Updated: May 24, 11:45 a.m. | Posted May 23, 4 a.m.
It’s been almost 40 years since a passenger train last ran between Duluth and the Twin Cities. Ken Buehler remembers the exact day when Amtrak's old North Star line stopped operating.
“1985. Easter Sunday. The last train left Duluth for then Midway Depot in St. Paul. And that was the end of the service,” said Buehler. He directs the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and also chairs the technical advisory committee of the Northern Lights Express project, which has been trying to restore train service between the two areas for the past 22 years.
Now, after state lawmakers approved $195 million in funding for the Northern Lights line as part of the omnibus transportation bill that passed the Legislature over the weekend that is expected to be signed by Gov. Tim Walz, a passenger rail between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities is on the cusp of being revived.
“This is going to open up so many connection opportunities for people going back and forth between northeastern Minnesota and Duluth and all route to the Twin Cities and back,” said Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth.
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The appropriation from the state Legislature makes up 20 percent of the Northern Lights project’s total cost of about $974 million, which has swelled from earlier estimates. That includes about $380 million for equipment, including locomotives and passenger cars.
Critical service or costly boondoggle?
Despite the fact that the federal government is poised to pick up the lion’s share of the project’s costs, Republican critics have sharply criticized the rail line’s merits and questioned how many passengers would actually ride it.
“It’s an absolute waste of money,” said Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “And at some point somebody needs to stand up and say, you know what, didn't we learn our lesson from these other rail projects? And the answer to that apparently from Democrats is no."
The planned Northern Lights Express line would run for 152 miles on existing track owned by BNSF Railway. It includes stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Superior, Wisconsin and Hinckley, where about 3.5 million people visit the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's casino every year.
The train is expected to make four round trips a day, each taking about two and a half hours. That's roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive. A one-way ticket is expected to cost between $30 and $35.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates about 750,000 people would ride the train during the first year of service.
“This is a market that is tied to the Twin Cities, that's tied to us,” said Buehler. “If we can take just two percent of the existing traffic off of I-35, just two percent makes our numbers.”
Northern Lights backers are betting that students will travel on the train to colleges in the Twin Ports, commuters will travel to Minneapolis from stations along the line and some tourists will also make the switch to the train.
Supporters also believe the train would offer a critical service transporting veterans to the VA hospital in Minneapolis for health care.
“They will be able to hop on the Northern Lights Express, get on in Duluth, to come down to receive the services at the VA that they need to receive. So this will provide that other option for them, that choice, and hopefully make that trip a little bit easier," said McEwen.
But others question the ridership projections.
“I didn't have one person when I was door knocking from Two Harbors, Hermantown, Proctor and all the townships that surround Duluth, ever ask me about the train to Duluth, except one county commissioner in St. Louis County. That's it,” said Rep. Natalie Zeleznikar, R-Fredenberg. “At the end of the day, I don't think it's the priority right now.”
But it is a priority of the federal government. The infrastructure bill passed in 2021 includes $66 billion for passenger and freight rail. Amtrak wants to build up to 30 new rail corridors connecting cities that are about 100-150 miles apart.
And of those projects, only Northern Lights is shovel-ready, said Buehler. It’s already cleared needed environmental review.
Still, it could be a while before passenger trains are running between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports. Assuming the feds fund the remaining 80 percent of the cost, “the real holdup will be equipment,” said Buehler.
With the recent influx of federal money into rail projects, there’s a backlog for train cars.
“So if we get the money, we can start spending it, we can start to work on the track, we can order the equipment, we can get in line for it,” said Buehler. “But that line is about two to three years out.”
Correction (May 24, 2023): An earlier version of this story included a MnDOT estimate of 3.6 billion "trips" annually between Duluth and the Twin Cities. MnDOT now says it cannot verify the accuracy of that estimate. It's been removed from the story.