The Case for Building Northern Lights Express, Part One

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series by Duluth resident and train aficionado James Patrick Buchanan, who has written previously about the Northern Lights Express.

“Everything necessary to build a world-class transportation connection between Duluth/Superior and Minneapolis is now in place. We have the federal funding, a trifecta of support in the St. Paul House, Senate and governor’s office, a mammoth budget surplus, and support from communities and counties up and down the corridor. People have been telling us all along that they want this service. Now they are telling us to ‘Build it Now!’”

— Ken Buehler
Chair, NLX Technical Advisory Committee

Building the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) line from Target Field Station in Minneapolis to Union Depot in Duluth will economically invigorate individuals and families living along the Interstate 35 corridor, allowing for cheaper commuting, more affordable housing and a revitalization of rural areas along the extensive route. The NLX is not a one-and-done construction project.

The planned line will operate four round trips per day, seven days per week, according to Ken Buehler, chair of the NLX Technical Advisory Committee. NLX will provide workers with opportunities to commute to work in the Twin Cities from all the communities along the I-35 corridor. Of course, some workers will live in towns like Hinckley and commute to nearby towns such as Cambridge. These shorter journeys will cost a commuter or recreational traveler far less money than a Duluth to Minneapolis ticket.

Consider these other benefits:

  • Workers will be able to live in affordable housing in communities that have much less expensive and undeveloped land for new housing along the NLX corridor.
  • Changing work patterns already have many people telecommuting from home, going to the office only once or twice each week. A train line to the cities would let workers in, say, Pine City to make those trips without the hassle of driving, fueling and -parking a car– or, in some cases, even owning one.
  • NLX trains will give passengers fast, comfortable rides with opportunities to work and purchase a snack or meal, while making new friends while riding to and from their office. The food could be provided by local restaurants, such as baked goods made by Tobies Restaurant and Bakery.
  • Unlike airline economy class, NLX seats will have plenty of legroom and no cramped middle seats.
  • NLX trains will not be slowed or stopped by increasingly frequent and severe storms.

In short, by making travel easier, NLX will create more economic, cultural and social opportunities in our rural areas. The line’s benefits will return the investment required to build it many times over.

Additionally, the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports both have good public transit networks. These transit lines will attract environmentally aware citizens, many in their 20s and 30s, who are more conscious of their carbon footprints than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have been. These young citizens can then start small businesses and buy homes near NLX line stations, as is already happening next to existing and planned U.S. rail lines.

For example, the Lackawanna Cut-Off Restoration Project being built by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak is already attracting home buyers to areas around their future stations. Our current I-35 corridor bus and van services could also be redesigned to connect more distant riders, such as those in Moose Lake and North Branch, to the train line.

Nowhere can I think so happily as in a train.

A.A. Milne, author

Bicycle enthusiasts will love bringing their bicycles onboard NLX. The comparable Amtrak train Pere Marquette that travels the 176 miles between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Chicago charges only a $10 fee for bicycles, and so will NLX. No need to box up your bike, as cyclists now have to do on a Greyhound bus. The predominant intercity bus line west of the Appalachians treats bicycles as oversized luggage, and requires riders to box them up at a carrying cost of $30 plus tax — plus another $10 if they buy the box from Greyhound. Cyclists need to call ahead to confirm that boxes are available and leave time to pack their bike upon arrival. Not so on NLX, where trail riders and commuter cyclists alike could bring their rides along with little hassle.

All across the United States, commuter rail lines allow families to live in far-off towns and small cities with lower costs of living than the major urban areas where they work. For example, it is much less expensive for an individual or family to live in a home on Long Island and have the breadwinners commute via the Long Island Railroad to New York and adjacent communities than to be residents in high-cost New York City. That is why the federal and state governments are investing billions of dollars to extend existing rail lines, while also building entirely new rail lines.

One of many examples is the Michigan state government that has constructed three Amtrak lines: the Pere Marquette, the Blue Water and the Wolverine. These trains bring much needed travel options to travelers. Imagine how Midwestern travelers will benefit when NLX is built and operating.

As Tom Clancy wrote in the forward to the 1991 book Supertrains: Solutions to America’s Transportation Gridlock by Joseph Vranich: “What if someone were to invent a magical new mode of transportation that was safe, energy efficient, and environmentally benign? Someone has. It’s called the train.”

