Borealis’ ridership numbers don’t make the case for the Northern Lights Express

Photo: Amtrak Midwest

On May 21, Amtrak launched its new Borealis service, a second daily train running between St. Paul and Chicago. Amtrak has released its monthly performance report for May, so it only covers 11 days of operation, but the data has been greeted with some excitement, nevertheless.

The report showed that 6,600 passengers used the Borealis over those 11 days in May, so it had 600 riders daily. Operating Revenue was $600,000 over that period and Operating Expenses were $500,000 so Adjusted Operating Earnings — profit, if you like — was $100,000. The Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers reports daily ridership numbers for June of 618, with 330 going west and 288 going east.

It has been suggested that this data make the case for further trains running the route.

This only makes sense, however, if the extra service will generate extra travelers rather than simply shifting them from existing services. What has happened to ridership on the Empire Builder (St. Paul to Chicago) or the Hiawatha Service (Milwaukee to Chicago) on the stretches now served by the Borealis? More data is needed.

Others have suggested that this data make the case for building the Northern Lights Express, the proposed passenger train service between Minneapolis and Duluth.

This is simply absurd. There is a massive difference in the viability of a passenger train service running between the 3rd and 15th largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States by Gross Domestic Product — Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul — and one running between the 15th and 184th largest — Minneapolis/St. Paul and Duluth.

The Amtrak numbers show this. Out of 30 Amtrak-state supported routes nationwide, the Borealis was one of only two which turned an operating profit. The other 28 — 93% of them — consume various amounts of taxpayer’s cash. It should be noted that, against the Operating Expenses of $500,000, the Borealis made just $300,000 in Gross Ticket Revenue. Fortunately, for the service if not the taxpayer, a federal grant is to provide 90% of the first year operating costs. 

There are already very many bad arguments in favor of the Northern Lights Express. We do not need another.