Northern Lights "High-Speed" Rail Boondoggle 

From a correspondent in the far north of Minnesota comes a link to this article from the Duluth News Tribune reporting that $5 million already awarded for planning the Northern Lights Express “high-speed” rail line from Minneapolis to Duluth may be rescineded. It seems that members of the House Appropriations subcommittee considering this has the weird idea that federal funds can more sensibly be spent to repair the damage from recent floods on the upper Missouri and other rivers in the Upper Midwest. The newly elected Republican congressman from the 8th district, which includes Duluth, Chip Cravaack, says he’s undecided on whether to seek the funds. That’s one pretty good indication that it’s a good time to put a stop to the Northern Light Express project, whose one good feature seems to be its nifty name.


Or at least that’s the conclusion I draw from reading the Northern Lights Express’s own website. The website claims the project would “spur approximately $2 billion in development” and would “encourage about 18,300 jobs” and “provide an environmental sound alternative to automobiles that can be used for business and tourism.” The verb-and-adverb combinations “spur approximately”  and “encourage about” indicate to any but the least skeptical of readers that the promoters of this project have nothing close to a verifiable idea of how much development it would “spur” and how many jobs it would “encourage.” (“About 18,300” suggests a spurious precision. Why not “about 18,286”?) As for the passenger train being “an environmental sound alternative to automobiles,” I should think that that would depend on whether the rail line ever attracts an appreciable number of passengers.


I doubt it ever will. The Northern Lights Express website doesn’t give any estimate of ridership, so far as I can see, but just records that it has been approved by various government entities. Well, yes it has, and that may be in part because Duluth was represented, until his defeat by Chip Cravaack in the November 2010 election, by James Oberstar, first elected in 1976 and until January 2011 Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Not much chance that a rail project in Chairman Oberstar’s district was going to be turned down. But as noted Cravaack is not so enthusiastic. Maybe it’s because he noted something that’s mentioned at the top of the Northern Lights Express website:


“The proposed passenger rail service will:


“? Offer 2¼ hour service between Minneapolis and Duluth with top speeds of 110 mph;”


That’s two hours and 15 minutes on a rail corridor 155 miles long which parallels Interstate 35. In other words, the train will average 69 miles an hour running parallel to an interstate highway on which you could average 69 miles an hour. And to get on the train, you have to get to the train station ahead of the scheduled departure time. So almost no one will save time going from Minneapolis to Duluth.


And by the way, how many people will be going to and/or from Duluth. Probably not that many. Minneapolis is the center of a metropolitan area with a population of over 3 million: lots of potential riders. But according to the 2010 Census there are only 200,226 people in Duluth’s St. Louis County, about half of whom live on the Iron Range an hour’s drive or more from Duluth; also there are 35,386 in Carlton County, Minnesota, and 44,159 in Douglas County, Wisconsin, both of which are adjacent to Duluth. So something less than 200,000 in the Duluth area. Are there lots of business travelers going there from the Twin Cities? I doubt it: Duluth is mainly an iron ore and grain port on Lake Superior. A lot of vacation travelers? Only on the way to somewhere else, I should think, in which case train travel to Duluth would not be very practical, since you’d just have to get out of the train and rent a car to get anywhere else.


“High-speed” rail that can’t get you anywhere faster than the Interstate highway? Doesn’t meet the smell test.

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Michael Barone

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