Trains require good money being thrown after bad

One of my favorite replies to my last article about the Northern Lights Express was “Have you ever been to Europe?” Well, yes, actually, I lived there for the first 36 years of my life. So I was intrigued by this response:

Imagine if the UK government came out and said “Because you can’t go directly from Edinburgh Castle to Buckingham Palace on the East Coast mainline we are going to cease running trains at all because what’s the point”

You can, in fact, go pretty much directly from Buckingham Palace to Edinburgh Castle by train. You walk 10 minutes to Green Park tube station, then travel on the tube for six minutes to King’s Cross St. Pancras, where you board a train to Edinburgh Waverly. Once you arrive there, its a 10 minute walk up Market Street to the Castle. From Buckingham Palace door to Edinburgh Castle door you’ve travelled about 400 miles in a little over five hours and you’ve walked for just 20 minutes. I’ve made a very similar journey from London to Edinburgh many times.

You can do the same between almost any two urban centers in the United Kingdom. If Charles III wanted to go to Anfield to watch Liverpool, he could do the couple hundred miles in about three and a half hours walking, again, for just 20 minutes. If he wanted to go and watch Leeds United play at Elland Road, he could, again, do the couple of hundred miles in about three hours walking, again, for about 20 minutes. (I could go on, but you get the picture)

One reason for this is that, in most of Britain’s urban centers, all the stuff you would want to see is clustered in the city center. They are dense, in other words. This also means that, in London say, it is very hard to live more than about 10 minutes walk from a train or Underground station.

Neither of these condition holds in the Twin Cities or Duluth. We can bemoan “low-density, car oriented planning which gives most train stations in North America awful walksheds,” but what are we going to do about it? Demolish and completely rebuild Minneapolis and St. Paul so that they are more dense, like London? This, in practice, means much smaller accommodation at much higher prices. The Twin Cities aren’t European cities and can’t be turned into such.

Or, as some suggest, we can spend yet more money on transport in the cities so that we can make it as hard here as it is in London to live more than about 10 minutes walk from a bus stop or light rail station. And this is one of the poison pills of a scheme like the Northern Lights Express. You have to factor in not just what they say it will cost now, but all the other stuff you will have to pay for to make it work once you’ve spent that.

For an example, look at Union Depot in St. Paul. The Star Tribune reports:

A decade ago, Ramsey County leaders pooled $243 million to buy and restore the historic Union Depot, with a vision for a bustling, modern-day transit hub in downtown St. Paul.

Today, the building with vaulted ceilings and 10,000 square feet of Tennessee pink marble underfoot is a visual showstopper — one that often feels sparsely populated and quiet as a library. Just one Amtrak train to and from Chicago stops there each day, and a smattering of Green Line light rail riders load and unload outside.

So a waste of $243 million dollars. But wait!

But after years of work, transit connections are in the pipeline.

A second roundtrip daily Amtrak train to Chicago is expected to begin service in 2023, providing morning and midday departures from St. Paul and Chicago along the Empire Builder route.

It’s too early to tell whether Union Depot or Minneapolis’ Target Field Station will serve as the endpoint for the Northern Lights Express — proposed passenger service between the Twin Cities and Duluth. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will seek funding during the upcoming legislative session to study the connection between Target Field Station and Union Depot, said Dan Krom, assistant office director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office.

So that $243 million won’t have been wasted if we just shovel some more hundreds of millions of dollars at a train that nobody will use. Schemes like this rely entirely on the willingness of politicians to throw good money after bad. That willingness is, sadly, considerable.