Northern Lights Express train would not be a better option

This op ed appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on April 19th, 2021

Hopes are high among some that the $2 trillion President Joe Biden intends to spend with his so-called “infrastructure bill” will include a cool $500 million to $600 million in public money for the Northern Lights Express, a passenger train service between Target Field in Minneapolis and the Depot in downtown Duluth.

It might be old fashioned, but before committing to spending such a mountain of money, we should ask a few questions.

Will the train be quicker than driving?

No. The train will take 150 minutes. At present, you can drive from the Depot in Duluth to Target Field in 140 minutes. And that assumes you want to go from the Depot to Target Field. If you want to go from, say, Hermantown to the Mall of America, you have to add travel time on either end of the train journey. There’s an 18-minute drive from Hermantown to the Depot, and then you have to park your car, and a 46-minute light rail ride, for a total journey time of 214 minutes. The drive is 143 minutes.

And that doesn’t factor in waiting time. When you drive, you can choose when you leave and, to a large extent, when you arrive. With a train, you have to work to a timetable. Let’s say departures of the four proposed trains a day are evenly spread between the hours of 6:30 a.m. (to get commuters into work before 9 a.m.; I’m generously assuming they all work right by Target Field) and 5 p.m. (to let them get the last train home). That is 10½ hours, so we have trains departing every 210 minutes. That is at 6:30 a.m. (arriving at 9 a.m.), 10 a.m. (arriving at 12:30 p.m.), 1:30 p.m. (arriving at 4 p.m.), and 5 p.m. (arriving at 7:30 p.m.).

Now, imagine you live in Duluth and have an appointment in Minneapolis at midday. You would have to leave the Duluth station, after traveling there from your house, at 6:30 a.m., then kick your heels in Minneapolis for two hours. Alternatively, you could drive, setting off at 9:30 a.m., arriving a little before your appointment and cutting your traveling time by a whole three hours (not including the journey to the station).

Will the train be cheaper?

Again, no. One-way fares are expected to cost around $35. You can fill your tank for about that and drive, and you can fit your whole family in the car. Even if kids travel free on the train, it would cost my family of four twice as much as driving. And that doesn’t include the cost of parking by the station.

And, if you don’t have a car, you can get a bus for $9 one way. Sure, it takes about an hour longer than the train, but it costs less than a third as much.

It is impossible, in fact, to think of anything remotely useful that the Northern Lights Express would do that isn’t already done better by some existing transportation option. All it would do is give you the option of going from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to go, more slowly, and more expensively than driving.

And that option will cost half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money.

John Phelan of St. Paul is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment (, a conservative public-policy think tank based in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He wrote this for the News Tribune.