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Amtrak official: 'We're going to deliver'

Amtrak Vice President Joe McHugh speaks during Monday’s news conference at the Duluth Depot. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Elisa Troiani (from left), Julie Calligure, Claer Dethmers, and other audience members applaud a speaker during Monday’s news conference on the proposed Northern Lights Express at the Duluth Depot. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

The three women arrived and sat together among more than 50 visitors to the Duluth Depot on Monday.

The friends, Claer Dethmers, Julie Calligure and Elisa Troiani, came to hear about progress on the Northern Lights Express — a proposed rail service that would connect the Twin Ports with the Twin Cities.

The three friends all remembered a similar service years ago.

"I arrived in town the year they stopped the train," Troiani said, referring to the last commuter train out of Duluth in 1985.

Calligure graduated from the College of St. Scholastica and took the train to her first teaching job in Minneapolis.

"The first time I rode it was 1960," she said. "I brought my big trunk."

Dethmers recalled meetings years ago about restarting the service.

"It always seemed like wishful thinking," she said.

But it doesn't seem that way any longer.

Standing with a roster of local elected officials, Amtrak sounded enthusiastic about a partnership and the prospect of bringing the Northern Lights Express to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"We're going to work with this team," Amtrak's Joe McHugh told the crowd, "and we're going to deliver this service."

No operator deals were signed or financial commitments firmed up, but McHugh, Amtrak's vice president of state-supported services, said he would be back. He also said the federal government has changed its thinking over the years, finally funding commuter rail service in the manner of roads and airports. He said Amtrak would help local organizers navigate the grant-funding process.

The $550-million project has cleared planning hurdles and is ready to seek funding.

"Every time we have put this project in the news it has gained more and more support," said Superior Mayor Jim Paine.

The project is proposed to use BNSF track, which would take it from Duluth through Superior and back into Minnesota on its way to Minneapolis. St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle said 17 percent of the overall project would be in Wisconsin and 83 percent in Minnesota.

Boyle pointed to commuter rail as being potentially valuable for service veterans who use the Twin Ports VA Clinic and require specialty care elsewhere.

"This would be a win for our veterans," Boyle said. "The time is now. The moons have aligned."

Amtrak favors trains that run between 150-300 miles within a four-hour ride time, McHugh said. The Northern Lights Express, proposed to run 2 ½ hours at speeds up to 90 mph, was "in the sweet spot," he said.

Asked if it felt any closer to fruition, Dethmers wasn't sure yet, but said, "I've got my fingers crossed."