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The Twin Cities and the Twin Ports are on track to be connected by passenger rail again within the next few years. The Federal Railroad Administration has told the Minneapolis – Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance—the joint-powers board backing the Northern Lights Express train—that the preferred route (#9) has been approved. As part of a 7-month review, the FRA had asked for information on two alternate routes (#11 and #11A) which had ranked fairly well in previous studies. In both cases, trains would have traveled east from Minneapolis before heading north along the old "Skally Line" until reaching Hinckley. However, those routes would have been slower for many riders and would require rebuilding a significant chunk of trackbed which has been abandoned and largely converted into bike trails.
The FRA's approval means that the rail alliance can go ahead with plans to begin preliminary engineering in early 2012. There will be further approvals needed in the future, but this was a significant one to overcome. Trains could be running by 2015.
Unlike the current commuter-oriented Northstar service from Big Lake to Minneapolis, the Northern Lights Express is being planned as an intercity or regional rail service. It should have periodic trips through the day rather than having a schedule compressed into the rush hours. The NLX could be considered a "restoration" of train service to Duluth, but it should actually be better than anything that has existed before. For instance, an old 1951 timetable shows 5 daily round-trips across three railroads. While the new train will only run along one line, it is currently planned to have eight round-trips daily. Thanks to a top speed of 110 mph, the new train will also be significantly faster, making the run in less than 2½ hours, about an hour faster than the old trains did.
The planned route is surely a disappointment to some, since it won't directly connect to the Saint Paul Union Depot like route 11A would have. However, the
The service is currently expected to cost between $650 and $750 million to build, with up to 80% of the cost covered by the FRA. It is hoped that the train will be able to pay for year-to-year operational costs entirely through ticket revenue within a few years of opening.