Rail to Twin Cities intrigues Amtrak
Amtrak’s flirtation with the proposed Northern Lights Express is intensifying.
For the second time in roughly a month, Amtrak officials will be in Duluth this week to discuss operating the long-proposed rail service between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities.
“They’ve said previously that they’d like us to be the operators and that’s great, because we’d like to operate it,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the News Tribune in the lead-up to planned meetings Monday and Tuesday.
Amtrak’s Joe McHugh, vice president of state-supported services, is leading the contingent. He will meet with the mayors and other leaders from Duluth and Superior on Monday, before spending all day Tuesday at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul with elected officials from up and down the line along the proposed $550-million Northland Lights Express.
In a letter to the Northern Lights Passenger Rail Alliance earlier this year, McHugh praised the years of work done on the project, and called it “one of the most shovel-ready projects in the nation.”
“This is a big deal,” said Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and head of the alliance’s technical advisory committee.
The NLX Passenger Rail Alliance is made up of representatives of proposed stops along the route. It has been plugging away on the rail project for several years.
The Amtrak visit Monday will culminate with a 4 p.m. social event at the Duluth Depot at 506 W. Michigan St. Open to the public, the event will include a question-and-answer session with the local press, followed by a social mixer featuring snacks and locally brewed beers.
Gov. Tim Walz was not scheduled to meet with the Amtrak contingent, but he spoke about the NLX during a stop in Duluth last week. The project has appeared with multi-million-dollar placeholders in the new governor’s budget and bonding proposals, totaling $15 million.
“The state needs to be there and I consider Northern Lights part of our transportation package,” Walz said.
The Northern Lights Express would utilize 152 miles of existing BNSF track to transport passengers between Duluth and Minneapolis with a handful of other stops along the way, including Superior.
The train is projected to reach speeds of 90 mph, and cover the trip in 2 ½ hours — a time roughly equivalent with an automobile.
“Our primary competition is driving,” Magliari said. “In the end, we have to come up with a service that is driving-time competitive and cost competitive. That’s what wins ridership.”
Additionally, Magliari said frequency of trips is a major factor. For many riders, more important than travel time, he said, is a train being offered at the right times, so that people don’t have to bend their schedules to fit with a train.
But no topic at this point is more important than financing. In 2018, the half-billion-dollar project was found to have zero significant environmental impacts, clearing the way for financing and then construction.
Millions of dollars raised locally can be used to unlock majority funding available federally on an 80/20 scale. The math on $550 million would put local entities on the hook for $110 million. Total financing would likely come together incrementally, across years, sources have said previously.
Buehler said he suspected Amtrak would come to the table this week with some gesture toward start-up financing.
“The plan is for them to put in some money, too,” Buehler said.
“We’ll be talking about that,” Magliari said.
The NLX will require 117 railroad crossing upgrades along with construction or updates to depots, passenger platforms and other infrastructure, including the addition of four to five sidings along the route that will allow freight trains to pull off and be passed by the passenger train.
A funded railway would ultimately yield to negotiating operation and user agreements between the state, BNSF, Amtrak and others.
“(State-sponsored) operations like this are half our business — and it’s a growing part of our business that we want to continue to grow,” Magliari said.
Under its state agreements, roughly 40 percent of Amtrak’s cost of service is covered by fares boxes, he explained, with the remaining 60 percent covered by the state and Amtrak. Amtrak generally ends up funding 15-18 percent of its state-sponsored operations, Magliari said, leaving the state to cover 42-45 percent. Because Superior is one of the proposed stops, the state of Wisconsin also figures into the funding mix.
Magliari dismissed as premature an earlier feasibility study that estimated one-way NLX fares between $28-$36.
“We’re not there yet,” he said, saying some states are considered low-fare states and others high-fare states, and that it takes negotiations to get there.
“When you talk about trying to get more mobility, sometimes it means lower fares made up by the states and us,” Magliari said. “We’re in discussions, but far from (deciding) that.”
Walz told the News Tribune he felt he needed to put financial markers down to show his support and inspire state lawmakers to do the same. Local state Reps. Jennifer Schultz, Liz Olson and Mary Murphy have already co-authored a bill requesting $4 million for the NLX project in January. No money has been requested yet in the state Senate.
“We can prove that it makes sense,” Walz said of NLX. “If we can get people moving on this, if we can get the legislators involved in this, we can get this done.”
If you go: Public reception for Amtrak
What: Public reception for Amtrak officials
When: 4 p.m., Monday
Where: Duluth Depot, at 506 W. Michigan St., in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum
How much: Free and open to the public — with locally brewed beers and snacks available following a 4:15 p.m. question-and-answer session with Amtrak representatives and local officials