Northern Lights Express Passenger Rail: Stimulus or Boondoggle?

There have been a number of posts on PDD in the past regarding the Northern Lights Express passenger rail project, which would create a 155-mile train corridor connecting Duluth to Minneapolis. With Congressman Jim Oberstar’s loss to Chip Cravaack in Tuesday’s election, and Cravaack’s stated lack of support for the project, the subject of the NLX seems worth revisiting.

However, I’d like to provide some special guidelines for commenting on this post, because we’ve seen in the past that there are some pretty passionate supporters and opponents of this project, and its pros and cons tend to get lost in personal attacks and partisan silliness.

So, let’s try a little experiment. What I’d like to see is three different types of comments.

1) Simple links to news and information related to this subject, without any commentary whatsoever.

2) Comments labeled “Pro” at the beginning, which list one good thing about the project.

3) Comments labeled “Con” at the beginning, which list one negative thing about the project.

Keep it brief, resist the urge to respond to other people’s comments, resist the urge to make multiple pro or con comments, resist the urge to bash Cravaack or Oberstar, resist the urge to comment about these guidelines.

Ready. Set. Go.

60 Comments

Lojasmo

about 10 years ago

Pro: Minors will be able to travel, affordably, between Duluth and Minneapolis, unaccompanied.  It is how I got back and forth from home to my step-dad's house with my sister as kids.

Nick

about 10 years ago

Pro: The large investment now will seem minor when gas inevitably exceeds $3, then $5, then more per gallon.

Claire

about 10 years ago

Pro: There are a lot of people who live in Duluth who do business in the Twin Cities, and vice versa. They (and I include myself in that number) would appreciate being able to take the train (and wi fi access would make me even happier) instead of driving back and forth. As telecommuting becomes more and more prevalent in our society, the need for such a service is going to become even more essential.

Danny

about 10 years ago

Con: It's much more difficult to travel to the Twin Cities on a schedule other than your own.

Chad

about 10 years ago

Con: The current transportation options (bus and shuttle) already sufficiently serve all the purposes the train would.

Shane

about 10 years ago

Con: The public transportation options suck at both ends of the route.

Tony

about 10 years ago

Con: First, one major concern across the United States for the trains is: can they pay for themselves or not? The population density for Duluth did not work with Amtrak. Hard to see it working now as it is not "high speed." Second portion is this "investment" is best served where density of population works for ridership without taxpayer support. Next is choices, Duluth faces 250 miles of water/sewer line replacement now. Government should be involved in that type of project not trains. At an estimated $1 million a mile we are talking a quarter of a billion for Duluth. Other areas of the state need the same "investment." So the final question for you when airplanes and bus service already exist is: do you want to take a train or flush a toilet? You can't have both unless you (the taxpayer) are willing to pay a lot more for it. Remember this isn't about trains, this is about what we need to pay for versus what would be cool. To me flushing is much more important.

Sam

about 10 years ago

Pro: In Europe, good public transport is frequently available both within and between cities and countries. As a result, they save lots of money (individual cars are very inefficient). If we don't start building up our public transport soon, we will eventually lose to more efficient economies like Europe and China. An American uses 300% more energy than a European. Long term, that spells major economic problems. Gas prices will eventually go way up, and we will need efficient public transportation to stay competitive globally. The rail is a good long-term investment. 

What makes Europe greener than the U.S.?

Claire

about 10 years ago

Pro: If you do your homework before you go, the public transit options are fabulous and so easy to use. Right now, I take the bus or the shuttle into the Cities and then go all over on the buses or walking. I love it. 

I take the shuttle to MSP, I then take the Hiawatha line into downtown. I take the shuttle to the Capitol, I walk into downtown St. Paul. I take the bus into Mpls I am dropped off downtown. If I take the bus to St Paul, I get off at the Amtrak and walk into downtown St. Paul. And all along the way, I am able to read, talk on my cell, and, on the bus, use my computer. It'd be even better with a train!

jim

about 10 years ago

Con. There are already viable forms of transportation without sacrificing the much needed taxes for more important things, like education, road and bridge repair, and yes, sewers. For example, the Skyline Shuttle picks you up at convenient locations, offers a warm and comfy environment and can drop you off at a whole host of destinations (more than the proposed train) along the 35 corridor. Sweet, huh? They are a family owned business, too! 

