News & Reviews News Wire Minnesota legislature approves funding for Northern Lights Express passenger service

Minnesota legislature approves funding for Northern Lights Express passenger service

By Steve Glischinski | May 22, 2023

Passenger service would link Twin Cities and Duluth/Superior

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Amtrak’s North Star from the Twin Cities arrives in Duluth, Minn. on Sept. 23, 1983. The new Northern Lights Express will use much the same route of the North Star bringing Amtrak service back to Duluth for the first time since April 7, 1985, when the North Star was discontinued when state funding was cut. Steve Glischinski.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Legislature has approved a transportation measure that includes nearly $195 million in funding for the Northern Light Express passenger rail service from the Twin Cities to Duluth, Minn. If implemented, it would be the first passenger service to Duluth since Amtrak’s North Star was dropped in 1985. The 152-mile line is expected to cost about $779 million. Approval of state funding will now unlock a federal matching grant to pay for the balance of the project.

Approval of funding comes more than a decade after the service was first proposed. Trains will use the existing Northstar commuter rail Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis, and make stops at new stations in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wis. The service will mostly use BNSF’s ex-Great Northern Hinckley Subdivision. Existing sidings would be lengthened and the portion from Cambridge to Hinckley would be upgraded to allow for 90 mph operation. Trains would make four round trips daily. Ridership is projected at 700,000 to 750,000 the first year. Service could begin in three years, although in view of how long past rail projects in the United States have taken, that is likely an optimistic estimate.

Minnesota’s appropriation is for $194,700,000 in fiscal year 2024. That will include money for preliminary engineering, design, environmental analysis and mitigation, acquisition of land and right-of-way, and construction. It also includes money for acquisition of equipment and rolling stock in the Midwest Amtrak fleet pool to provide for service on both the Northern Lights Express and expanded Amtrak service between St. Paul and Chicago. The second St. Paul-Chicago train got a further boost in the legislation since it includes $1,833,000 in fiscal year 2024 and $3,238,000 in fiscal year 2025 for capital and operating costs as a match for federal funding. Start up for the second Chicago train, running on the current route of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, is expected to begin later this year or early in 2024.

The legislation includes additional funding for the new NLX station in Coon Rapids to allow Amtrak’s Empire Builder to stop there, essentially creating a Minneapolis suburban stop for the train and an NLX connection to the Builder.

Other parts of the transportation bill related to rail include funds to study the feasibility of extending Northstar commuter service to St. Cloud. The line now stops at Big Lake, Minn. but was designed as a service to St. Cloud. When the line was built it was scaled back to Big Lake due to lack of funding, and has struggled to lure passengers back following the pandemic. Another study would examine possible service improvements on the BNSF line between St. Paul and Moorhead, Minn. currently used by the Empire Builder.

Lawmakers allocated $50 million to help design a light rail extension between downtown Minneapolis and suburban Brooklyn Park but $40 million won’t be released until federal funding is finalized. A Twin Cities metro-area sales tax was approved to help fund transit projects, as was a gas tax increase indexed to inflation.

Rail was actually a small part of the transportation bill, which totaled $1.3 billion mainly for the state’s roads, and bridges. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign the legislation this week.

11 thoughts on “Minnesota legislature approves funding for Northern Lights Express passenger service

  1. I want to be on that train when I visit family in Minneapolis and Duluth. I’ve been waiting since 1988 to do that.

    1. Great question, James. As other posters have mentioned, this make NO sense.

  2. Wow, the “North Star” in the 1983 photo has 7 Superliner cars. Was this a typical consist, were there that many riders? I rode this train once, about 4 years prior to the date of the 1983 photo, and it only had three Amfleet coaches, an Am-dinette, a heritage sleeper, and baggage car, operating all the way to Chicago. Maybe the 1983 photo shows a special movement of some kind?

    1. Can’t explain the long consist, Jeffrey, but it definitely is an anomaly. I photographed the last North Star on Easter Sunday (1985) at Midway station. The consist was 2 coaches.

  3. If the Duluth train is to run from Target Field instead of SPUD, it’s a 49 minute Metro Green Line ride to SPUD where Amtrak is. I understand there are covered and enclosed waiting areas with an on-demand heating system at Target. There is no indication of restroom facilities there. Amtrak should consider a dedicated connecting restroom-equipped bus from one station to the other.

    Minnesota must also ensure Amtrak uses reliable locomotives. Winter weather out on the railroad is no joke.

  4. I was in 9th grade when I started reading articles about the potential for new service between MSP and Duluth. That was 2007. I think they said it would start in 2011. Kudos to that team for sticking with the vision for 16-plus years. I’m hopeful (though not terribly optimistic, given the expenditure) that this service sees better ridership numbers than North Star, which has been a disappointment since that service started in 2009.

  5. Target Field “station” is actually a parking ramp no ticket counter, baggage svc or Amtrak or Intercity bus connections basically a glorified bus/LRT transfer platform but Mpls continues to be the spoiled child that needs to be indulged & the center of attention instead of having the train operate out of SPUD where all these svc exist. They’re actually admitting few will board in Dwtn Mpls by building a new station in Coon Rapids but which is a long drive from much of the Twin Cities & is actually in Anoka Co. This will end up like the Northstar service hampered by a Mpls centric route that limits it functionality & connectivity. I’d be surprise if it ever comes to fruition.

  6. Back in the day, the state of Minnesota also paid for a maintenance hanger in Duluth for an airline flight or two from the twin cities. Nice to see passenger rail get a slice of that Duluth travel subsidy.

  7. “…acquisition of equipment and rolling stock in the Midwest Amtrak fleet pool…” Is this a “deal me in” from the existing fleet, or a buy of new equipment to add to the fleet?

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