Amtrak Launches New Effort to Revive Failed Passenger Line to Duluth

Amtrak’s operating loss for 2018 came in at $168 million–and they’re proud of it. Never mind that the passenger line would be even more in the red if the cost of depreciation and other expenses were included.

Yet it’s the lowest operating loss ever since the inception of the taxpayer-subsidized rail line in 1972, cause for celebration in their world.

All told, it was “the best performance in Amtrak’s history,” Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson said in an interview.

With the bar set low, it should be no surprise that Amtrak officials want to revive another money-losing passenger rail line that used to connect the Twin Cities and Duluth-Superior. The North Star passenger rail line chugged along for seven years before being shut down as a failed experiment in 1985.

But recently a mysterious Amtrak representative showed up to breathe new life into the project at City Hall in both Duluth and Superior, according to the News Tribune.

An Amtrak official from the company’s Chicago Union Station office met with the mayors of Duluth and Superior to talk about the $550-million Northern Lights Express Higher Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Project — a years-old vision that remains unfunded while at the same time having cleared significant hurdles in recent years.

“I didn’t receive a pitch,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said about the meeting. “They brought their government relations to town to learn more about our interest and met with many different stakeholders. They’ll be back in March.”

In fact, MnDOT passenger rail proponents have been throwing millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to keep the so-called NLX line on life support for the past few years.

Frank Loetterle of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has oversight of the project, described the visit as a positive sign. Amtrak and MnDOT have been in discussions for three or four years, he said, and have an understanding that Amtrak would operate the Northern Lights Express.

“Amtrak is trying to make clear to supporters of the project that they look upon it favorably and are excited about the possibility of providing the service,” said Loetterle, project manager working out of MnDOT’s freight and rail office in St. Paul.

But there’s a catch. Amtrak would only operate the line, leaving Minnesota taxpayers on the hook to pay for it with millions of dollars in subsidies for passenger fares and operating losses.  And MnDOT planners appear all too willing to let us be taken for a ride.

Amtrak’s state-supported routes rely on agreements which can be beneficial to the company, Loetterle said.

“Any shortfall in revenue is made up for by the state,” Loetterle said. “Whatever fares don’t cover, the state pays for.”

That liability alone should mean lights out for the Northern Lights Express. But NLX continues to chug along, despite the fact that ridership on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s only line in Minnesota, has declined 23 percent since 2012.