Once the current administration's "stimulus" runs out of paper to print the fake money, it will cost billions of dollars annually to support it. Folks, our country is broke. We can't afford it. Below is a link to an interesting article produced by Stanford University. It lays it out in simple language why even Florida and California, two warm weather climate states with big populations can't make it work. Really, do you think that it will work in Northern Minnesota, or are we just being naive and greedy?

The Trouble with High-Speed Rail

edgeways

about 10 years ago

Pro: Infrastructure, economic and environmental benefits. Roomier than both the bus and the van. Less automobile congestion. Less chance of fatal accidents. Lowers dependence on oil.

zra

about 10 years ago

Pro: Cities folk wishing to relocate to places with less population density will bring their families and tax dollars here. This could possibly happen in greater numbers than visitors headed south.

The northward migration has been happening for over a decade now, and it's not uncommon to find commuters headed to the cities now from as far north as Moose Lake. Duluth has far more to offer than towns like Hinckley and Moose Lake, and the amount of business that can be accomplished in the commute time would far outweigh the time out of office.

Sam

about 10 years ago

Pro: If it was a high-speed rail, Duluth could become a fancy suburb of the Twin Cities. Duluth home prices could go through the roof.

Con: Duluth home prices could go through the roof.

Barrett Chase

about 10 years ago

Con: If people can't even follow the simple instructions for commenting on this post, how are they supposed to figure out a train schedule?

Hot Shot

about 10 years ago

Pro: Having a scheduled trip to the Cities will help those of us who can't/won't go on our own time because of laziness and lack of gas money. 

Why can't we look at Asia and Europe and try not be a decade behind them?

adEm

about 10 years ago

Pro: Wish it was higher speed but it's still progress. Electric cars don't have the range.

German Chris

about 10 years ago

Pro: Less tax money would be needed for road repairs. Let's view it as a reallocation of government subsidies (or welfare) from drivers to something sustainable that keeps us out of trouble.

It's a mute point that it won't work here because of density concerns. I just looked up rail service in Finland, with a population density of 16/km^2 vs. our 25/km^2, it has a thriving railway. Hell yeah I am making you read/use metric units! ;)

Similar to Germany, Finland uses four different train formats. I don't necessary agree that "high speed" is necessary. A European "medium speed" 70-80 mph might suffice.  One might be able to use existing track with less modifications. In Germany they have similar trains to one depicted in my links that runs on diesel.

Ticket prices Tampere to Helsinki (117 miles or 188km) are 29.10 one way.  This is high compared to Germany. But may be due to high pop density. That is adult ticket one way.

Wikipedia: Finland
Wikipedia: Minnesota

Link to Finnish ticket prices:
VR tickets and timetables

Link to Finnish rail services:
VR info

Nice normal commuter train in Europe:
Panarama by testure.com

digit3

about 10 years ago

Pro: Traveling to the TC in cushy style, more tourist revenue, potential for new business breeding in Duluth

Con: Most likely more expensive than the current options, mediocre public tranportation at both ends, too many stops along the route if you're trying to save time, dollars spent on the project could be better spent on local infrastructure needs. 

I'd rather see us spend money on fixing our roads locally and adding bike lanes.

Seems to be the concensus view that gas prices are going to rise in the future. Driving smaller cars and sharing rides would be a lot cheaper than rolling the dice on a trail that only has a chance of being economically viable. It's a lot of money to spend on what some view as merely a more convenient way of getting to the Twin Cities.

Terry G.

about 10 years ago

Pro: connects Duluth with the rest of the national passenger rail system - more than just going to the Twin Cities by rail, it's going to the East or West Coast, for example.

