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.

Do you love rail? Do you love Duluth? Share your thoughts or your favorite Duluth story!

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.

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