St. Paul Empire Builder

Could the Commuter Rail from Minneapolis to Duluth be a Flop?

A recent Star Tribune post on a new bus service starting at $9 to Duluth got me thinking about all the recent talk about having a government-sponsored, commuter rail service to Duluth.

Amtrak recently announced that it was interested in investing $600 million to develop a rail service from Minneapolis to Superior and Duluth, using 80% federal grant dollars and 20% local matching funds. The service would run four times per day and stop in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior before arriving in Duluth, running along an existing BNSF route. The dollars would be invested in improvements like grade changes and crossings.


“Take a sneak peek inside one of Landline’s motor coaches. We are carefully overseeing every design detail so you have a great #travel experience with us. Get more info on our #ridelandline #MSP shuttles from #Duluth and #Mankato” — @ridelandline

Current Options

Today, for those who don’t want to drive, there are a few options for riding to Duluth. Jefferson Lines offers rides from the Minneapolis Greyhound Bus Depot for as low as $25 and a trip time of 3 hours 35 minutes. Groome Transportation offers shuttle rides from the MSP airport to locations around Duluth for around $54. The trip to University of Minnesota – Duluth was rated at 3 hours 40 minutes. The bus service between airports featured in the Star Tribune, called Landline, would cost a market rate of $30 – $32 once the service was beyond the promotional period.

For those who want to get away quick and burn more fuel, there is air route by Delta that costs upwards from $199 for a one-way and takes 53 minutes.

St. Paul Empire Builder

A GE Genesis in 40th-anniversary Phase I paint leads a stub Empire Builder out of St. Paul, Minnesota after floods suspended service west. (2011)

Could Amtrak Do Better?

It is difficult to say whether a diesel-electric rail service would be a better value because it depends on what each of us as a transit consumer and a citizen values.

It is clear that while the hypothetical service is advertised at a top speed of 90 mph, the true average speed would likely be far lower with slower track and stops. The Northstar commuter rail between Minneapolis and Big Lake is a 40-mile route and takes 52 minutes, for an average speed of 46 mph. According to the Metro Transit factsheet, the top speed is 79 mph.

How does this affect trip time? According to the Star Tribune’s map, the route appears to be 160 miles. At an average speed of 90 mph, that would yield a trip time of 1 hour 47 minutes. If the average speed was 60 mph, the trip time would be 2 hours 40 minutes. If the average speed was the same as Northstar, at 46 mph, the trip time would be 3 hours 29 minutes. In all these scenarios, the service is faster than bus or shuttle service.

What about consumer cost and subsidies? According to the Metropolitan Council, the Transit Subsidy Per Passenger for the Northstar service was $18.31 in 2014. With just inflation, that figure could be around $19.79 today. The weekday, rush-hour fare for Northstar is $6.25 for Minneapolis to Big Lake and less for shorter trips along the 40-mile route. Total those together, and the cost is $26.04 for a 40-mile, 52-minute trip.

To compare against a longer trip, Amtrak’s Empire Builder has service to Chicago starting at $70 for a one-way that takes 7 hours and 55 minutes and is about 400 miles. That yields an average speed of 51 mph, a tad faster than the Northstar commuter rail. If the hypothetical Duluth rail route was traveling at the same consumer cost and speed as the Empire Builder to Chicago, it would take 3 hours 8 minutes and cost $28 to the consumer.

As to subsidy on Amtrak, according to the corporation’s fiscal year 2017 financials, the operating service had a farebox recovery of 94.7%, then a new recent record. However, Amtrak makes most of its profit on the Northeast corridor, so it is unlikely that the St. Paul to Chicago route runs at over 90%. Assuming the previous 94.7% number, the total cost without operating subsidy is $29.57.

Bottom Line

There is clearly demand for some light service between Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. The current market price to get away ranges from $25 and 3-hour, 35-minute trip to $199 and a 53-minute trip.

