Will Twin Cities to Duluth train succeed where it once failed?
In some ways, the new Northern Lights Express train between the Twin Cities and Duluth will be a sort of back-to-the-future moment for Minnesota. A “North Star” train between the two destinations ended in 1985 after a 10-year run plagued by low ridership and a lack of operating funds.
“The stars aligned in Minnesota when the House and the Senate and the governor’s office all agreed it was time to stop planning and start building the Northern Lights Express project,” says Ken Buehler of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and a member of the Northern Lights Express Alliance. Buehler is referring to the $195 million approved by the Minnesota Legislature in May to fund 20% of a new train line with the federal government kicking in the other 80%, or $779 million of the projected $974 million cost.
The House author of the legislation, Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, says she’s optimistic about the project despite recent problems with other rail projects like North Star Commuter Rail and the Southwest Light Rail line “because it’s an intercity passenger rail connecting one major destination to another major destination.”
Koegel says partnering with the federal government makes it possible for the rail line to be built.
“What we’re doing is we’re leveraging federal money,” she says. “The money we’re putting in, we’re getting nearly a billion in return.”
However, the state will be on the hook for annual operating costs that will require public subsidies. Minnesota Department of Transportation documents indicate the annual operating cost will be about $19 million per year, with ticket revenue only covering about 63%, or $12 million.
The ticket cost is estimated between $30 and $35 per passenger each way.
Steve Glischinski is a Minnesota railroad historian and author of several railroad books. He supports the idea of the Northern Lights Express even though it will require subsidies.
“In the U.S. we tend to look at things and say, ‘If it doesn’t make money, it’s not worth doing,'” he says. “My argument is in this instance it is worth doing. Really the highways don’t make money, but we all use them.”
Ridership projections used to support the Northern Lights Express suggest 700,000 to 750,000 people will use the train in its first year of operation. That would be more than the total number of riders who used the North Star train in 10 years combined from 1975 to 1985.
Supporters of the train point to one big difference between then and now — the popular Grand Casino in Hinckley along the new train route.
“The Hinckley casino plays a huge role in the ridership projections that we put together in the very beginning of this project,” Buehler says.
Glischinski says the casino could have a big impact on ridership.
“To get the idea the train will only be people traveling from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Duluth is not necessarily so,” he says. “People will be going to the casino in Hinckley … from both ends. From Duluth down to Hinckley, from the Twin Cities to Hinckley.”
Skeptics of the Northern Lights Express call the projections into question.
“If this whole thing depends on ferrying people to the casino I think that gives you some idea of how crazy it is,” says John Phelan of the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative think tank.
Having spent much of his life in England where rail lines are everywhere, Phelan isn’t opposed to rail projects. He’s just opposed to rail lines in places where the population can’t support the investment. “I think they’re hopelessly optimistic. It’s worth remembering that we had this train before, and we got rid of it because nobody used it.”
The North Star train from 1975 to 1985 was plagued by low ridership, ranging from a low of about 32,000 riders in 1975 to a high of 102,000 in 1981, both far below the current projection of 750,000.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson says her city is ready to welcome a much bigger influx of visitors. She points to the city’s growth as a tourist and business destination as reasons for optimism. “We’re a different Duluth,” she told 5 Eyewitness News. “There’s a different energy. A different vision.”
But Phelan of the Center for the American Experiment is a persistent pessimist about the Northern Lights Express, “referring to it has a “shiny illusion” in a recent op-ed piece in the Star Tribune newspaper.
“It makes more sense to subsidize something that people use than to subsidize something that people won’t, like this,” Phelan says. “This train is just going to be a very expensive way of ferrying oxygen from one part of the state to the other.”
The Northern Lights Express is still in the early stages of development and is likely five years away from the first train running between the Twin Cities and Duluth.