MN: Plans for speedy passenger train to Duluth have slow start

March 4, 2024
The decades-in-the-making passenger train line connecting the Twin Cities to Duluth lost out on a massive federal infusion requested in 2023, intended to add to the state's contribution of nearly $200 million.

DULUTH — The decades-in-the-making passenger train line connecting the Twin Cities to Duluth lost out on a massive federal infusion requested in 2023, intended to add to the state's contribution of nearly $200 million.

But the Northern Lights Express (NLX) did receive two federal grants to pay for crucial study updates. That money puts it in line for another crack at billions the Biden administration has devoted to intercity passenger rail.

The 152-mile line is an "immense challenge," said Keith Nelson, chair of the Northern Lights Express Alliance and a St. Louis County commissioner.

But with a state match and years of work already poured into it, "we are postured and positioned exactly where we want to be at this time," he said. "We have a tremendous advantage."

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) project, praised for its ability to create jobs and reduce the number of vehicles on the road, is considered "shovel ready," supporters say, with an already completed and approved environmental review by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Grants will allow updates to 2017 studies focused on information such as traffic control models, capital improvements and an environmental review to reflect current conditions.

In the last days of the legislative session in May, passenger rail service between the metro area and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin cleared a major hurdle when the Legislature dedicated $195 million, or 20%, to the project. The Railroad Administration is asked to shoulder the other 80%, and the project hinges on that.

It also needs the cooperation of railroad owner BNSF Railway and likely operator Amtrak. MnDOT and BNSF also need to study whether there is room for freight and passenger service on BNSF tracks, and they need to have an agreement before they are eligible for federal funding. That agreement hasn't been reached yet, Nelson said, but talks are in progress.

Design work, track and signal upgrades, new train stations and other improvements are expected to cost $592 million. Locomotives, passenger cars and other equipment are a separate purchase, said Bob Manzoline, of the St. Louis and Lake Counties Rail Authority.

MnDOT will likely coordinate with other Midwestern states for better rates and a shared fleet, said Manzoline, who has worked on the project for years.

Trains — which will travel at up to 90 mph — would depart four times daily from Target Field Station in Minneapolis and stop in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and Superior, Wis., before their final stop at the downtown Duluth Depot. A one-way ticket is expected to cost between $30 and $35, with a trip time of 2½ hours, similar to how long the drive takes.

NLX boosters say they expect college students, veterans needing easier access to the VA hospital in Minneapolis, tourists, sports fans, casino-goers, those avoiding a poor-weather drive and families on vacation to use the train.

Plans for Duluth include a new station next to the historic depot with a track extension so the station can be used by both the North Shore Scenic Railroad, a seasonal tourist train that travels between Duluth and Two Harbors, and the NLX.

MnDOT will continue to work with BNSF, the NLX Alliance and communities along the route as it works toward a new application, Greg Mathis, MnDOT planning director for passenger rail, said in a news release.

The agency could try again for federal funding in the fall.

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