Bret

about 10 years ago

Pro: I've lived in Europe and have seen how trains can be a great asset to a community and a region.  The U.S. is far behind the rest of the highly developed world in this area and we need to catch up.  If we don't do it now, we'll look back and wish we had.  We need vision, but when facts are already on the ground elsewhere it shouldn't be difficult to have such vision.

vicarious

about 10 years ago

Pro: If Barrett was the conductor, he could be really mean, and the train would always be on time, cuz he don't take no shit from nobody.

George

about 10 years ago

Pro: Once NLX is completed, airfares to Duluth will get cheaper.

brian

about 10 years ago

Pro: Air travel will continue to get more expensive and less convenient for anything but overseas and very long trips. A rail system could handle some of that regional traffic.

Terry G.

about 10 years ago

Pro: Do you hate driving to/from the Twin Cities on snow-covered, icy, winter roads?

TimK

about 10 years ago

Pro: You are already subsidizing auto travel in an unsustainable manner. When that petrostructure finally crashes and burns, it would be nice if the train was already in place.

adam

about 10 years ago

Con: Numbers are being calculated in today's dollars, versus where this project will be at in 10 years; and with the majority of terminals (the communities will pay for 'em!) being left out.

baci

about 10 years ago

Pro: On a non-express route, communities along the I-35 corridor (to include Duluth) will become viable "bedroom communities." Suburbia will become de-centralized. Families can live (and go to school) in smaller, vibrant and sustainable communities with schools and character. This is a "build it and they will come" scenario if I've ever seen one.

Sanchette

about 10 years ago

Pro: Travelling I-35 north from the Cities is a logistical nightmare - especially on the weekends. Add white knuckles in the wintertime and time on the road makes it a tough trip. As a native Duluthian, I love going home. Loading up the family on a train would make it easier, safer and something I could and would do more often.

Resol

about 10 years ago

Pro: The train could give Duluth's economy a big boost. Duluth-bound recreational travel will be one of the many types of trips NLX could serve well. Arriving in Duluth by train will become ingrained in our culture and add to Duluth's considerable mystique for tourists.  It's a good fit for this unique port city on the steep hill, by the greatest lake.

On Duluth's biggest weekends (Grandma's, Tall Ships, Blues Fest) it's a nightmare to get around Canal Park and Downtown, not because there's so many people, but because there's so many cars.  The train will provide an attractive option for folks to come up and spend money, but leave the car at home. Once they arrive, most tourists stay in Canal Park, Downtown, and Park Point, all of which are very walkable.  Run the existing train from the Depot to Gooseberry and tourists will have the mobility they need.  Just like riding the Northstar to Target Field has become part of the game-day experience for thousands of baseball fans, riding the Northern Lights to town will become part of the Duluth experience for generations.

W.T.F

about 10 years ago

Pro: Choo-choo train fun!

todobrillante

about 10 years ago

Pro: It's against the law to drink and drive a car ... but a drink cart on a train is another story.

ian

about 10 years ago

Pro:  Could go to a concert/ballgame/whatever and not worry about driving.

Pro:  I could bring my bicycle and spend a day travelling all over the cities for cheap.

Pro:  Tourism in Duluth, enough said.

spy1

about 10 years ago

Pro: For all the "read the bill" folks, read the plan. It's not an Amtrak subsidy model, circa 1984.

Pro: Northstar line works.

wildgoose

about 10 years ago

+1 and that is a big plus one on Terry G with the PRO of connecting to the rest of the national rail infrastructure.  If 100 more ocmmunities do the same in the next 10 - 20 years it will be an even bigger boon as the rail network expands.  If 1000 communities expand their rail options then we are looking at a totally new paradigm.

