Editorial counterpoint: Northern Lights rail is a shiny illusion

In “Get on board with the train to Duluth” (June 11) the Star Tribune’s Editorial Board announced its support for the Northern Lights Express (NLX), the proposed passenger train service between Minneapolis and Duluth that was given $200 million in taxpayer funding in last session’s Transportation Bill. Sadly, the board’s case amounts to nothing more rigorous than “If you build it, they will come.” Except, they probably won’t.

The NLX will run four trains daily, each way, between Target Field and the Depot in Duluth. It will cost $35 per person, each way, and take 2.5 hours. As the board acknowledges, this will be both slower and more expensive than driving.

These would seem to be important points, but the board doesn’t engage them, contenting itself with pointing out that there are sometimes roadwork projects on Interstate 35 that might, occasionally, make the NLX faster than driving. Of course, railways require maintenance too and, if the experience of countries like Britain is any guide, often at inconvenient times of the year. The board seems unaware of this.

The board doesn’t engage with the issue of affordability at all, simply asserting that the NLX will put “day trips within reach of those who may or may not have access to a car,” but only if they can afford $70 per person for a round trip.

And, for most Minnesotans, it just isn’t true that the NLX will enable you to dispense with a car. There is a point besides speed and cost and it is a point which is fatal to the NLX: convenience.

Ken Buehler, a Northern Lights Express Alliance member quoted by the board, has argued recently: “This is for people that don’t want to drive. Generation Z for instance … . It is also for older people that don’t want to drive. Let’s say you are an older person living in northern Minnesota and you want to go see a game in the cities, but you don’t want to deal with the traffic, the parking or the hassle. Well, the train is going to take you right to Target Field. So, this is an alternative that fits many different lifestyles.”

But consider our elderly Twins fan residing in “northern Minnesota.” Let’s say it’s Hibbing. Our fan still has to drive 80 minutes to reach the train and he still has to park his car. And why are these imagined passengers always Twins fans and not Wild fans? Because that would add the hair-raising 50 minute ride to St. Paul — each way — on the Green Line.

So, instead of driving from Hibbing to the Xcel in 200 minutes, the NLX will give our senior the option of driving 80 minutes to catch the train, riding that for 150 minutes, then braving the light rail late at night for 50 minutes for a total journey time of 280 minutes — an hour and 20 minutes longer.

And this journey was more expensive, don’t forget.

True, if you live within walking distance of the Duluth Depot and want to travel to a destination within walking distance of Target Field then, yes, you probably can dispense with your car. But how many journeys is that?

NLX’s boosters are peddling a risible fantasy. The NLX fits almost no lifestyle.

That is why hardly anyone will use it. That is why hardly anyone used it in the past and the plug was pulled in 1985. Indeed, the NLX is already forecast to require subsidies to cover one third of its operating costs. The board cautions that “every effort should be made to ensure proper planning, transparency about any overruns or delays, and more up-to-date ridership projections so that the state has as few surprises as possible,” because all that worked so well on the Southwest light rail, didn’t it?

And this is why the NLX will not “infuse new life into the Duluth economy” as the board dreams. An empty train trundling into town four times a day isn’t an infusion of much of anything.

The hope that the most fiscally incontinent administration in state history would see sense on the NLX was, perhaps, always a vain one. Given the administration’s desire to throw as much taxpayer money at as many things as possible, it is more important than ever that Minnesotans retain their ability to distinguish shinola from other things. In this case, the Editorial Board failed.

This column originally appeared in the Star Tribune on June 29, 2023.