Thursday, September 1, 2011

Northern Lights Express route approved by FRA

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 Central Corridor Green Line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul should be operational by the time NLX trains begin running.

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.


  1. I think that last sentence is the most important detail of the project which few will ever hear or understand.

  2. Is the frequency going to be two-hourly throughout the day?

    Anyway, the travel time proposed is pretty good - it's fairly highway-competitive. Though, if the frequency is one train every two hours, maybe it'd be better to spend extra money on superelevating track and such to get trip time down to 1:50. It's probably impossible without both electrification and non-compliant trains, though. With a travel time somewhat less than 2:30, hourly service guarantees high rolling stock utilization, whereas two-hourly service involves trains sitting in the terminals depreciating for more than half an hour at a time.

  3. I'll have to start up a conversation with somebody over there soon, because that's a sort of detail that I don't have readily available. The most in-depth stuff on their site is in this 2007 report. The appendix has one schedule (pg. E-2, or 48 in my PDF reader), but it's for a 6+9 plan where only 2/3 of the trains would run north of Hinckley/Sandstone. Another part of the document indicated that all of the studied service frequencies would have sample timetables in the appendix, but they appear to have gone missing.

    Anyway, the one I did find is definitely not evenly spaced. It used a travel time of 2 hours flat, which probably lends itself better to stretching and shrinking the interval than a longer travel time does. The schedule did make some use of turn-around times of 10 minutes.

    The improvements necessary to pull off a 2-hour travel time eventually became too costly ($830 million to $1 billion), so they reduced the length of 110 mph track and got price estimates that were $200 to $250 million cheaper.