There is no good argument for the Northern Lights Express

In 1985, Amtrak ended all passenger rail service to Duluth. It did so because hardly anyone was using the service anymore. Now, nearly 40 years on, there are proposals to spend $500 million to $600 million in taxpayer money bringing this relic back to life.

There isn’t a single good reason for doing so. A recent op-ed in the Duluth News Tribune asked: “What would Northern Lights Express mean for Minnesotans?” Among its answers was:

If you are a military veteran in the Northland and you need to travel to the Minneapolis VA facility for treatment, the Northern Lights Express would provide quick, affordable access. No long trips down Interstate 35. No worries about rain, snow, or finding a ride.

This might be great if you’re a veteran who lives next door to the station in Duluth, but if you don’t, you have to you’re going to get there. Then you have to factor in the journey from the proposed terminus at Target Field to the VA facility near the airport, a 22-minute ride on the Blue Line. So, if you’re a veteran based in, say, Hibbing, you have an 80-minute drive to the station in Duluth, a 150-minute train ride, and a 22-minute light rail ride, Assuming no time waiting between changes, that comes to 252 minutes. You can drive it in 195 minutes, saving nearly an hour.

So it won’t be ‘quick’ after all. Will it be affordable? Perhaps if you are a veteran, “a student returning home to the Twin Cities, have disabilities, [or] are a senior who has given up long-distance driving,” in which case your travel might be subsidized by the taxpayer.

But for the rest of us, it will not provide “a budget-friendly way to travel.” As I’ve written previously:

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 writers go on:

If you live “up north” and want to attend a Twins, Vikings, Loons, or other sporting event — or a concert or the theater — you’d be able to just hop on the train and arrive in about two hours. The same for business people who regularly travel between the Duluth area and the Twin Cities. 

But the proposal is only for four services a day. Is one of these departures from Minneapolis really going to be so late that you can catch it after a sports event or concert? If it is, and if there is also going to be a service so early that commuters can ride it to work, then each trip is going to be hours apart. This effectively adds hours to each journey:

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).

OK, so the train will be slower, more expensive, and less convenient, but:

Instead of that long highway trip, you could relax, socialize, read, and prepare for your meetings.

Not if you are kicking your heels for hours on end between trains. And, even assuming for a second that any of this is accurate, is that really worth half a billion dollars?

It is difficult not to sound too scornful of this proposal. There is not one single argument in favor of the Northern Lights Express that survives even the barest scrutiny.