Northern Lights Express

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Northwestern

Lead Service Attendant
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354
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Santa Rosa
Things seem to be progressing regarding the "Northern Lights Express" passenger train, Duluth to the Twin Cities.

https://is.gd/gnB1Ej
Minnesota would pay 20% of the cost. The train would run 4 times a day, round trip. Amtrak says it would be interested in taking on the route.

I believe the last passenger train to run that route was the "Arrowhead" (1975-1978). The Arrowhead was the last passenger train to use the old Great Northern station in Minneapolis.

A chance to visit the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth.

https://is.gd/e2oMtz
 
I believe there was an Amtrak run called The North Star, a Twin Cities-Duluth run at the end, that ran until about 1985 and operated out of the Midway Station.
 
Things seem to be progressing regarding the "Northern Lights Express" passenger train, Duluth to the Twin Cities.

https://is.gd/gnB1Ej
Minnesota would pay 20% of the cost. The train would run 4 times a day, round trip. Amtrak says it would be interested in taking on the route.

I believe the last passenger train to run that route was the "Arrowhead" (1975-1978). The Arrowhead was the last passenger train to use the old Great Northern station in Minneapolis.

A chance to visit the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth.

https://is.gd/e2oMtz
That 20% of the cost is due to limited time Federal startup grants.

When the grants run out, the State of Minnesota would be on the hook for 100% of the costs.

Amtrak is forbidden from using own its subsidy to support operation of it since it is less than 750 miles.

This is all per statutory law, the PRIIA Act of 2008. Amtrak has zero discretion in the matter, except for helping Minnesota get grants unrelated to its own operating subsidy.
 
I lived in Minneapolis from 1975 to 1993 and traveled on the North Star from Minneapolis to Duluth numerous times. It originally departed from Minneapolis' beautiful Great Northern Station and later the Midway Station. It was very well patronized especially on weekends, but not as much during the week. In the last few years, it was combined with the Twin Cities to Chicago train which was great for through passengers, but not so great for Twin Cities to Duluth. They really needed 2 trains in each direction like the former Gopher/Badger passenger trains which provided twice daily Twin Cities/Twin Ports passenger service.
 
Dumb question perhaps, but could the train be extended to St. Paul for connections to the National network - obviously this is primarily a 'local' train for Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Since there are going to be four roundtrips that's considerably more than the service on the Builder and Chicago service.

Although it sounds like the Great River may be extended to Target Field.
 
Dumb question perhaps, but could the train be extended to St. Paul for connections to the National network - obviously this is primarily a 'local' train for Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Since there are going to be four roundtrips that's considerably more than the service on the Builder and Chicago service.

Although it sounds like the Great River may be extended to Target Field.
Bringing the NLX thread back to life! To attempt to answer your question, I think at this point, it's an open question as to if the NLX could be extended to Saint Paul. Since the project is still in its relatively early stages, I'd say it could happen, but who knows. Due to the sheer inertia and years of planning around Target Field Station (TFS) as the NLX's terminus, I'm at least 75% confident that the NLX will end there to begin with. However, if (knock on wood) the NLX is highly successful and yet legislators and other electeds face complaints about passengers facing difficulties connecting to SPUD or St. Paul/the east metro in general, I could very well see it being extended there in the future.

To be honest, with my knowledge of Minnesota politics around NLX, I'd guess some of what's at play is the desire to show an end-to-end travel time from the Twin Cities to Duluth that is as fast as possible to "compete with driving." During the years of negotiations and legislative back-and-forth around the NLX, supporters already faced flack for claiming that anyone would take it over driving, even from Minneapolis to Duluth. Since puttering through the Midway between SPUD and TFS takes so long (not to mention whatever train movements would be needed to back across the Mississippi to TFS), the total advertised travel time from St. Paul to Duluth would "look" (with heavy scare quotes) much worse, when compared to driving, than TFS to Duluth. And you're right that the Great River/second train may be extended to TFS anyway! I do agree with critics that the lack of adequate passenger waiting facilities and general amentiies at TFS will need to be addressed, even if only for the NLX.

I would also add that since the metro area's population center of gravity is tilted towards Hennepin County and the western/northwestern/southwestern suburbs anyway (not to mention the superior transit access in downtown Mpls), I'd guess that most people who would take the NLX to SPUD and vice-versa would be lesiure travelers transferring from the Empire Builder or the upcoming TCMC/St. Paul-Chicago second train. And as I noted today in another thread, part of the plans for the NLX include constructing a station at Foley Blvd. in Coon Rapids (originally a deferred Northstar commuter rail station) to serve the Northstar, NLX, and potentially/eventually either an extended second train to Fargo, or the Empire Builder, depending on how things shake out.
 
https://kfgo.com/2023/12/11/feds-award-500k-for-northern-lights-express-passenger-rail-project/Am I correct in interpreting only getting $500k from the feds to study this as meaning that it won't be happening anytime soon?
Well, yes and no! Yes, because they didn't get any of the Federal-State Partnership capital/construction funding, so they can't (to my knowledge) get any until the next round of funding's announced around this time next year. (And so, construction and everything else prior to construction can't start).

