Media finally asks ‘How practical is the Northern Lights Express?’ Answer is ‘Not remotely’

As I noted last month, the state government voted to waste $200 million on a train running between Minneapolis and Duluth. The media is now — belatedly — asking “How practical is the Northern Light Express?

WDIO notes, as we previously have, that the Northern Lights Express will actually be more expensive than driving: “For example, tickets will sell for $30 to $35 meaning it will cost a family of four about $240 round trip via the train and just around $50 in gas by car.”

It also notes that the project will require millions of dollars of further taxpayer support:

In its first year of service rider fares will average about $12 million per year and it’s expected to increase over time, this is projected to cover about 63% of the operating costs. 

But what about the overall practicality of the scheme?

To answer these questions, we spoke to Ken Buehler, he is the executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and general manager of the North Shore Scenic Railroad. 

Mr Buehler said:

“This is just a transportation alternative; it is it for everyone. You can also fly from Duluth to the Twin Cities and pay a lot more than you would for a tank of gas. This is for people that don’t want to drive. Generation Z for instance, don’t own cars in mass quantities, don’t have license in mass quantities, and are dependent on public transportation. 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”

The are many things wrong with this.

The Northern Lights Express will be expensive

First, the Northern Lights Express isn’t “for everyone,” it is for everyone who can afford a more expensive alternative to driving or getting the bus. Mr Buehler says it is “for people that don’t want to drive,” and while I understand that desire, it isn’t clear why taxpayers should subsidize that choice to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually. Besides, those people already have the much cheaper option of the bus.

The Northern Lights Express will be totally impractical

What of that “older person living in northern Minnesota” who wants “to go see a game in the cities, but [doesn’t] want to deal with the traffic, the parking or the hassle”? Sorry mate, but you’re flat out of luck.

First, where in northern Minnesota are you living? Let’s say it’s Hibbing. How do you get to the train station? Well, you drive and you have to park anyway.

Second, you have to hope that one of the four trains a day leaves Minneapolis for Duluth after the Twins game finishes.

Lets say the game finishes at 9pm and the train leaves Target Field at 9:30pm to give you time to get on board. That is one of four trains a day, remember. When do other three leave? Lets say that one leaves at 6:30am to get you into Duluth for work at 9am (the journey is set to take “about two and a half hours,” according to WDIO, which is about ten minutes slower than driving). Let us also assume that the four departures are evenly spread through the day, so we have them at 6:30 am, 11:30am, 16:30pm, and 21:30pm. That means that for an appointment in Duluth — right by the train station — at, say, 13:30pm, you would need to leave Target Field on the 6:30am train and hang around for four and a half hours. Your total journey time would, in fact, be six and a half hours, not the two hours and twenty minutes if you drove.

And third, what if you’re a Wild fan? You get to Target Field and then what? It’s the bus or the light rail to St Paul, and who would want to chance that? And, again, we have to hope that one of the four trains a day is leaving Target Field for Duluth more than an hour after the horn goes at the Xcel to give you the time to get back across the cities.

Oh, and you still have that drive back to Hibbing at the other end. Here Mr Buelher hopes that:

…when that train comes in, there will be busses, hopefully there will be more Ride share and cab companies that will revitalize. 

There won’t be if the DFL has anything to do with it. And if there are, how much will an Uber ride from Duluth to Hibbing cost at midnight?

It gets even sillier:

He further added that Car share will most likely be a top option. “Ones passengers get off the train at the Depot there’ll be a line of cars available, you sign up on an app, pick the car you want, drive it as long as you want. You can leave it wherever you want, and someone will take care of it up for you.”

So you jump into one of the cars waiting in Duluth, drive it to Hibbing, and someone comes out to Hibbing and picks it up at some point.

Mr Buehler is peddling a total fantasy. This alternative will fit almost nobody’s lifestyle. This is why the question of whether “the current Duluth public transportation [is] ready for the projected 700,000 yearly passengers” is moot. There won’t be 700,000 yearly passengers. That annual subsidy will be bigger than it is already forecast to be.

WDIO also “spoke to Annie Harala, district one commissioner, St. Louis County. She said this project is a welcome development.”

So the only two people the media spoke to to get an answer to the question “How practical is the Northern Light Express?” are two people who support this ridiculous scheme. There, in a nutshell, is the problem with Minnesota’s media.