Pro: Travelling by train is just ... better for civil society and experiencing travel rather than just getting from place to place anyway. I traveled the TranSiberian, the worlds longest passenger rail trip from Beijing to Moscow many years ago.  Certainly my greatest transit experience ever.  I met more all kinds of people from every walk of life, saw gorgeous countryside, (including a rail stop long enough to allow me to run down and dip my hand in our sister inland sea Lake Baykal), and I got to eat fresh food literally all across a continent on the rail platforms for our brief stops.  Plus, I drank enough smooth, tasty hangover free back-country Russian vodka to pickle a moose.  Try doing that on a 5 hour plane ride.

ian

about 10 years ago

"Plus, I drank enough smooth, tasty hangover free back-country Russian vodka to pickle a moose. Try doing that on a 5 hour plane ride."

I take that as a challenge....

chadp

about 10 years ago

Pro:  While the cost/revenue is a very large positive number in today's dollars it will definitely decrease and seem like a very good deal when gas is $20 per gallon.  Also with interest rates so low now is the time to bond for this while paying pennies on the dollar and again save money in the long run.  In essence, the combustion engine will become extinct eventually (we can argue about when but it will happen) and it's not getting any cheaper to build choo-choos so let's go!

Could $20-Per-Gallon Gasoline Make Us Happier?

Claire

about 10 years ago

Pro: Have you ever sat cheek-to-jowl with a stranger on the shuttle, when it's packed with people? It makes for a very long 3-hour trip, esp. when you really just want to go to downtown Minneapolis, and have to go to MSP first and then switch to the Hiawatha line.

Eirik R

about 10 years ago

If politicians are serious about creating jobs, especially in outstate MN, they would have an open mind what rail can offer. Local Government Aid will be a thing of the past. Northern MN loses it's graduates to the big cities where the jobs are. In the age of the computer, more people are able to work at home, but need to go into the office at times. But with rail in todays age, work can still get done in transit. Look at the expansion to towns outside the metro where workers accept long commutes to avoid living in the big city. With rail extending to Duluth, the jobs would follow. But unfortunately, not quick enough to get an approving politician reelected.

Shane

about 10 years ago

Con: If it could make a profit, it would have already been built.

jt

about 10 years ago

Con: Duluth needs to stop letting crap flow into Lake Superior. Money should go elsewhere.

Farragut

about 10 years ago

Pro: It would people who cannot afford to drive to MSP often be able to make the trip, and this would open to Duluth to be more accessible to more people.

Joel S

about 10 years ago

Pro:  I am sick and tired of driving to the Cities and would much prefer to take the train.  I would arrive happy and relaxed rather than tired and annoyed.

NotShane

about 10 years ago

Pro: It doesn't need to make a profit because it will provide a public service and help develop our infrastructure ... just like the highway system, which doesn't make a profit and requires that we pour billions into it.

Adem

about 10 years ago

Is train to Cities losing traction?

My view: Reading this stuff drives me crazy. Glad Donny is not giving up. I don't think I've ever read a Stauber quote I've remotely agreed with. I think NotShane makes an excellent point.

SlingFade

about 10 years ago

Con: The majority of tourists that come to Duluth aren't coming here to walk around the city--they're coming to go up the North Shore, or picnic on Park Point, or camp in the Boundary Waters, or play hockey, or go skiing, etc, etc, etc.  This requires individual transportation that trains cannot provide.

Note: The North Shore Scenic Railroad doesn't go past Two Harbors ... no access to Gooseberry, Split Rock, Tettegouche, etc.

Con: Whatever replaces the combustion engine will most likely be applied to personal transportation rather than mass transit.

Con: There is only one rail line in the United States that is self-sustaining.  I find it hard to believe that DLH to MSP would miraculously become the second.

Claire

about 10 years ago

Pro: If we had a train, people wouldn't be risking their lives to drive to or from the Twin Cities when the weather is frightful, like yesterday's snow storm. Pawlenty's cutting back on keeping highways cleared with snowplows just compounds the problem.

spy1

about 10 years ago

SlingFade: There is ample access to spots up the shore from Two Harbors. There are shuttles up to Gooseberry.