Could a rail service that costs around $30 and takes over 3 hours make it? Count me skeptical. If Northstar already can only operate with a subsidy approaching $20 per trip, I highly doubt Amtrak will find the cash long-term to keep a low-ridership, inter-city line running.

For comparison, driving a Prius from MSP airport to DLH airport would take 2 hours 38 minutes, burn 2.75 gallons of gas, and cost about $6.65 in fuel.

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47 thoughts on “Could the Commuter Rail from Minneapolis to Duluth be a Flop?

  1. Eric Ecklund

    The proposed average speed for Northern Lights Express is 60 miles per hour, so the travel time between Minneapolis and Duluth will be pretty much the same as driving. Considering how bad traffic on I-35 can be, particularly cabin goers, I trust the train more. However the bus is a nice secondary option.

    As for flying to Duluth, there’s also the time needed to get to MSP Airport, through security, and then from Duluth Airport, which isn’t close to Downtown Duluth. But Delta’s flights between Minneapolis and Duluth are meant for connecting passengers such as a person traveling from Los Angeles to Duluth via MSP. Little if any passengers are O&D (origin & destination) on the MSP-DLH flights.

  2. Lou Miranda

    Thanks for researching this. While your numbers seem right, you don’t seem to take into account ancillary benefits, such as getting to a train stop vs. the airport (generally much more convenient), the ability to read, relax, or work while on a train vs. driving a car, and the fact that driving a car really costs about 50¢

    1. Lou Miranda

      … a mile, so a 160-mile trip is really $80, when you factor in insurance, wear & tear, financing, storage, etc.

    2. Mark

      Yes, I would agree. Time and cost aren’t the only values of potential travelers. There’s also a high value on things like convenience and comfort–and a well-managed rail service can provide those things in spades over road and air service while sill maintaining both cost-effectiveness and environmental cleanliness. If I could hop on a train in the early morning, have breakfast and read the paper, and end up in Duluth, I’d be hitting Duluth every weekend! Let’s also not forget that the North Shore Scenic Railway offers rail service, in luxurious restored vintage equipment, from Duluth to Two Harbors.

  3. Andrew Mueller

    I agree with Lou on the additional benefits of train travel. I also imagine it would be easier to take skis, bikes, etc on a train vs bus. The key question is how weekend train warriors get from the train station to the north shore where the adventure happens and where yours truly would want to end up.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Uber estimated $140 for a round trip from Duluth to Gooseberry Falls State Park. I shudder to think how much a taxi would be and I doubt local transit even goes there.

        As for renting a car, I can understand not wanting to drive to say Miami but considering how expensive and aggravating it is to rent a car (to the extent most people own larger vehicles than they’d need for the weekday commute so they don’t have to rent on the weekend) I can’t see many people wanting to do that just to save just over 2 hours driving time.

    1. Kate

      A number of north shore resorts offer shuttle services from Duluth up the shore to Tofte or Lutsen as well as services locally once guests check in- I would also imagine that as more options for travel between the metro and Duluth present themselves more options for those in the area specifically in order to hop to more remote locations will arise. Supply and demand.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt

    While I think it’s justified to be skeptical of projects, I have two points:

    The last line compares the cost of driving a Prius by only looking at gas. But what about total cost of vehicle ownership? The IRS rate is $0.58/mi, a rate which would reimburse over $180 for a round trip drive. Yet, for many people, a share of the costs of car ownership are relatively fixed… depreciation due to age, cost of insurance, etc. The marginal cost for driving to Duluth is less than $180, but probably far closer to $180 than $13.30 in gas.
    Time spent being driven/transported is far different than time spent driving. Time spent on a train, where you are free to roam a large space with multiple seating areas is quite different than time spent cramped on a seat in a bus or airplane which is different than time spent actively focused on the task of driving an automobile.

