Acela Express from Washington, DC to Boston. Everything else falls in the range of 38 to 57 mph.

The NLX planners used computer models of ridership to come up with the speed and frequency of service. The models told them that this speed and number of trips are the bare minimum needed in order to operate the trains without a direct subsidy year over year. 67 mph is just barely faster than a typical driver will do over a whole trip (keep in mind that Interstate 35 has a 70 mph speed limit for most of its length between Duluth and the Twin Cities—most drivers will have top speeds reaching or exceed that, but any stops or slowdowns along the way will cause average speed to drop rapidly).

When costs are spread out across the number of passengers who will use the service over time, it also works out pretty well. A typical Amtrak short-distance “corridor” route requires an operating subsidy of $20 for every 100 passenger-miles traveled, the projected average trip length for NLX passengers. Existing corridor trains have periodic needs for additional capital costs as well. The Northern Lights Express is expected to start out carrying over 900,000 passengers in early years, and slowly but steadily growing from there. Over the next 30 years, that probably translates to 33 to 40 million passengers. If the project can achieve what the computer models say and operate without significant subsidies, the capital cost per rider would work out to somewhere between $20 and $25 for that time span.

So you can start out with a slow, infrequent train and pay half the cost of each rider’s trip in order to entice them to use the service, or an up-front investment can be made to improve travel times and add frequency, and the overall cost works out to be about the same—potentially better in some cases. If we went with an incremental approach, there would be years and years worth of direct operating subsidies, plus the capital investment would probably work out to just as much as what’s currently planned.

While the initial price tag is certainly giving some of our state politicians heartburn, in the long run, it works out better to invest in the route now.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at http://hizeph400.blogspot.com/

8 thoughts on “Duluth train finishes major stage of environmental review

  1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    My understanding is that the ridership projections are driven pretty heavily by people going to and from a casino or two. Is this your understanding as well?

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      I’m not certain about that one. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. The 2007 feasibility study projected an annual ridership of 889,000 without a casino connection, but went up to 1.36 million if one was included. I’m pretty sure that was modeling an environment were gasoline still cost $1.50/gal. In 2010-2011 when reduced speeds were studied, the original plan was given a projection of 756,000 annual riders, and the updated plan (with slower speeds, but also modestly reduced fares to compensate) was almost identical at 755,000 riders. The casino option was not included at that time, yet the gas price was modeled at something more realistic, starting around $3.00/gal and slowly trending up over the next few decades. Now they seem to be reverting to the projections from the 2007 feasibility study for unexplained reasons.

      But projections like these are just educated guesses helped along by computers. They could very well be high or low by, say, 20%. Personally, I think the uncertainty about the route is one reason to build it — so the ridership theories can be tested and the nation can move forward with more information about what’s needed to make a route successful. We only have one route that currently averages more than 65 mph, the typical Interstate speed limit east of the Mississippi. There is a true paucity of information about whether our projections are accurate or not — and by how much.

  2. Jack

    So it would cost $40-$50 for two people to make this trip one way? Seems like any car would be more cost effective than that if you have more than one person. Plus it’s basically the same time and then you can get around easily once you get to your destination. The whole thing seems like a waste of taxpayer money.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      If you were trying to get to Duluth without a car, how would you go? Most Americans’ next step will be to check airline prices, which are quite high on this route: $474 for a round-trip (6 such round-trips occur daily). There are cheaper bus/shuttle options, of course, but they’re restricted to highway speeds. It’s also worth pointing out that the southern half of the rail line serves the MN-65 highway corridor, often unpleasantly congested because of stoplight-controlled intersections. Buses and shuttles take Interstate 35, so there will be a role for both bus and rail transportation.

  3. Carl

    Nice write-up Mike. As far as the rail doubters out there, start with this: ALL forms of transportation are subsidized. All. Have been since the days of the Roman Empire. All forms of transportation.
    The roads are PUBLIC, paid for, plowed by, salted with, pothole patched, bridge-replaced, striped with lane markers, mowed in the median with, patrolled for accidents and speeders and those needing help, with “taxpayer dollars”.
    The airports are PUBLIC, paid for, runways built, runways plowed and de-iced by, salted with, patched by, air-controlled by, TSA secured by, FAA air corridor regulated, pilot and navigator certified with “taxpayer dollars.” (Do you REALLY want your flight’s pilot to hear, “I’m sorry. Your airline hail is very important to us and is being recorded for customer service purposes. Denver Air Control only handles United flights. If you are a Delta flight, you will need to contact a different tower. We are sorry for the inconvenience of running low on fuel. Have a good day.”
    So rail is PUBLIC too, just like PUBLIC bike paths, PUBLIC parks, PUBLIC hiking trails, PUBLIC sidewalks. It’s just when rail WASN’T so public (this time period was called “The Rbber Baron Age”) the corporations that ran them did it in such a high-handed, arrogant way (as the only real long distance travel monopoly available from the 1850s to the 1940s) the country has been allergic to passenger rail ever since.
    (Indeed, to this day, part of Amtrak’s troubles stem from the fact they still DO NOT own the rails they run on. They belong to freight railways who rent/lease them to Amtrak only because by law they are required to do so. Consider how much better mid-distance passenger rail service would be if all rail lines were publicly owned, first preference was given to passengers, and freight lines had to lease their track space.)
    Keep up the fight, Mike.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      It’s been talked about and investigated, but it appears pretty unlikely. The Union Depot won’t be included in the initial project. Since Target Field has been built as a stub-end station and is more central to the metro-area population than the Union Depot, it makes more sense for services to terminate in Minneapolis rather than continue on to Saint Paul.

      For people transferring to/from through-running trains like the Empire Builder, which is unlikely to stop at Target Field, there will probably be two options: shuttling between Target Field and SPUD on the Green Line (Central Corridor LRT) or changing trains at the Foley Boulevard station in Coon Rapids which is planned as part of the NLX project.

      There are improvements planned for the rail line between Target Field and SPUD, so anything’s possible in the future. There will be more trains to/from Chicago, and the commuter rail network will probably be expanded (Red Rock from Hastings to Minneapolis, and Northstar may go to Saint Paul), so the capacity may be there to extend trips to Saint Paul. Probably the most likely outcome is that some runs of the NLX will eventually be combined with the Chicago service, and will allow single-seat travel from Duluth to Chicago or any points in between. When that might happen is anybody’s guess.

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