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Northern Lights Express passenger train back on track?

In a little more than four years from now, state-of-the-art passenger trains could be traveling between the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities four times a day, bringing riders to Target Field Station in 2½ hours for a fare of between $30 and $32.

That was the vision presented on Wednesday as advocates for passenger rail presented a scaled-down version of the sidetracked and long-dreamed-of Northern Lights Express rail connection.

"I'm pleased to say that I've moved from cautiously to enthusiastically optimistic," said St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar, the chairman of the NLX Passenger Rail Alliance, during a news conference at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the Depot.

The primary reason: a reduced price tag, from an estimated $1 billion in 2009 to between $500 million to $600 million today, according to Frank Loetterie, project manager in the passenger rail office for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which is now the project's lead agency.

In an interview, Loetterie said the savings can be achieved by two alterations to the original plan: reducing the top speed from 110 mph to 90 mph and cutting the number of daily round trips from eight to four.

"When we're operating at 110 mph we need our own track; we can't share it with a freight train," Loetterie said. "The original plan included the construction of a parallel track over 50 miles between Isanti and Hinckley."

The 90 mph top speed would produce an average, with stops factored in, of 60 mph and roughly match driving time, he said.

Also, fewer routes means passing tracks won't have to be constructed for areas where passenger trains would meet or where passenger trains would meet freight trains, Loetterie said. The existing sidings will be adequate.

The NLX would travel on BNSF tracks, and the next step will be talks with the rail company, Loetterie said.

"Northstar (Commuter line) operates on BNSF Railway, and they operate on time," he said. "BNSF Railway operates passenger trains in Chicago, and in the Pacific Northwest, and those trains operate on time. So I have no discomfort working with BNSF."

That will be followed by the creation of a financial plan, Loetterie said. He anticipates at least 80 percent of the project will be federally funded.

"And we view this as a state project," Loetterie said. "We don't plan on coming to the local governments with our hand out."

The projected timeline announced on Wednesday has passenger service starting in early 2020 "if funding is available in a timely manner." The fare of around $30-$32 would cover 75 percent of the operating cost, Loetterie said. But his analysis projects up to a million riders in 20 years, which "would bring the operating subsidy down to very minimal."

Restoring passenger rail service to the Northland has been a hope ever since Amtrak pulled out in 1985, Raukar said. Plans began to solidify with formation of the NLX Passenger Rail Alliance in 2007.

Wednesday's news conference started about 20 minutes late because, ironically, of transportation issues. Most of those presenting the plan had attended a rail alliance meeting in the Twin Cities earlier in the day, and their travel to Duluth was slowed by Wednesday's sloppy weather conditions.

"Having just driven over 200 miles in rather inclement weather I can only say: What a great day to have a train," Raukar commented.

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