    1. Monte Castleman

      We’ll do some back of the napkin math for a Camry, which is a lot better, more comfortable vehicle for road trips than a Prius. A stripped down Camry lists for $23,945, let’s add 10% for taxes and fees, so we’re at 26,500. Assume we’re going to finance it, so 28,000. That Camry should last 200,000 miles without major repairs, we’ll add $2000 for minor brake jobs and another 2,000 for oil changes, so we’re at $32,000. That’s 16 cents a mile for non-gasoline costs. Assume we get 35 mpg on the highway that’s 7 cents a mile in gasoline, so 23 cents a mile. It’s 300 miles to Duluth and back, so about $70. A lot more than the $13.30, but closer to it than $180.

      1. GlowBoy

        No way are you going to run even a Camry for 200k miles for only 2 cents a mile in maintenance. Over the years I’ve had some extremely reliable cars that required very little maintenance even as I ran them up to very high odometer mileage, but even the best of them cost several times that. You might be able to do brakes and shocks for $2k, and if you’re lucky you’ll only have to do them once by the time you hit 200k. But you’ll also have to do replace the tires at least a couple times, and do all the scheduled maintenance required by the dealer to keep your warranty in effect, plus (yes, even on a Toyota) replace the odd O2 sensor, timing belt and water pump, muffler, etc., most likely a starter or an alternator too. You will be very lucky to do better than 8 or 10 cents per mile in maintenance over the long haul.

        Also, buying an ultra-dependable Camry and running it up to 200k is certainly a frugal and sensible choice, but not representative of what most people do. I think the IRS allowance is a bit generous and subsidizes people who drive expensive, thirsty cars, but even so … 30 cents a mile is probably a realistic median for people who drive reasonable midrange cars.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Well, most Camrys use a chain, not a belt unless you have the V6. But fair point about tires. But even using your figure of 30 cents that’s $90, which is not “a lot closer to $180 than $13.30”, it’s still only about halfway in the middle. I know buying a sensible car and driving it until it dies (or even better yet buying one right after the depreciation hit) isn’t how most Americans drive, but they (mostly) all have that option.

          So the fare would have to be $90 or less round trip for it to make economic sense to take the train. But people don’t always behave according to economics, in transportation choices or more people would take the bus to the Federal Reserve and no one would lease a BMW.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Or they put value on things you’re leaving out, like the opportunity to be productive and/or relax on the train and the prestige value of a fancy car and/or “fun” driving.

          2. Matt SteeleMatt

            I don’t see insurance in that calculation. For my family’s car, insurance is our largest car expense usually by a wide margin, more than gas or maintenance.

            Also, do people really buy a car with zero miles and drive it until 200,000 miles? My family drives 7,500 miles per year so that means a 2019 Toyota Camry would have to survive twenty six salty Minnesota winters. I doubt that’s going to happen.

            1. Monte Castleman

              I don’t think anyone buys a car just to make nothing but trips to Duluth, so you need to buy insurance whether or not you make the trip, and insurance costs the same for that day whether you drive to work or the car sits into the garage so I deliberately excluded it from the calculation

              The average American drives close to double what you do, 13,476 miles, so we’re only talking about 15 years. My stepfather has an 02 Corolla an 02 Accord, and an 04 Yukon on his lot right now.

  5. Mike Hicks

    First off, this is not commuter rail. There isn’t really a formal term for it, but a lot of people prefer to call this sort of service “regional rail.” The commuter market fades off to near zero after about 90 miles. Sure, there may be “super-commuters” at that distance or beyond, but by that point, virtually everyone is traveling for purposes other than work — visiting friends/family, being tourists (including shopping), or perhaps doing things like visiting specialized businesses or medical services that aren’t available at home.

    I’ve measured the distance in the past via mapping tools to be about 153 miles. Some sources suggest it’s even closer to 150, so the tools I used may not have been entirely accurate. I found an old timetable for an article I wrote in 2015 which had old travel times on this route. This train would have a similar stopping pattern to the old express “Gopher” train once operated by the Great Northern Railway.