Proposed route map of the NLX train
Proposed route of the NLX train system

Funding the NLX

The NLX project is eligible for an 80% federal matching grant, contingent upon securing state funding. If Minnesota taxpayers give $99 million to the NLX project, we get back $396 million in federal construction money. Also, if Minnesota legislators put into law that all the new rails be made of Minnesota iron ore, Minnesota workers can return most of the $99 million in state tax dollars to the taxpayers via mining, processing and transportation payrolls.

Significantly, this federal money is set aside for passenger railroads and cannot be spent on building new lanes or new rest stops on any roads.

The budget surplus gives the state government the money we need to contribute the $99 million to build NLX. As a reader wrote in June 2022, in response to one of my previous NLX stories, the project “is so close to becoming a reality.” With all three branches of Minnesota state government united in Democratic control, the chances to start construction this year for NLX are very good.

Both the Minnesota House and Senate have introduced early bills to provide $99 million in state funds to unlock the $396 million in a federal match. The reception for NLX is incredible at the Capitol, according to Minneapolis City Councilmember Andrew Johnson. Johnson chairs the NLX Alliance, a joint powers board of governmental entities along the 152-miles of existing track in the NLX corridor.

“In all of my years in elected office, I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm among legislators for a bill,” Johnson said after a recent day spent visiting policymakers at the Capitol with other NLX Alliance members.

He added that NLX needs a boost from the public, who can provide it by asking their legislators to build the rail system now. The Northern Lights Express website has resources to help people speak up with an email, letter or phone call.

Another factor is Duluth’s growing popularity. Touted in 1960s marketing materials as “the air-conditioned city on the shores of beautiful Lake Superior,” Duluth these days is often listed as a “Climate Haven” city for those seeking relief from climate change.

Meteorologists have described Duluth as one of the coldest cities in the contiguous 48 states, second only to International Falls. As a resident, I already see summer migration from the Twin Cities, which is getting hotter summers. I’m also seeing news reports of people migrating to Minnesota while escaping the fires in California, the droughts in Texas and the hurricanes in Florida.

A Wee Transportation History Lesson

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the United States lost most city-to-city passenger trains. Gasoline was cheap, road building mania gripped the minds of our political leaders and only a few scientists were even aware of climate change. Although automobiles were touted as bringers of freedom — the ability to go any place, at any time — in fact, the loss of railroads cut travel options, while making the traveling public too dependent on greenhouse gas–creating and expensive automobiles and airplanes.

In suburban and rural areas, bus lines rolling on narrow and winding highways offered slower and less comfortable rides than the trains that they replaced. Elegant train stations with heated waiting rooms were replaced by park-and-ride lots, where the only shelter either is your vehicle, unheated bus shelters that are open to the elements, and lobbies of stores and restaurants, often without seats and tables and where non-customers awaiting a ride are tolerated at best.

I experienced this downgraded travel experience recently while riding in a Groome Transportation van heading back to Duluth from the Twin Cities. The van drove over a gaping pothole and the strong impact resulted in a chipped tooth, even though the driver tried to slow down. That painful and expensive dental trauma would not have happened had I been riding a Northern Lights Express train— and it could have happened in a car as easily as on the bus.

NLX and adjacent railroad lines should in a few years be powered by overhead electrical lines. Compared with diesel locomotives, electric locomotives accelerate and decelerate faster, have higher maximum speeds, are quieter, and boast superior fuel efficiency leading to lower fuel costs and low-to-zero green gas emissions per journey. Our railroads should electrify lines where the overhead wires were taken down years ago, while putting up wires on lines where none existed before.

NLX, again, is not a one-and-done construction project. The traveling public should rejoice that we could spend the next 30 years building back the United States passenger train network to be bigger and more useful than the network we had in the early 1950s. Rail trips also allow travelers more peaceful and pleasant travel. As one author remarked: “The best trips start by traveling in trains.”

Editor’s note: Part two of James Patrick Buchanan’s argument for the Northern Lights Express will appear on Thursday, February 2.

About James Buchanan

After earning my University of Minnesota communication major and journalism minor, I am currently looking for a full-time position to use my skills in writing, photography, and page design. I am also seeking an environment that offers inspiring and new opportunities that challenge and strengthen my skill set, as well as opportunities to help my future company advance efficiently and productively. I was the top student in my Communications and Creativity class. I’m the professional artist to turn to for your creativity needs.