Push for Return of Failed Duluth Passenger Train Reaches State Capitol

Old rail lines never die. They keep chugging along, powered by just enough taxpayer funding for the required environmental and operational studies to maintain bureaucratic momentum over the years.

Then out of nowhere comes a PR offensive this week to herald the return of the failed Amtrak passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports with a series of public events at both ends of the line, including the State Capitol.

A top Amtrak official will hold an open-house today at the Duluth Depot with a pitch to turn back the clock to the 1980s defunct Northstar line. Now rebranded the Northern Lights Express (NLX), Amtrak would operate the line. But reports have indicated Minnesota taxpayers would be on the hook for annual operating subsidies likely to run in the millions of dollars.

No wonder Amtrak wants to get on board, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Amtrak’s Joe McHugh, vice president of state-supported services, is leading the contingent. He will meet with the mayors and other leaders from Duluth and Superior on Monday, before spending all day Tuesday at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul with elected officials from up and down the line along the proposed $550-million Northland Lights Express.

In a letter to the Northern Lights Passenger Rail Alliance earlier this year, McHugh praised the years of work done on the project, and called it “one of the most shovel-ready projects in the nation.”

“This is a big deal,” said Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and head of the alliance’s technical advisory committee.

Gov. Walz put $15 million in his budget request for NLX. Walz also supports a second Amtrak daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago, despite the fact the number of riders on that route has declined by nearly 25 percent in the last five years. (In 2012 177,600 Amtrak riders boarded or disembarked in Minnesota compared to 136,400 in 2017 on the Empire Builder, the only Amtrak service here.)

“We can prove that it makes sense,” Walz said of NLX. “If we can get people moving on this, if we can get the legislators involved in this, we can get this done.”

Of course, Amtrak has never run in the black since the start of the national rail service.

Under its state agreements, roughly 40 percent of Amtrak’s cost of service is covered by fares boxes, he explained, with the remaining 60 percent covered by the state and Amtrak. Amtrak generally ends up funding 15-18 percent of its state-sponsored operations, Magliari said, leaving the state to cover 42-45 percent. Because Superior is one of the proposed stops, the state of Wisconsin also figures into the funding mix.

Yet nothing seems to slow down the momentum of the MnDOT planners determined to take Minnesota back to the future of transportation. Not even the possibility that Minnesota taxpayers will subsidize up to half the cost of a ticket for a service that can’t come close to paying its own way.