    That train originated at St. Paul Union Depot rather than the old Minneapolis Great Northern station, so full end-to-end travel distance and travel time were both longer. But, going northbound from Minneapolis to Duluth took 2 hours 50 minutes (at a maximum speed of 79 mph), and 2 hours 45 minutes southbound. There was also a “local” train called the “Badger” that ran on the same route that made more of a “commuter” stopping pattern, with stops averaging about once every 7.5 miles rather than an average of over 37 miles for the express “Gopher”. It took

    (The Minneapolis station was where the Minneapolis Federal Reserve is now — the old train used the Stone Arch Bridge to access that station, but those tracks have been removed and it’s now significantly more difficult to serve both St. Paul and Minneapolis using a single train route).

    It is disingenuous to directly compare this with a flight, since airport travel requires a significant amount of wait time to get through security, and it takes much longer for passengers to get on and off of a plane than for trains. All passengers need to go through a single doorway for planes, while trains typically have two doors per rail car — Northstar typically operates with 4 cars, so there are 8 doors for passengers to get on and off.

    There is a LOT of space between the cost of a $199 flight and what this would cost. You need to value your time much more highly to justify taking that trip alone. Airline fares from Duluth are really structured for flying through the Twin Cities rather than to the Twin Cities.

    1. Dan

      This! Not to mention that factors other than cost contribute to Northstar’s ridership (Terminating in big lake being the obvious one). While some of the travel time comparisons may be useful here, I think this article has a number of apples-to-oranges comparisons. Commuter rail differs significantly in length, schedule, and riders from regional rail.

    2. Saul Davis

      The Great Northern Depot was on the west side of Hennepin Avenue, snug against the river. Service to Duluth was magnificent, with a dome car. I was able to travel with my brother as boys, the conductors kept an eye on us. I have been waiting too many years for service to resume. Don’t forget, having service means Amtrak passengers from farther away will use it. It’s just a shame the tracks don’t go beyond Two Harbors. If it could go all the way to Thunder Bay, it would be quite busy. Too many stops are what slow trains down. Eliminate all the stops on at least one train a day so there is an express. It will save at least half-an-hour, or more, in travel time. It’s not just the time in the station, but the time lost in slowing down and having to speed up again.

  6. Scott

    I will never ride a coach bus again after too many bad experiences on Greyhound between Minneapolis and Madison. Why the hell did we need to stop at McDonalds in Tomah for over an hour? Yuck! Way too slow and uncomfortable.

    IMO trains are far more appealing because you can get up and walk around including getting food & beverages. The ride quality is generally very comfortable based on past rail trips out East and in Europe. Definitely would take the train to Duluth a few times a year for the weekend. Not sure, however, whether there is enough demand when our society makes it easy to drive and park almost anywhere including the densest cities and destinations.

    If inter-city rail is going to work anywhere in MN, it would be between Duluth & Minneapolis. It seems St. Cloud, Rochester, and smaller cities are generally pretty low-density and car-oriented. At least Duluth and Superior has the bones of a walkable urban place.

    1. Dan

      I dread riding the coach bus to Madison (I have family there so I make the trip every few months). I have a motorcycle and no car, so in the winter I have little choice. Still, I take the Empire Builder to Columbus, WI instead whenever I can, even though it can be a little more expensive and takes time off the visit due to leaving early Saturday morning rather than Friday evening. The coach bus is just so cramped and bumpy compared to the Amtrak, It makes it a pain to work or even read sometimes. It’s an experience to endure, while the time on the train is time to relax. If trains left St Paul in the evening as well as the morning I would never take a bus to Madison, and I think this Duluth route could draw people similarly. If the cost is within $10 of a bus for similar or especially better speed, I don’t see how buses would provide serious competition for ridership. Even with reduced travel time, flight prices are so many times higher that they will simply not be able to attract as many passengers.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Yes. Duluth is rather unique as a Minnesota terminus because it has a relatively large, walkable downtown core. I am not sure about ridership either, but imagine the potential of being able to visit overnight without having to park or store a car? Pretty splendid option for people looking for alternative types of trips.

      1. Wilj

        I guess, although IIRC pretty much every place one would stay in Duluth (ie hotels) have free parking.

