Virgil Swing: High-speed rail makes sense, but not to DuluthNorthern Minnesota is not good country for elephants, but it will be home to one of the biggest and whitest if the public and private boosters of the Northern Lights Express persist in pushing the idea that high-speed rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities makes sense.
By: Virgil Swing, Budgeteer News
Northern Minnesota is not good country for elephants, but it will be home to one of the biggest and whitest if the public and private boosters of the Northern Lights Express persist in pushing the idea that high-speed rail service between Duluth and the Twin Cities makes sense.
The latest evidence of this came not from penny-pinching conservatives — a group I try to be part of when I can — but from a state transportation agency and an expert consultant hired to see whether the Express boosters’ projected ridership numbers are realistic.
The conclusion: They’re not.
Northern Lights backers have their own consultant, who said 274,000 people will use the high-speed rail system by 2030, dramatically higher than the 100,000 predicted in the state-financed study.
I choose to accept the numbers from the state’s consultant because they make more sense. High-speed rail service has succeeded in places in Europe and Asia, but always in areas with high population numbers. The Twin Cities might have enough people to be one end of such a system. Duluth doesn’t.
But the biggest reason to not buy into the optimistic prediction of the high-speed train believers is all the money that would be poured into the idea before it proved to be a failure. Too much money has already been spent on studies. A vastly higher amount would be needed before the first train left the station.
Duluth’s Great Lakes Aquarium was a big mistake, with unrealistic attendance projections persuading public officials to go ahead. But at least the aquarium draws some summer tourists and — with changes made by its current director and the much-smaller staff now running it — this attraction has cut its losses to a manageable amount.
A high-speed train hauling a modest number of passengers would be a much bigger waste of taxpayer dollars.
Northern Lights officials first disputed the state-financed study, saying it compared apples to oranges. But state Department of Transportation officials, not known for tossing out casual numbers, insisted the study was an apples-to-apples comparison.
And their numbers make this plan look like sour apples.
With U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota chairing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Washington in a spend-baby-spend mode, it’s possible millions can be found in Congress to create a train that will have the same chance as a white elephant to make the trip between Duluth and the Twin Cities in a little over two hours.
But that won’t make it a good project.
Some National Railway Historical Society members were in the area recently, and it took their train one hour to go from Superior to Duluth. The Northern Lights Express would be traveling on new rail lines and over a new rail bridge between Duluth and Superior if it comes to pass, but that’s the point.
Those improvements would be just a small slice of what would be needed, especially in the northern reaches of the planned route before anything traveling on it could possibly be called high speed.
At a public hearing on the project at the Depot in Duluth earlier this year, some strong backers of rail travel warned that a high-speed train would need its own dedicated rail line if it has any chance to make the trip in the roughly two hours it would take to compete with car travel. Such dedicated rail lines would, of course, boost costs even higher than now expected.
The state Department of Transportation study was only a draft report, with the final version due in a few weeks. If that final report turns the passenger predictions around to square with those of the project’s true believers, skeptics should look for signs of political pressure applied to DOT officials.
The heavily subsidized Amtrak trains that carried passengers (though not enough of them) between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities in the 1970s and 1980s ended when all but the most rabid true believers admitted the idea didn’t work.
That wasn’t a high-speed rail system, but that fact shouldn’t keep us from learning a lesson from its flawed projections.
Budgeteer columnist Virgil Swing has been writing opinion about Duluth for many years. E-mail Swing at email@example.com.