The Northern Lights Express is still a total waste of money

With the state government’s budget forecast to run a surplus of $17.6 billion dollars to June 2025, there will, no doubt, be all sorts of proposals put forward for how to spend that money. Some will be good, many will be bad. One of the worst will be the proposed passenger train service running between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Last weekend, the Pioneer Press reported:

Supporters of a proposed passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities are optimistic the project could soon receive the state funding needed to move forward after years of planning.

For years, the Northern Lights Express rail project has failed to gain traction in the Minnesota Legislature, largely due to GOP opposition. But after Democrats won a majority in the Senate in this year’s election and secured control of Minnesota government, the state is closer than ever to chipping in funds needed to unlock federal backing for the $450 million project.

The trouble is, as I’ve written before, that there isn’t a single good reason for the Northern Lights Express to be built.

Regarding ease:

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).

And regarding affordability:

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.

The facts remain as I stated them then:

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.