        Also, has it been determined yet where exactly the train is going to stop in Duluth? Last I heard they still were figuring this out. Also, worthy of note, the current Jefferson Lines bus does drop-off locations of either the spiffy new transit terminal (near all the action you’re referring to) or UMD (lots of students on the bus too). I’m pretty sure this is the case anyway, it’s changed a little since they built the transit center. The transit center seems like the obvious place to terminate a train, obviously, but for some reason this outcome didn’t seem assured last I read about it..

        The other issue with visiting Duluth carless is that it /is/ a car-centric city, as is can be expected with a city of this size. It’s true that it has a great walkable area. However there’s plenty that people want to get to out of town (ie up the North Shore), which has been pointed out above and I’m not sure about the economics of renting a car there on weekends (but if there’s lots of weekend demand then I would posit them to be generally unfavorable).

        It will be interesting to see how all of this pans out. As I see it now I see demand primarily from people with access to existing private infrastructure on both sides of the trip (ie family), or possibly singles or couples that don’t ever plan on leaving the touristy part of Duluth, or possibly want to bike out of town.. I wonder if a summer-season bus that ran from Duluth to Gooseberry with stops along the way would change the economics of driving for any appreciable number of people when combined with the NLE…

        1. Monte Castleman

          What about a long distance North Shore bus that stops at Two Harbors, Gooseberry, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche? Of course if people are going to have to get on a bus anyway, why not just run it all the way to the Twin Cities rather than spending a bazillion dollars on trains.

          I like trains and ride trains, I really do and I fully support the Green and Blue lines extensions and wish were were building Riverview as real light rail. But this proposal is just drawing cool lines on a map rather than anything that remotely makes practical sense.

  7. justin

    I doubt there will be enough riders to justify the high operating cost .Minnesotans are used to driving,how many people have one car in the two central cities?
    .This isn’t Europe,even the Light Rail does not get enough riders on some trips inspite of high density in these cities.
    NS is big flop any bus line with $20 subsidy would have be cut , The funding for NS/Red line/Orange line could have been use for a LRT on 35W or a LRT on the medium on Hwy 47 to Northtown would have been a better option than NS.

  8. jack

    I would love to be able to hop a train to Duluth during the summer. Would anyone want to go there in the winter?

    1. Alina

      Yes, absolutely. I make a couple of weekend trips to Duluth for hiking and camping. I would also think that college kids coming going to/from UMD to see their parents would like a faster and cheaper option than bus.
      If ridership is a big concern, they could run fewer trains per week.

    2. GlowBoy

      I’ve gone to Duluth many times in the winter. To be fair, this is because my family has roots there, so as a kid I went every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

      But that also means I know how Duluth is in the winter. It’s still highly scenic, the Bentleyville Christmas light display is one of the best in the region, the massive mountain biking network is also open to fat bikes and XC-skiing, and the downhill skiing is vastly better than around the Twin Cities. Also, for the kids the Edgewater is a great waterpark and usually has great rates in the winter. Those enough reasons?

    3. Rosa

      if I had to go to Duluth in the winter, I would rather take a train. Or in the spring, I guess – sometimes it’s so icy the trip gives me nightmares.

      But, the actual times my family would use the train would be when (for instance) me and the kid were headed up north but his dad has to work and will join us later. I’m not sure there’s enough one-car families vacationing in Duluth to make that a market. We’d do it 2 or 3 times a summer, though (my husband has actually contemplated biking to Duluth rather than taking Greyhound to join us.)

      More to the point are there folks in Duluth who would take the train to the Cities?

      1. Daniel

        We absolutely would if the price is right. We already frequent the Cities once every 1-2 months to hit up Trader Joe’s and ethnic foods. It would be nice if I can get my family and I to and from for a reasonable price. It won’t happen, but it would be nice to think about.

        1. Rosa

          it seems like a much more reasonable market- people who want to come south from Duluth, especially in bad weather, and don’t want to drive and don’t need a car once they get here because we have better transit and more transit-accessible things.

