Still 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 to bring this relic back to life. Why?

The latest attempt to make the case can be found in a Star Tribune op-ed titled ‘Higher-speed rail is on track.’ It is a hopeless mess.

The numbers add up. Out of Minnesota’s $9 billion budget surplus, the state would put $85 million on the table. If the U.S. Department of Transportation approves the project, the federal government would lay out up to $340 million. Substantial safety improvements would happen on 152 miles of existing tracks and road crossings between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Now that’s a return on investment.

No, it isn’t. All the authors have done is list the vast sums of money this scheme would consume. Even if you consider this an ‘investment,’ this is not the ‘return’ on it.

Ever since pre-Civil War days, Minnesota’s business community — from Virginia to Duluth to the Twin Cities, Winona, Mankato, St. Cloud, Austin-Albert Lea, and everywhere in between — has grown and prospered on the broad shoulders of our state’s railroads.

This is simply incorrect. When the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment set off for war in June 1861, they did so by boat from Fort Snelling because the railroad only ran as far as La Crosse. Railroads did subsequently become important to Minnesota’s economy, but at one time, so was whale oil, and, we progressed beyond using that, too.

China and Europe have been building and using high-speed rail for a generation. Here in America, you can board a higher-speed train in Washington, D.C., and be in New York in a little over two hours. What a boon for business development.

China is a dictatorship that can spend vast sums on stupid projects without worrying about whether anyone besides the dictators wants them or not. Europe is a densely packed continent, like the northeastern United States, where such schemes may make sense. Minnesota is neither.

With NLX, the Twin Cities to Duluth trip becomes easy and affordable in just under 2 12 hours. 

The Northern Lights Expres will make travel from the Twin Cities to Duluth neither easy nor affordable. As I’ve noted before, 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.