Will

about 10 years ago

I know I'm late getting in on this one, but it's a topic in which I'm keenly interested.

Con: It's unaffordable. (To remain within the guidelines of this forum, I will not talk about how it may be a good investment in the long-term or how tax dollars should be directed toward other programs - all of that's too political for the rules this time. I will only briefly touch affordability and give you a couple of links to some articles that say the same and provide a little evidence) The conservative, train-supporter-produced estimates to build and improve infrastructure to make it work continue to climb precipitously; the numbers out there from relatively neutral or anti-train folks are frighteningly high. Once in operation it's highly unlikely that it will be self-sustaining.

For initial infrastructure costs:
Star Tribune: Mpls.-to-Duluth rail price tag climbs to $1 billion

On self-sustainability and operating costs:
Opinion: High Speed Rail Going Nowhere Fast

Now that I've met the guidelines for this topic, please allow me to stray just a little. I've lived in east Asia and Europe as recently as summer of 2009. While living in those places, I enjoyed traveling by train both intra- and inter-city. (In fact, I consider myself a rail fan.) But, America (and specifically the upper Midwest) is very different geographically, demographically, economically, and politically. In part we are different - for better and for worse - due to previous government decisions on infrastructure. But until we change significantly in three or four of those aforementioned categories, big spending on big rail projects will be misplaced (regardless of your political persuasion).

SlingFade

about 10 years ago

@ spy1: The cost is $15/person for a shuttle from Two Harbors to Gooseberry.  Coupled with the NSSR fees and the NLX fees ... wow.  You're looking at $75/person just to get from MSP to Gooseberry.  Outrageous.

German Chris

about 10 years ago

@Will Do you read the other posts on this page? If train travel is truly unaffordable, then so is subsidizing a highway system.  Please tell me why we need to stay the course of spending on highways? None of the cons on this list can answer that question. 
As I stated above, if Finland can, so can MN.

Claire

about 10 years ago

I just want to reiterate, I had a meeting in the Twin Cities Saturday (OK, it was a party, but it was for my work). There was a snowstorm. Driving on the Interstate, now that Gov. Pawlenty cut back on the number of snowplows during such times, presented a hazard. I was not able to drive. I stayed home. I lost out. If there'd been a train, the fact that Gov. Pawlenty has cut back on the maintenance of the highways would not have adversely impacted me.

It's a lose-lose situation right now. We need a train.

Danny G

about 10 years ago

We're just all happy that you made it safely.

rnarum

about 10 years ago

Pro: Great connectivity to Minneapolis area without the requiring to drive.

Con: Noone will use it, since most are too self-centered to adapt to the "limitations" of a train schedule.

Will

about 10 years ago

@German Chris

I'm with you regarding subsidizing highways. As taxpayers, we do that too much. However, the costs are slightly more directly born by the users - gas tax, vehicle registration fees. But, I agree with your implication that we should either discontinue or reduce highway subsidies (or make the costs more directly born by users).

I disagree with your presumption that Finland can do it. They subsidize rail pretty heavily and provide pretty sketchy service outside the very far south and Helsinki.

And, if for the sake of argument I accepted the presumption that Finland is successful, I would still point out that demographically, geographically, economically, and politically we are not Finland. What may work in one country may not work in another.

I'd love to see a train between Duluth and MSP. But until a good, relatively objective study indicates that it can at least pay for its operating costs (not even asking for the original building/improvement costs), it's unlikely and unreasonable.

German Chris

about 10 years ago

@ Will Why not take a risk on a technology that may ween us off foreign oil. I don not know much about rail theory, but in theory you need a well traveled corridor between two points. IMHO I35 fits that profile. Personally, I am ignorant about how the NLX is trying to accomplish this. There may be other ways or means to build the utilize existing tracks (lease agreement with commercial rail?). 

The cities took a risk with light rail, if they had listened to all the naysayers and studies, it would and should not have been built. Yet here it is being well used and everyone loves it.