    1. GlowBoy

      Considering that current gas prices are lower than the cost of a barrel of crude divided by the number of gallons you get from a barrel, gas price increases seem likely.

  9. Scott

    The last time we went to Duluth there was an ice storm that made driving on I35 terrifying. Cars were spinning off the road all around us while we drove 20 mph down the freeway. Riding in a train would have been far better than that experience.

    I can imagine people from up North taking the train to visit relatives in the winter and getting picked up at the station and vice versa. It might also make sense for them to take the train to Minneapolis and then the Blue Line to the airport, Vet’s Hospital, and/or MOA.

  10. misisvramisisvra

    I’d like a light rail option that is affordable and not dilapidated. Approximately 9$ would be preferable, and hopefully it would be well maintained.

  11. GlowBoy

    Not sure I understand any comparisons with Northstar. This would connect Minnesota’s largest metro area with its third largest metro area, a route that currently has multiple air and bus connections per day.

    Northstar connects Minneapolis with … a few exurbs and a bunch of farmland. Is there regularly scheduled air service to Big Lake (the existence of which might indicate significant demand for travel along the route)? I don’t think so.

    The most obvious comparison, to me as an ex-Northwesterner, is the Cascades service along the Northwest’s I-5 corridor. Not an exact comparison, of course: although Seattle-Tacoma is about the same size as the Twin Cities, Portland is many times larger than Duluth. But at least this route connecting metropolitan areas, and the distances are very similar (Portland to Seattle is 180 miles, to Tacoma is 150 miles), so comparisons with other modes are useful here.

    The Portland-Seattle trip on Amtrak takes about 3.5 hours, with a max speed of 79mph along most of the line, although changes are in the works to drop that closer to 3 hours pretty soon, which would make it exactly the same as driving or taking BoltBus. The trains are actually capable of 130mph, so the long term plan is to improve the tracks and eliminate grade level crossings enough to get it down to 2 hours.

    As mentioned above for Duluth-MSP air service, most of the people on flights between PDX and Sea-Tac (and Alaska/Horizon has Q400s plying the route every 40-60 minutes all day) are not making that flight alone. They only make sense when connecting with longer flights and already dealing with airport security. I frequently do this myself, getting to Portland through Seattle when the timing of direct flights to Portland doesn’t work for me.

    But if I’m already on the ground in Portland for work, and I want to go up to Seattle for the weekend (as I do once or twice a year), I don’t even THINK of flying there. Although these 45 minute flights are cheap, the airport hassles make it take just as long as traveling on the ground.

    Obviously the MSP-Duluth Amtrak route would not support the 6 round trips per day as the Cascades, but it sure is the most comfortable way to travel, and at least for a solo traveler it is no more expensive than flying or driving.

    The wildcard here is the bus. Horror stories abound regarding Greyhound, but BoltBus between Seattle and Portland is very comfortable, runs 8-10x per day, takes 3 hours flat and costs about $20 one-way. I don’t know how Jefferson’s service is, but I presume it is somewhere in between.

    The problem with both Jefferson and BoltBus is that when cars are stuck in traffic (and Seattle’s normal traffic can be as nightmarish as 35W’s is going to be this summer), so is the bus.

    1. Joseph

      I actually know plenty of people who will fly between Portland and Seattle. Mostly friends’ parents, or people who wanted to “get away” but couldn’t afford a longer flight. I don’t understand it, but there is definitely enough people making the trip to Seattle alone.

      I think a more apt comparison would be south on the Cascades, connecting Eugene to Portland. Still a similar time, similar enough city sizes, still has 4 trips a day (reduce to 3 to account for little through routing between Duluth and MSP).

  12. M.K. McClure

    A second, speedier MSP-CHI train makes far more sense. Perhaps that train could head onto Duluth or to St. Cloud.
    Money would be better spent improving extant infrastructure for the train here and linking to downtown Minneapolis and UMN not just St. Paul.

