The Case for Building Northern Lights Express, Part Two

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part piece arguing for the environmental and community-building importance of the Northern Lights Express train between Minneapolis and Duluth. Read part one here.

“Trains are generally less problematic on a per-person perspective, because they can have more people in them per energy expended. A train will spend virtually the same amount of energy to move 1,000 people as it will use to move 100 people, so if you can put 1,000 people in that train it’s suddenly one-tenth of the pollution.”
– Yonah Freemark, senior research associate with the Urban Institute

Branching Out by Train

Once the NLX train line is built and begins operating, it could become a trunk for several branch lines bound for other regional destinations. If the Midwest becomes a hub for people escaping the worst effects of climate change in the country’s coastal and southern regions, branch lines would be vital to meet increased service demands. And by beginning branch line construction immediately after NLX is completed, planners, engineers and builders would be able to apply the theoretical and practical know-how accrued through the NLX construction to build the branch lines on time and within budget.

For reference, consider the Princeton branch line — a short branch of the Northeast Corridor Line, running from Princeton Junction northwest to Princeton with no intermediate stops. Also known as the Dinky, or the Princeton Junction and Back (PJ&B), the branch is served by special shuttle trains. Now running 2.7 miles (4.3 km) along a single track that once was a double, it is the shortest scheduled commuter rail line in the United States.

The Princeton Dinky takes approximately five minutes to travel end-to-end in each direction. The Princeton branch has overhead electrification. That means the train runs on cleaner energy and is more energy efficient than the Siemens Charger diesel-electric passenger locomotives used by Amtrak (it is not transporting the 1,800 U.S. gallons of diesel fuel those trains require). It also accelerates faster than diesel locomotives.

The following are possible branch lines that could be created sometime in the next 30 years:

  • Years ago, passengers could ride a train that connected Duluth to Staples and transfer to the Empire Builder to travel to western cities, such as Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. From 1959 to 1966, the Northern Pacific offered two round-trips per day between Duluth and Staples on trains 55 & 56 and trains 57 & 58; both trains used Budd RDC-3’s (rail diesel cars). Locals sometimes referred to them as the “Staples Streetcar.” Trains 55 & 56 were discontinued on June 7, 1966, while trains 57 & 58 lasted until May 24, 1969.
  • The May 1, 1969 edition of the Northern Pacific’s public timetable shows trains 57 & 58 making scheduled stops at Duluth, Superior (Wisconsin), Carleton, Deerwood, Brainerd and finally Staples. Intermediary flag stops (small railway stations between the principal stations or stations where the train stops only on a signal from passengers at the station or on the train) existed at 17 other points along the line. In the near future, once the Empire Builder is joined by a rebuilt North Coast Hiawatha route and another route connecting Fargo, North Dakota to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, there should be sufficient passenger demand for the reestablishment of the Staples Streetcar.
  • A northern branch could connect many northern Minnesota communities up to International Falls, Minnesota, with an international link to Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada. A branch northeast could connect Two Harbors, and then continue heading northeast to the increasingly popular Grand Marais and ending at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
  • Another branch could serve the tourist town of Ely, Minnesota.

About 20 years ago, I saw plans for a proposed commuter rail service on a new track connecting Duluth to Ashland, Wisconsin. Let’s lengthen that line south to Prentice, then east to Bradley, and then south again to Wausau, then east again to Green Bay, south to Milwaukee and finally end at Chicago. That route is similar to a proposed Northern Michigan Passenger Railway Project planned to travel from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, with a northern branch to Petoskey. Maybe, with the Michigan Department of Transportation studying the Ann Arbor to Traverse City line, my proposed NLX branch lines are not so far-fetched after all.

Transit Oriented Development

Traffic counts vary widely on the I-35 corridor. According to Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) employee James Miles: “Existing volumes range from as high as 80,000 AADT [annual average daily traffic] just north of the I-35 split in the metro to as low as 14,000 AADT just north of Banning Junction.” After NLX trains start running, however, businesses and housing will be built around NLX stations. We see this happening elsewhere.

For example, over the Long Island Railroad branch from Huntington to Penn Station is the Park Lane North Cooperative Apartments with 206 units and the 118-18 Union Turnpike Apartments with 213 units. These otherwise unremarkable apartment buildings are built upon a wide bridge on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. These apartments are located (according to Google Maps) 1,848 feet from the Kew Gardens, Long Island Railroad Station. About 400 feet south from Key Station are two lines of one-story shops and restaurants built upon a Lefferts Boulevard bridge over the tracks.

