Twin Cities to Duluth passenger train would be a massive waste of money

On Monday, my colleague Tom Steward reported on how proposals for a passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth have risen from the dead as part of President Biden’s so-called infrastructure bill. The idea has been welcomed by some:

Quite the contrary: a look at the facts shows that it is building the thing which would be ridiculous.

How long?

First, note that the travel time between the Twin Cities and Duluth will be 150 minutes. Googlemaps tells me that, right now, I could drive from Union Depot in Saint Paul to the St. Louis County Depot in Duluth in 133 minutes. So, this train will be about a quarter of an hour slower than driving.

From where?

And that is from station to station. What about travel to and from the station? If I live a few blocks from Union Depot this might not be so bad, though it would suck if I had bags. But if I live in, say, Bloomington, I have to get to Union Depot before I can make use of this train.

If I live by, say, the Mall of America, it takes me 43 minutes to travel to Union Depot on the 54 bus. Added to the train time, that takes the total journey time to 193 minutes. Googlemaps tells me I can do the same drive in 145 minutes. So, in this case, going by train rather than car adds 48 minutes to the journey.

Of course, I could drive from the Mall of America to Union Depot (16 minutes) but then I have to park my car somewhere near there.


Another advantage of going by car is that you can choose when you leave and, to a large extent, when you arrive. With a train, you have to work to a timetable.

Lets say that the departures of the four proposed trains a day are evenly spread between the hours of 6:30am (to get commuters into work before 9am – I’m generously assuming that they all work right by the train station) and 5pm (to let them get the last train home). That is 10.5 hours so we have trains departing every 210 minutes. That is:

6:30am (arriving at 9am)

10:00am (arriving at 12:30pm)

1:30pm (arriving at 4:00pm)

5:00pm (arriving at 7:30pm)

So, imagine you live in Duluth and have an appointment in the Twin Cities at midday. You would have to leave Duluth Station – after traveling there from your house – at 6:30am then kick your heels in the Twin Cities for two hours. Alternatively, you could drive, setting off at 9:30am, arriving a little before your appointment and cutting your traveling time by a whole three hours (not including the journey to the station).

How much?

The train will cost $35 one way. In my experience, you can get to Duluth from the Twin Cities on one tank of gas and it currently costs about $35 to fill that tank. So the train isn’t any cheaper than driving.

And that is only for one person. If I wanted to travel with my wife and two kids, I can drive them for $35. By train, it will be $70 for two adults. Even assuming kids travel free, the train is twice as expensive.

Not only that, but if you don’t have a car you can get a bus from Minneapolis to Duluth for $9. True, it takes an hour longer than the train, but its is less than one third of the price.

A complete waste of money

There is no problem which a passenger train between Duluth and the Twin Cities doesn’t solve more slowly, less conveniently, and more expensively than some other already existing solution. In short, going by train allows people to go from where they aren’t to where they don’t want to go, when they don’t want to go, more slowly, and more expensively than if they just drove. Spending billions on such a total and utter waste really would be ridiculous.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.