Saturday, March 5, 2011

Amtrak's old North Star to Duluth

There was passenger service from the Twin Cities to Duluth with Amtrak's North Star up until the mid-1980s, though it was a state-supported train and the political will to keep it running was eventually lost. Here's a video documenting one such battle:

The Jeno Paulucci they speak of is he of Jeno's Pizza Rolls and other pizza-related endeavors. What's remarkable to me is that they are only concerned about a sum of $27,000. Twenty-seven thousand dollars! If only our subsidies could be so low these days! Of course, I'm sure that was just a short-term charge—they must have had a budget overrun that year. The fact that Amtrak was also able to find $100,000 to keep the line operating is pretty amazing to me.

Amtrak's accounting methods were fairly questionable at the time. One analysis from 1984 indicated that Amtrak was significantly overcharging states for routes like the North Star which operated as reserved trains and generated lots of revenue from on-board food service. Mn/DOT got charged the equivalent of $13.75 per call to operate a telephone reservation service, when it should have been closer to three dollars each.

The North Star was the last in a series of trains along the route. It started service in 1978 as a once-daily train with one extra round-trip on Fridays. The service eventually got cut back to daily or weekend-only service. On top of that, the train took 3 hours 35 minutes to travel 153 miles, an average of 42.7 mph. (Even with freight trains today, the route to Duluth operates with manually-thrown switches).

Low speed and ever-decreasing service frequency of trains in the latter half of the 20th century both contributed to the near-demise of train travel in the U.S. Cars are attractive because they let you travel anytime, anywhere. It's absolutely impossible for a weekend-only train to compete with that. The railroads probably should have responded by making trains more frequent rather than less frequent. In Europe, it's common to see intercity trains running once an hour! We can hardly get regional metro-area bus routes to operate that frequently much of the time.

Fortunately, the planned Northern Lights Express to Duluth should address both issues of speed and frequency, with a little extra local service mixed in. The trip times should be down to 2 hours 17 minutes or less, averaging between 66 mph on up to about 75 mph. The route is planned to have eight round-trips daily, and it will have 7 total stops along the way rather than the North Star's 5.

Faster, more frequent, and serving more people. That's the way I like it.

By the way, if you are interested in checking out the route, the operators of the Milwaukee Road 261 steam locomotive run a fall colors excursion up the line each autumn.

No comments:

Post a Comment