While I was watching a front window video on a train from Huntington to New York Penn Station, I was very surprised to see those massive structures built on bridges above railroad tracks on Long Island. At first, I thought that these structures were constructed above a rock tunnel, instead of on two concrete bridges. The wide bridges appear at the 57-minute mark on the video.

LIRR HD 60fps: Riding Budd M3 9885 (RFW) From Huntington to New York Penn Station (9/9/19)

Building structures near transit stations is called “Transit Oriented Development.” It creates high-density housing and businesses within an easy walk or bike ride to transit stations, helping our towns to reach their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

Let’s encourage our elected representatives to pass laws that urge Minnesota and Wisconsin real estate developers to develop similar apartments and businesses in, around and over NLX stations and railroad tracks. I hope to see many such developments.

A Need for Speed

Years ago, the Box Tops had a hit song, “The Letter,” with the lyrics: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane. / Ain’t got time to take a fast train.” Speed has become everything in our culture.

But the question for a traveler is not only how quickly you get to your destination — but also how comfortable, convenient and environmentally friendly your journey is. Speed alone should not be a determining factor, or we’d all be driving Formula One race cars.

The fastest train in America, Acela, Amtrak’s flagship high-speed service along the Northeast Corridor, runs at 150 mph for about 34 miles. It has an average speed of 82 mph between Washington and New York, while traveling about 66 mph between New York and Boston. America’s newest passenger train service, Florida’s Brightline, currently operates at 79 mph. These passenger trains attract thousands of passengers each day, reducing automobile and airline trips from increasingly congested highways and skies. Similar to these other commuter rail lines, Northern Lights Express will provide fast service, with speeds up to 90 mph and an estimated travel time between Twin Ports and the Twin Cities of 2.5 hours. In short, you don’t need to have the world’s fastest trains to make train travel attractive to the traveling public.

According to MnDOT, “About 700,000 to 750,000 people are projected to ride the train the first year. In 20 years, it is estimated that ridership will be about 1 million per year. These numbers consider how likely someone is to take the train instead of driving. Factors include age, gender, car ownership, cost of gas and reason for travel.” To put that in perspective, MnDOT notes that “Drivers make about 3.6 billion trips between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports each year. If just 1 in 5,000 of these trips switched to the train, NLX will meet its ridership projections.”

Don’t forget that federal and state governmental ridership projections are based on conservative numbers. Once a line starts moving riders, such as the METRO Blue Line, actual ridership numbers are often far greater than their projections.

Additionally, NLX will be saving human lives by preventing traffic accidents while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions along the Interstate 35 corridor will help the Midwest come into compliance with the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. Also remember that NLX’s top speed will be gradually increased well above 90 mph after this important service has started, making traveling by train faster than driving.

For evidence that Americans do ride recently created passenger trains, consider Seattle’s Sounder commuter rail operation. This two-line commuter rail service is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit. Passengers started riding on September 18, 2000 on the S line and December 26, 2003 on the N line. In 2019 both lines moved 4.6 million riders, despite the fact that the top speed of these trains is 79 miles per hour, slower than the 90 miles per hour of our future NLX.

Now Is the Time

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who recently announced her candidacy for a third term in office, is a longtime supporter of the NLX, calling it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve connectivity between the Twin Cities area, Duluth and northeastern Minnesota.” She says, “Now is the time.” And she is right.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation projections, the rush hour traffic will become highly congested on Interstate 35 between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports by 2035. (Please examine their map to see that rush hour traffic will become, in their words, “stop-and-go conditions” by 2035.)

When NLX ridership numbers reach about 1 million per year, NLX will decrease traffic counts and traffic congestion on I-35 and nearby north-south roads such as Minnesota State Highway 65. For the movement of both passengers and freight along the I-35 corridor, we must establish NLX transit as soon as humanly possible.

Figure 3-9. Peak-Period Congestion on the National Highway System: 2035

NLX will be one of the most economically built mass transit projects in the United States, giving taxpayers a great return on their investment. It is the only viable option for increasing affordable housing supply, reducing road traffic, increasing economic growth while improving air quality in the I-35 corridor.

As a bonus, the more commuters use transit, the fewer parking spaces we need in our cities and towns. The land now used for parking can then be repurposed for the needs of people, not large automobiles.

Therefore, I ask you to contact your elected representatives and tell them to support building NLX now.

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.