Practicability of the Northern Light Express Train service

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The reality around the construction of a passenger train service between Duluth and the Twin Cities appears to be chugging along.

In May 2023, the state legislature appropriated $194.7 million in new funding toward the project called the Northern Lights Express. These funds provide the 20% local match needed to pursue federal grants to complete design work, construct the project and purchase locomotives and passenger cars for the service. Federal matching grants are expected to pay for roughly 80% of the project.

With plenty of Democratic supporters and Republican critics, the main question Dulutians are asking is the practicability of this project.

For example, tickets will sell for $30 to $35 meaning it will cost a family of four about $240 round trip via the train and just around $50 in gas by car. Also, is the current Duluth public transportation ready for the projected 700,000 yearly passengers.

To answer these questions, we spoke to Ken Buehler, he is the executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and general manager of the North Shore Scenic Railroad. Here is what he had to say.

“This is just a transportation alternative; it is it for everyone. You can also fly from Duluth to the Twin Cities and pay a lot more than you would for a tank of gas. This is for people that don’t want to drive. Generation Z for instance, don’t own cars in mass quantities, don’t have license in mass quantities, and are dependent on public transportation. It is also for older people that don’t want to drive. Let’s say you are an older person living in northern Minnesota and you want to go see a game in the cities, but you don’t want to deal with the traffic, the parking or the hassle. Well, the train is going to take you right to Target Field. So, this is an alternative that fits many different lifestyles”

On the question of if Duluth is ready for the projected passenger traffic, he said plans are in place.

“So when that train comes in, there will be busses, hopefully there will be more Ride share and cab companies that will revitalize. Keep in mind, we’re only a block and a half away from the transit center, which of course gets you on the Jefferson lines and the line going to Michigan. So, there’s an intercity bus as well as intracity bus.”

He further added that Car share will most likely be a top option. “Ones passengers get off the train at the Depot there’ll be a line of cars available, you sign up on an app, pick the car you want, drive it as long as you want. You can leave it wherever you want, and someone will take care of it up for you.”

In its first year of service rider fares will average about $12 million per year and it’s expected to increase over time, this is projected to cover about 63% of the operating costs.

The project is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and 500 other jobs each year for the first five years. It should also generate $400 million in tourism revenue that will support about 250 jobs per year and wages of $250 million over 40 years.

We also spoke to Annie Harala, district one commissioner, St. Louis County. She said this project is a welcome development.

“I’m so grateful for the Minnesota state legislature that funded this. As a County, we’ll continue partnering with them to have this vision come to light. This project is an important piece of our transportation network that is soon to come. I sincerely can’t wait to take a ride with my neighbors.”

The train will be making four round trips each day with stops in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior, Wisconsin. It will operate at speeds up to 90 miles per hour meaning a one-way trip to the Twin Cities will take about two and a half hours.