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Column: Deserved death may be near for Northern Lights Express

A lack of state and federal dollars is likely to put another spike into the heart of the ill-conceived Northern Lights Express high-speed train but, like Dracula, this monster seems hard to kill.

Virgil Swing
Virgil Swing

A lack of state and federal dollars is likely to put another spike into the heart of the ill-conceived Northern Lights Express high-speed train but, like Dracula, this monster seems hard to kill.

The proposed train between the Twin Cities and Duluth has never made sense, but then neither did passenger rail service between those areas in the 1970s and 1980s. Only the legislative clout of Duluth Rep. Willard Munger kept that alive for about 10 years.

The NLX would likely cost $1 billion or more to build, and the feds are being counted on to provide most of that money. Passenger fares will never pay for the annual operating costs.

It's noteworthy that boosters have said they "hope" the feds will come through with construction costs and "hope" fares will cover operating costs. Since NLX backers generally see only cloudless skies for this boondoggle, when they "hope" for something that means it's uncertain.

For now, they're saying the Federal Railroad Administration may give the go-ahead as soon as next month for an $8-million preliminary engineering phase for the project.

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Here are several reasons why Duluth and other Northland officials should join Anoka County in dropping out of this flawed plan:

  • Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, not exactly a tightwad with taxpayers' dollars, said earlier this year he expects neither state nor federal money to be available this year.
  • The Federal Rail Administration says 85 percent of its rail dollars will go to six corridors, which do not include the NLX or even a proposed Chicago-to-Minneapolis line, which would be a logical connection for NLX -- if the latter made sense.
  • The only high-speed rail in America now is Amtrak's Acela train along the highly populated Boston-to-Washington, D.C. corridor. The Acela is high-speed in name only, since it averages no more than 82 miles an hour in the various links in the corridor. Its trains can go much faster but don't, because they share their route with conventional rail traffic.

Amtrak has asked for dedicated rail lines for Acela, meaning the tracks wouldn't be shared with other trains. Their hope: to do this for $151 billion and be done by 2040. Amtrak has never operated at a profit.
The Acela train makes absolute sense for regular travelers from Boston to New York or New York to Washington, D.C. So would a line linking the Los Angeles area to San Francisco by way of San Jose. That train has been on the drawing board for many years, but construction has yet to start and the optimistic completion date is 2028.

  • Northern Lights boosters plan to run their high-speed trains on lines shared with other rail traffic -- and say they'll do so in a few years. When 500 passengers recently traveled via a steam-powered train from the Twin Cities to Duluth, the trip took nearly 4-1/2 hours. The reason: freight trains along the route. Any NLX train would be a lot faster than a steam engine, but would face the same conventional rail competition.

As I've said several times in urging local officials to stop wasting money on the NLX, I like rail travel. I used an early version of Japan's high-speed rail lines in the 1960s. When I lived in the New York City area later in the 1960s, I often used the slow-speed rail that huge numbers of people use daily. A few years ago, I took Amtrak's definitely slow-speed Empire Builder train from St. Paul to Seattle and back and enjoyed it greatly.
But the NLX plan is at least a few decades too early. It would compete with the efficient I-35 freeway, which takes about the same amount of time for the trip as NLX boosters too optimistically say their train will -- this despite the limited speeds possible on shared tracks and several planned stops along the way.

I expect Northern Lights Express boosters will get bad news from the feds later this year. Perhaps that will be the final spike (yes, I know, a wooden stake was recommended for killing Dracula) in the heart of this monster.

Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at vswing2@chartermi.net .

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