When President Joe Biden was first elected, I grew cautiously optimistic that something would finally be done to improve America’s woeful passenger rail network. After all, Biden had spent a lifetime taking the Northeast Regional from Wilmington to Washington DC and wasn’t shy about supporting Amtrak. As president, he had ample opportunity to set the railway agenda from the seat of power. I hoped that one day soon the US could have intercity train services that rival countries like the Philippines or North Macedonia.
Two and a half years have passed, and the political stars of DC and St. Paul may have aligned to make a longtime dream of rail boosters a reality: passenger rail to Duluth. With strong support from the federal government and a DFL trifecta in the state legislature, in a few years people may 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 train service between the Twin Cities and Duluth, once the state’s major rail rivals, operated for over a century until the died peacefully in 1986. Since then, intercity rail travel in Minnesota has been largely dormant, despite the boom in tourism and travel between the metro and the North Shore.
These days, the Biden 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 to something that better serves the greater region. After a decade of lobbying, the climate for passenger rail is better than it has been for generations.
“When Biden was elected, he’s a big fan of rail,” Minneapolis City Councilman Andrew Johnson told me. Since 2017, Johnson has been chairman of the board Northern Lights Express Alliance, a group of project boosters from across the state. He is quite optimistic that their years of work will pay off.
“The money that was put into the infrastructure budget around rail (means) federal funds are there,” Johnson said. “It’s $400 million if the state wants it, (and) the Federal Railroad Administration has communicated, as much as they can, that this is one of the most attractive projects in the nation. We feel very good about this.”
The proposed train offer is one of half a dozen plans that have appeared over the years, varying in price, speed and exact stop locations. (For example, a timeless debate was whether the train should terminate in Minneapolis or St. Paul.) The chosen compromise, a route that travels along BNSF tracks—through Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and into Duluth-Superior via Wisconsin—offers a reasonable balance between cost and effectiveness.
A disadvantage of this specific route choice is that it is not the fastest. Planners could have chosen more expensive alternatives that could cut half an hour off the journey, but with far higher capital costs. Instead, drawing on federal funds that would pay 80% of the total capital costs of the projected $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 key state hubs as stops, and the train will go about 90 mph, making it comparable to a car,” Johnson said. “But much different than a car, you have the option to work or watch your favorite show on Wi-Fi or stop at the cafe car or just relax.”
Estimates for ridership predict that within a few years the train will attract one million riders a year. And Johnson suggests there would be a diverse audience on board.
“Everything from people who want to vacation and catch a concert or a weekend treat, to students traveling back and forth from campus,” Councilman Johnson told me. “You have commuters in there, veterans going down to the Veterans Administration and back home, or people going to the casino or on ski trips. There are just so many different cases where this makes a lot of sense as an option.”
Three Duluth train rider scenarios
While Minnesota Republicans seem skeptical that the train can generate a million annual riders, I believe the demand for rail service will only grow in the 21st century. Trains offer convenience and comfort unmatched by automobiles or airplanes. Security is a breeze and service is smooth. Riders can sleep, eat, drink, play with their children, work on laptops, or (my favorite train pastime) watch the state’s fascinating scenery pass by.
Consider three potential scenarios. You’re stuck in Minneapolis during a heat wave feeling crazy, so you jump on the morning train to Duluth, where (thanks to Lake Superior) the temperature is 20 degrees cooler. By 10 you have coffee and brunch in Canal Park, a nice walk from the train depot. Afterwards, take the #2 Park Point bus to spend the afternoon at Minnesota’s best beach.
A few hours later, grab a bite to eat at Pizza Luce on Superior Street before catching the train home. You spend the journey home watching Netflix on your laptop and dozing off to the sound of the rails. It’s the perfect Minnesota summer escape.
(Apologies to the Twitter genius who promoted this Duluth rail fantasy; I saw it on my feed, but weeks later I couldn’t rediscover the link.)
Here’s another: 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 cities in Greater Minnesota to the MSP airport via rail would be a major climate benefit. Sshort-haul flights are the most polluting type of air travelso much so that European countries ban them altogether.
Here’s a third scenario, especially appealing in a post-COVID world: You live in Duluth because you love the scenery and culture, but are frustrated by the lack of jobs. You will 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 from home the rest of the time. The only catch is that the job is in Minneapolis.
The train is the perfect solution. Unlike driving, which eats away at the will of even hardy long-distance commuters, on a train you can sleep, write e-mails, draft notes or grade papers. A rail link will connect the workforce and economic opportunities in two of the state’s largest metro areas. With work-from-home policies becoming the new normal, it opens up a wide world of opportunities 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 would be easier to start small businesses in St. Louis County and attract a much larger pool of employees. Especially in a post-COVID-19 work environment, rail travel can connect the state’s diverse regions that have grown 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 the city, ski in the woods, walk around the lake, and visit people who (especially in February) are not yet tired of tourists. We went up there last weekend and had a great time, hopping around the aquarium, checking out some new restaurants and breweries, and soaking up the sunshine in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood.
Still, the 140-mile drive down I-35 was not fun, especially when it started snowing and cars were sliding off the ramps. I was white knuckled for over an hour hoping to get home safely, praying there was another way to get back and forth between two of Minnesota’s major cities. This is not to mention the cabin traffic that chokes up the entire route on a summer Sunday.
My hope is that the Duluth train provides proof of concept and Minnesota begins to restore rail connectivity between cities and regions. The second daily train to Chicago will start next year, offering a more reliable option to and from the Midwest’s largest city. With a train to Duluth potentially following, we may one day travel by train to more exotic regional destinations like Sioux Falls, Rochester, Eau Claire and even Kansas City.