  13. Jeremy

    Connection to the airport will be important. I ride the shuttle from Duluth to MSP regularly for flights and they are frequently very full. It is way cheaper than MSP parking and allows me to read or sleep instead of drive. I love the shuttle but I enjoy train travel even more. I would definitely try to get flights that worked with the train schedule and use the shuttle as a backup.

    Also as someone else mentioned, lots of college students and foreign workers take the shuttle currently.

    1. Daniel


      If they were able to speed the train to the airport, that alone would give you your fare base.

    2. Andrew Evans

      I’m trying to think where the breakeven point would be for my partner and I to walk to only go to Duluth, and take the train.

      The convertible gets around 26mpg going between 80-90mph. Sure traffic stinks, but most of the trip can be at those speeds (at least when we’ve gone) and it usually takes a few hours. So doing that is about $24 in gas, and I have the car anyway and commute with it, so under 600 miles for a trip really isn’t going to cause that much wear to get excited about. So for $50 we can make the round trip in about the same amount of time, and not worry about making a train going up there or coming back.

      That said we never really stop at Duluth. Usually we’re up by the Gunflint Trail. So the train wouldn’t be a huge option for us anyway.

      That said, I love to drink on trains and two hours would be a good amount of time to get lit. Although after drinking I hate to fumble around with buses or taxis, so it may be worth it for us to drive anyway, regardless.

      1. GlowBoy

        80-90 mph?! The trip would be even cheaper (you’d probably save about 25% on gas) if you kept to the speed limit.

        1. Andrew Evans

          Speed limit is 70, and driving that speed may bump the mileage up to 30, if that. Although the 911 is terrible in town, it is pretty good for what it is on the freeway.

  14. Chris Haak

    There is no way that this route can be justified on cost, especially since there is transportation already available via bus. Let’s just look at the capitalized (fixed) cost – $600M and say that last 30 years with $0 additional needs for any capital in this span. That is $20M a year. Yearly ridership – in a dream scenario would be 100K / year (could easily obtain these numbers now from current bus ridership). That comes to $200 / passenger just for the capital cost of the rail – never mind the actual operating cost. That simply is not a cost effective way to transport folks to Duluth. You can look at the Amtrak data that was recently published and there are no routes outside of the NE that can even break even, in fact the Acela route accounts for most of the “profits” in the Amtrak system.

    Let’s look at what it costs to drive if you already own a car, which 80+ % of the folks in the metro area do. The variable cost to drive to Duluth is simply the cost of gas + the fractional maintenance cost of that mileage which is very low. Then, there is the question of does everyone travel to Duluth alone? For visits and tourist type things, the answer would be a resounding no, they go with others. Increased cost to do this in a car – $0. The simple fact of the matter is given the choice, virtually all folks will drive to Duluth and then continue to drive to surrounding areas that they want to see. It is an easy ~2 hour drive not withstanding rush hours on Friday afternoons and return on Sunday afternoons in the summer season when there are many cabin / camping folks on the road heading north.

    Driving to Duluth is an easy drive on a very good freeway with a few places to stop in between if you want (like at Toby’s for rolls). If the existing bus service is so bad, then another company will come in with better service, nicer buses and charge a few $ more. They will do this all at no cost to taxpayers as a private enterprise. There is absolutely no need for the government to step in here and offer a train service when one isn’t needed and alternatives are available.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Those numbers are pretty sobering. I plugged in the route in the Uber far estimator and it came out with $150. Assuming a one-way fare is going to be less than $150 it would make more financial sense to just make up the difference in people’s Uber rides, and then you don’t have the problem of what do you do when you get to downtown Duluth without a vehicle.

  15. GlowBoy

    How do I bring my bike when I take Jefferson? Oh yeah, I have to disassemble and box my bike both ways. Bike friendliness might seem like an esoteric point to some, but on more than one occasion I have driven with a bike to Duluth, and absolutely would have taken the bus (or train) if I could have done so without severe hassle.

    This is a problem that trains solve. Of course putting bike racks on buses would be cheaper, something that Oregon has done on many of its long distance bus routes (see

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