June 04, 2022 11:22 AM
I’m aware some Minnesota senators oppose funding for the proposed Northern Lights Express train service because, they claim, passenger trains are obsolete.
For example, Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, authored an amendment this legislative session prohibiting the planning for NLX from being included in a supplemental budget and policy bill, as Minnesota Public Radio reported. “The Northern Lights Wisconsin rail system is a bad idea that is a 19th century solution to transportation in Minnesota,” he said. “It’s like asking us to spend money on buggy whips.”
I disagree. Modern passenger trains are no more obsolete than any other type of public transportation. NLX trains will be as technologically advanced as any passenger airplane without the hassle of TSA airport screenings or lengthy travel times to and from airports that are distant from downtowns.
Also, across the U.S. and around the world, the public and private sectors are investing billions in building and/or expanding passenger-train networks. Passenger trains are bringing their communities, especially transit-underserved communities, numerous benefits. These include the development of businesses in and around stations, which attracts and retains young professionals, many of whom prefer public transit to private automobiles. This all reduces regional economic disparities.
Passenger trains are reducing toxic greenhouse-gas emissions to create healthier air that reduces costly disease and deaths in humans. They are also bringing safe, reliable, and comfortable mobility choices to public-transportation deserts, especially for those who choose not to drive or are unable to drive.
Moreover, it is, at best, an insincere argument to insist that NLX trains make a profit — while other types of transportation, without objections, get lavish transportation subsidies. The Rail Passengers Association’s white paper, “Long Distance Trains: a Foundation for National Mobility,” said, “Goals like ‘operational self-sufficiency,’ ‘profit,’ or (minimal) federal operating support are neither reasonable nor sound public policy objectives. This is supported by the fact that federal and state funds subsidize air and road travel. The effect of these goals is to block improvements needed to modernize the nation’s intercity passenger train system and rejuvenate our increasingly expensive and dysfunctional transportation system. The driving purpose should be to harvest the public benefits that trains produce for the communities they serve and for the nation as a whole. Studies have found that even one train a day produces benefits that exceed costs.”
According to Amtrak , “Trains consume less energy and produce less harmful pollutants than either car or air travel. Hopping on an Amtrak train will save you gas and daily wear and tear on your car. It also reduces the ever-increasing traffic congestion on the roads and in the skies.”
Amtrak also said in pointing out its benefits that, “Expanding passenger rail service will generate $30 billion in direct investments in our communities and reduce carbon emissions by nearly 50% when compared to automobile travel. In addition to the economic benefit and positive impact on our environment, investing in Amtrak benefits everyday Americans and their families.”
For those who think the Upper Midwest has no place for fast trains, railway historians have written that the Japanese Shinkansen, informally known in English as “the bullet train,” is the first true high-speed passenger train, with electric trains moving at 125 mph.
However, the Chicago and North Western railway’s Twin Cities 400, which ran from Chicago to St. Paul, with a final stop in Minneapolis, had streamlined diesel trains that could reach 112 mph about 10 years before the Japanese Shinkansen. Thus, the Twin Cities 400 was high-speed rail — version 0.9.
Moreover, while the Amtrak train Pere Marquette, which runs a 176-mile route between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Chicago, is currently at 79 mph, planned track and grade-crossing improvements will increase its speed to 110 mph. Anyone who wants to experience what our Northern Lights Express train will be like should ride the Pere Marquette today.
In contrast to criticisms from Sen. Osmek and others, Amtrak’s passenger trains are not obsolete. Rather, they are a vital part of meeting the needs of present and future generations.
By building NLX as soon as possible, we would be connecting communities, growing jobs, reducing road and air congestion, and modernizing rail infrastructure for both passengers and freight, all while addressing the serious environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.
This column was first published in the June 04, 2022 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.
James Patrick Buchanan of Duluth is a lifelong passenger-train supporter and advocate.