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Restoring Twin Cities-Duluth train service should be a big success

Passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, once the state’s big railroad rivals, operated for over a century until it died, ignominiously, in 1986. Since then, Minnesota intercity train travel has been largely dormant, despite the boom in tourism and travel between the metro and North Shore.

Aerial Lift Bridge, Duluth, Minnesota
It’s been two and a half years, and the political stars in D.C. and St. Paul may have aligned to make a long-held dream of rail boosters come true: passenger rail to Duluth.
MinnPost file photo by Gregg Aamot

When President Joe Biden was first elected, I grew cautiously optimistic that something finally would be done to improve the woeful American passenger rail network. After all, Biden had spent a lifetime taking the Northeast Regional from Wilmington to Washington D.C. and wasn’t shy about supporting Amtrak. As president, he had ample opportunity to set the railroading agenda from the seat of power. I hoped that someday soon, the United States of America might have intercity rail service that rivals countries like the Philippines or North Macedonia.

It’s been two and a half years, and the political stars in D.C. and St. Paul may have aligned to make a long-held dream of rail boosters come true: passenger rail to Duluth. With strong support from the federal government and a DFL trifecta in the state Legislature, in a few short years people might finally be riding trains to and from Duluth and Minneapolis again. Especially in a post-COVID era, I predict it will be a success.

A train route to Duluth

Passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, once the state’s big railroad rivals, operated for over a century until it died, ignominiously, in 1986. Since then, Minnesota intercity train travel has largely dormant, despite the boom in tourism and travel between the metro and North Shore.

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These days, Biden’s White House seems like the perfect opportunity to expand the Twin Cities’ once-mighty passenger rail network from its dismal one-train-a-day status into something that better serves the greater region. After a decade of lobbying, the climate for passenger rail is better than it’s been in generations.

“With Biden getting elected, he’s a huge fan of rail,” Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson told me. Since 2017, Johnson has been the chair of the Northern Lights Express Alliance, a group of project boosters from across the state. He’s pretty optimistic that their years of work will pay off. 

“The money that got put into the infrastructure budget around rail (means) that federal funds are there,” Johnson said. “There’s $400M if the state wants it, (and) the Federal Railroad Administration has communicated, as much as they’re able, that this is one of the most attractive projects in the nation. We feel very good about this.”

The proposed train service is one of a half-dozen plans that have appeared over the years, varying in cost, speed, and precise stops locations. (For example, one timeless debate was whether the train should terminate in Minneapolis or St. Paul.) The chosen compromise, a route traveling along BNSF tracks — through Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley, and into Duluth-Superior via Wisconsin – offers a reasonable balance of cost and efficiency. 

One downside with this specific route choice is that it’s not the fastest. Planners could have chosen more expensive alternatives that could have cut a half-hour from the trip, but with far higher capital costs. Instead, drawing on federal funds that would pay 80% of the total capital costs of the estimated $540 million total bill for the project, the state would have to put forward $109 million toward track improvements along the route to receive the federal match.

If funded this year, the train could begin service in 2026 or 2027, offering four round-trips a day between downtown Duluth and Minneapolis’ Target Field station, completing the trip in two-and-a-half hours. Fares would be somewhere in the $30-40 range, and the train would make four stops along the way.

“We’ll have these important state hubs be stops, and train will go around 90 mph, making it comparable to a car,” Johnson said. “But much differently than a car, you have the ability to work or watch your favorite show on the Wi-Fi or stop by the cafe car or just relax.” 

The ridership projections predict that, within a few years, the train would attract a million riders a year. And Johnson suggests that it would be a diverse crowd onboard.

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“Everything from people wanting to vacation and catch a concert or do a weekend retreat, to students getting back and forth from campus,” Council Member Johnson told me. “You have commuters in there, veterans getting down to the Veterans Administration and back up home, or folks going to the casino or for ski trips. There are just so many different cases where this makes a ton of sense as an alternative.”

Three Duluth train rider scenarios

While Minnesota Republicans seem skeptical that the train could generate a million annual riders, I believe demand for rail service will only grow in the 21st century. Trains offer convenience and comfort unmatched by cars or airplanes. Security is a breeze and service is smooth. Riders can nap, eat, drink, play with their kids, work on their laptops, or (my favorite rail pastime) watch the state’s fascinating landscape pass by.

Consider three potential scenarios. You’re stuck in Minneapolis during a heat wave feeling stir crazy, so you hop on the morning train to Duluth, where (thanks to Lake Superior) the temperature is 20 degrees cooler. By 10AM you’re having coffee and brunch in Canal Park, a nice walk from the train depot. Afterwards, you take the #15 Park Point bus to spend the afternoon on Minnesota’s best beach. 

A few hours later, you grab a bite at Pizza Luce on Superior Street before catching your train home. You spend the homeward journey watching Netflix on your laptop, and dozing off to the sounds of the rails. It’s the perfect Minnesota summer escape.

(Apologies to the  Twitter genius that put forward this Duluth rail fantasy; I saw it on my feed, but weeks later could not rediscover the link.)  

Here’s another one: You live in Hermantown and need to fly to your cousin’s wedding in Texas. Your aunt drops you off at the train to Minneapolis, you transfer to the Blue Line to the airport, and catch your Delta flight to Dallas. The price tag is a fraction of what it would cost to fly out of Duluth.

In fact, connecting Greater Minnesota cities to the MSP airport via rail would be a huge climate win. Short-haul flights are the most polluting kind of air travel, so much so that European countries are banning them altogether.

Here’s a third scenario, particularly appealing in a post-COVID world: You live in Duluth because you love the landscape and culture, but are frustrated by the lack of  jobs. You find an opportunity in your field. Your boss insists you come into the office two or three times a month for meetings, but you can work the rest of the time from home. The only catch is that the job is in Minneapolis.

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The train is the perfect solution. Unlike driving, which erodes the will of even dogged long-distance commuters, on a train you can nap, write emails, draft memos, or grade papers.  A train connection would link the workforces and economic opportunities in two of the state’s largest metro areas. With work-from-home policies becoming the new normal, that opens a wide world of possibilities and jobs for people living along Lake Superior.

This would work just as well if you lived in Minneapolis, but worked in Duluth, meaning it’ll be easier to to start small businesses in St. Louis County, attracting a much larger pool of employees. Especially in a post-COVID work environment, rail travel can reconnecting the state’s diverse regions that have been growing socially and economically apart.

Say Goodbye to I-35 Traffic 

My family and I go to Duluth every winter for a short vacation, to get out of town, ski in the woods, walk around the lake, and visit people that (especially in February) are not yet jaded by tourists. We headed up there last weekend and it was a lovely time, hopping around the aquarium, checking out a few new restaurants and breweries, and soaking in the sunshine of Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood. 

Still, the 140-mile drive down I-35 was not fun, especially when it started  snowing and cars were skidding off the onramps. I was white-knuckled for over an hour hoping to make it home safely, and praying that there was another way to get back and forth between two of Minnesota’s main cities. This is not to mention the cabin traffic that chokes the entire route on a summer Sunday.  

My hope is that the Duluth train provides proof of concept, and Minnesota begins restoring rail service between cities and regions. The second daily train to Chicago will begin service next year, offering a more reliable option to and from the Midwest’s largest city. With a train to Duluth potentially following, maybe someday we can travel by train to more exotic regional destinations like Sioux Falls, Rochester, Eau Claire, and (gulp) even Kansas City.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify the Park Point bus’ number.