No, because according to MN sources (All Aboard MN and others), the $500k will help update, as needed, the environmental impact and design studies (NLX got a FONSI in 2018 but apparently the environmental studies have gotten a little stale and need to be looked at...sigh), and other general pre-development study work. AAMN and advocates are hoping this updating won't actually take that long. Of course, if the project needs a new FONSI to move forward, that's another can of worms.

But regardless, if one definition "anytime soon" includes the next 2-ish years, then yes, not anytime soon! I've heard some are hoping for 2028 but I think anyone who says they know exactly how long the construction + equipment procurement could last is really stepping out on a ledge.

Construction for the NLX would include passing sidings, crossing improvements, misc. track/RR work, a station upgrade (TFS)+ major work (Duluth's old station), several presumably new-build stations, and more. The NLX is supposed to run at 90 mph top speeds, so whatever work's needed for that to happen (provided the project isn't watered down to 79 mph, which is highly unlikely at this point) will have to occure. So, the construction work required--although less than, say, Illinois' Chi - StL 110 mph upgrades--isn't insignificant.

*The annoyance with the NLX not getting the 80% federal match this year is that, after years and years of wrangling, the Minnesota legislature approved the full 20% match this past session, and now that money will have to sit for probably a few years before being used. Not good for showing progress for the politicians who fought tooth and nail for the funding for years, and any "delay" is red meat for the huge, angry anti-rail voter base in MN.
 
Dumb question perhaps, but could the train be extended to St. Paul for connections to the National network - obviously this is primarily a 'local' train for Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. Since there are going to be four roundtrips that's considerably more than the service on the Builder and Chicago service.

Although it sounds like the Great River may be extended to Target Field.
I've had email exchanges with both Greg Mathis at MNDOT and Jill Brown at NLX Alliance about having NLX going to SPUD instead of TFS. both replied with typical corporate/governmental rigidity. The 2 main factors in their arguments are travel time and justification of taxpayer dollars.
Ive proposed the many benefits of going to St Paul. But lets address the time. It could still be comparable to drive time w/ a transfer at Coon Rapids onto the NorthStar into Mpls.
Now, for taxpayer dollars... going to SPUD would eliminate taxpayer dollars for another train to connect St. Paul and Mpls. It would save an unnecessary full build out of CR Station. It would connect NLX to the Amtrak Station and its national network. It would help justify the nearly $250M spent on reopening Union Depot which currently acts more like an occasional banquet hall rather than the grand train station it was promised to be, especially after both HSR and the Red Rock Rail projects were scratched. It's a veritable ghost town between the arrival of the Empire Builder at 8a and 11p. Businesses can't set up shop successfully without foot traffic there. Also, as $5M is being earmarked for a study to expand NorthStar to Fargo/Moorehead, wouldn't having passengers transfer at CR help up the ridership on NorthStar that had greatly suffered during the pandemic? It certainly would help justify those taxpayer dollars. But no... let's base our decision on nearly decade old documents and studies that didn't take into consideration the loss of two train routes into St Paul and the effect of the pandemic on train ridership on the NorthStar.
 
When I rode the Empire Builder through St. Paul, I was impressed by how slow the train ran through there. It defeats the purpose of trains having a speed advantage riding through and into a big city. I'm not sure why that's the case, but I suspect that to get commuter and intercity trains running 50-75 mph through St. Paul, which is what you'd need to do to justify having them run between Minneapolis and St. Paul, there will need to be a lot of track reconstruction to separate the passenger service from the freight service.
 
Yes, you are 100% correct, MARC Rider. Current speeds between Mpls and St. Paul are atrociously slow and would require significant investment to not add on a huge amount of time in making the first stop at TFS and moving between the two stations. It would be an enormous separate project. Without changes, the TFS stop and train movement to SPUD (which includes the time-consuming movement from TFS and across the river/through lower NE Mpls before getting onto the mainline) would take an absolute minimum of about 45 minutes, and realistically, probably more time without the expensive improvements. I've mentioned this on the TCMC/second train thread, so I won't belabor the issue, but it really doesn't make sense as of now to have the NLX go to SPUD to begin with. Especially when there's already concrete plans to study extending the second train to TFS, and eventually to Fargo. Advocates are coalesing between some combination of extending the second train to Fargo and/or to TFS to begin with.

