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/