As to northern Finland, no one lives there. There is a sharp decline in population density in the northern half (almost to 0 persons/km). That would be saying we should build a rail to the BWCA. 

The reason all rail in Europe is subsidized is because they are mandated to offer service to virtually every city 10,000 people and up. Regardless of need or profitability.

Thanks for the links, just a couple of points:
I like it that they say the airlines make a profit compared to Amtrak.  Then they would finally like to take over the airports and the TSA so we can stop subsidizing them as well. 

I was really surprised that from 95 and 03 Germany only paid 104 billion in subsidizes. Based on the service the DB provides I would have guessed a lot more. 

I don't agree that a bullet train makes sense even here in Germany. It is a huge waste of energy to get this train up to those speeds. Especially when you only maintain that speed for 20-30 minutes before you have to stop again. Medium speed rail would suffice states side.

Will

about 10 years ago

@German Chris

The I-35 corridor doesn't fit the profile sufficiently well. In Europe (where gas costs $7-$8/gallon, short-distance air travel is expensive or non-existent, where cars are about 150-200% the price they are in America,  where - in many countries - getting a driver's license is a lengthy and expensive process, and auto insurance is 200-500% the price of insurance in the America, and rail service is quite good), a population density the level of the I-35 corridor would work (mostly). But, it's too low in this country to expect ridership fees to pay for operating costs. The only corridor in the U.S. that is able to do so is the New York to D.C. Acela Express - and, sadly, we can't possibly expect to produce the level of ridership of the east coast - very different place.

Speaking of very different places, when I discussed Finland, note that I said "very far south." The rail service quality and frequency diminishes before the density reaches levels equivalent to areas more than 50 miles north of MSP. (Warning - last sentence based largely on very brief research, personal experience, and educated guessing.) 

Regarding the links and the subsidies, I, too, was surprised by how low the subsidy was over eight years in Germany. In fact, I continued to look for other numbers because I was so shocked. But, that's it- that's all they pay in subsidies (worth noting here that riding German rails isn't cheap). Pretty cool to see that under some circumstances rail isn't too pricey for taxpayers. But, if that's what the Germans manage given the differences between our way of life and theirs, we can't hope to break even on operating expenses any time soon. (Note, the subsidy costs listed are to cover operating expenses and not rail capital expenditures - as new rail and rail improvements are paid for separately by the state and not tallied in that cost or are covered in part by freight carries. We'd probably have a similar arrangement - passenger rail would pay user fees for lines and almost no capital costs after initial upgrades to allow for slightly better speed.)

As to your point about the airlines - yes, please, let's stop or reduce subsidies to them, too. In fact, for those of us who want rail - you and I and most people in this forum it appears - that's the way to get it. When drivers and commercial flight passengers see and pay DIRECTLY the costs of travel, rail will have a shot. When a round trip flight from MSP to New Orleans or Las Vegas or Dallas costs about $700-$800 or gas is $10/gallon, rail will have a chance. If we subsidize rail now and build it in the hopes they will come, we'll be running a lot of empty trains and creating a bad passenger experience - that will cost us too much and will drive people away from mass transit, not toward it.

America needs visionaries who will take chances on projects like improved rail service. America needs transit that pollutes less and is transparent in all its costs. But, we're not ready for NLX, yet. It can't pay for itself or even get close. And, people won't use it in large numbers. Sad? Maybe, but likely true. Americans - including those from northern Minnesota - are still very attached to their cars. Another option won't change that; only changes in demographics, politics, economics will.

Hendo

about 9 years ago

Pro: new infrastructure construction and operating the rail line will bring over 13,000 jobs to the area.

Trains are far more efficient and cleaner than cars and will take many cars off the interstate, bring costs on maintenance down.

Trains are way more comfortable! I traveled by train through 20 countries in Europe last summer, even the old trains in Eastern Europe were nicer than most buses/planes I've traveled in the States.

By building this new line, it can help spark the development of better public transit at both ends of the lines and connect Duluth with the rest of the country in the future.

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