Loon, you are incorrect that there's a study looking at extending the Northstar to Fargo. To my knowledge, they're going to be looking at extending the Northstar to St. Cloud as part of a broader study of the MSP - Fargo corridor; there will need to be a separate study and advocacy push for extending the TCMC/second train to Fargo. At any rate, the Northstar is a commuter rail line and would never be extended to Fargo. Additionally, no one (beyond maybe the most starry-eyed advocates) is seriously proposing "another train to connect St. Paul and Minneapolis." You also seem to be conflating the proposed Coon Rapids (Foley Blvd) station for Northstar AND the Empire Builder (and maybe an extended second train) with the NLX going to SPUD...I am confused by your arguement there.

I also do not understand, Loon, what you are saying about the NLX travel time being at all comparable to driving? It would be indisputably longer than driving to take it from SPUD to Duluth instead of TFS to Duluth. Even with track improvements it would be the simple addition of added travel distance. It seems like you're from MN, so you should be familiar with the hatred for passenger rail from many politicians, and the unfortunate need to make the NLX look as competitive as possible with driving. Anyway, if you're coming south into TFS, why would you transfer to the Northstar, which also goes to TFS? Unless what you're saying is that the NLX should *skip* TFS, not stop in Mpls at all, which doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

Now, I agree heartily with you, Loon, that SPUD is GROSSLY underutilized, but that will be starting to change as soon as this spring with the start of the TCMC/second train to Chicago. Coupled with hopeful plans for additional (at least two or three) frequencies between MSP - CHI via Eau Claire/Madison and on the existing route, SPUD should see much more use if expansion continues. If the separately proposed regional-distance Eau Claire to MSP service (given Corridor ID study funding in December!) ever happens, that will bring many more trains to SPUD daily. And of course, any MSP - KC via Des Monies service (which is so needed) would also terminate at SPUD, as would any service to Omaha via Mankato, and to Sioux Falls, not to mention the potential restoration of the North Coast Limited. That's a lot, and I hope Ramsey County can do more in the meantime to not just operate it as a glorified event space.
 
I've had email exchanges with both Greg Mathis at MNDOT and Jill Brown at NLX Alliance about having NLX going to SPUD instead of TFS. both replied with typical corporate/governmental rigidity. The 2 main factors in their arguments are travel time and justification of taxpayer dollars.
Ive proposed the many benefits of going to St Paul. But lets address the time. It could still be comparable to drive time w/ a transfer at Coon Rapids onto the NorthStar into Mpls.
Now, for taxpayer dollars... going to SPUD would eliminate taxpayer dollars for another train to connect St. Paul and Mpls. It would save an unnecessary full build out of CR Station. It would connect NLX to the Amtrak Station and its national network. It would help justify the nearly $250M spent on reopening Union Depot which currently acts more like an occasional banquet hall rather than the grand train station it was promised to be, especially after both HSR and the Red Rock Rail projects were scratched. It's a veritable ghost town between the arrival of the Empire Builder at 8a and 11p. Businesses can't set up shop successfully without foot traffic there. Also, as $5M is being earmarked for a study to expand NorthStar to Fargo/Moorehead, wouldn't having passengers transfer at CR help up the ridership on NorthStar that had greatly suffered during the pandemic? It certainly would help justify those taxpayer dollars. But no... let's base our decision on nearly decade old documents and studies that didn't take into consideration the loss of two train routes into St Paul and the effect of the pandemic on train ridership on the NorthStar.
I wouldn't call it a "game changer" (that term gets utterly overused), but I do think there's a good case that having two corridors pop out on the west side of town (one to Duluth, one to Fargo) suggests a need to have a direct transfer station between them and the Empire Builder in the MSP area. However, while it would probably be ideal for that to be at St. Paul, there's probably also a case to have a Minneapolis station that isn't way off the main line to limit the "backtracking" needed since both lines are heading north/west (I'm not sure how well improving Coon Rapids or using Fridley would fill this role).

The other thing is that with the second CHI-MSP train coming online in the not-too-distant future and a study on a third train to go via Eau Claire getting funded (as well as Eau Claire-MSP and Chicago-Madison-MSP getting studies as well), and the NCH study also being in the mix, having a gap between Minneapolis and St. Paul on the intercity side is dumb. Improving Minneapolis-St. Paul doesn't make sense for one train per day, but if you've suddenly got like five corridors converging in the area, having either a single transfer station or an overlapping traffic segment starts making a lot more sense since you've suddenly gone from 1x/day to something like 15x/day.

[I'd also note that with some of these corridors, it might ultimately make sense to run the equipment through on a few frequencies. For example, I don't see a compelling reason not to run stuff through from Eau Claire to Fargo or Duluth.]
 
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