Monday, April 6, 2015

Following the tracks to Duluth

Here is a map showing the route for trains that are expected to run from Minneapolis to Duluth once the Northern Lights Express project is completed. Like my previous map for Amtrak's Empire Builder, this shows segments of single- and double-tracking (usually sidings) along the corridor. This highlights the places where trains may be able to pass each other, and gives an idea of how much capacity there is on the line.

There aren't any regularly-scheduled passenger trains on this route today. Amtrak stopped service in the 1980s, though there are usually one or two excursion trips per year operated by the Friends of the 261.

Ever since Amtrak stopped running on the line, there have been efforts to restore passenger service to Duluth. The Northern Lights Express (NLX) is the current project, which is in the midst of Tier 2 environmental review and preliminary engineering.

The Northern Lights Express is planned to have several daily round-trips and end-to-end travel times somewhere between 2 and 2½ hours. On existing tracks, the route is about 153 miles, though abandoned track in and near Duluth has caused the route to become a bit more circuitous than it used to be. Today, the trip would be about 4 miles longer than what it was for earlier passenger trains on the route.

Bridges at the mouth of St. Louis Bay in Duluth
as seen in 1961.
Timetable of Great Northern trains to Duluth from 1966.
A notable change in Duluth was the abandonment of bridges across the St. Louis Bay which ran near the Blatnik Bridge (Interstate 535/U.S. 53). Both of these were taken out in the 1980s. Farther south, there was also a realignment the main line leading to a junction at Boylston, Wisconsin. Today's Target Field station in Minneapolis is also about half a mile farther south than the old Great Northern depot, which was demolished in 1978.

There used to be a few competing services running between the Twin Cities and Duluth—the Great Northern from Minneapolis (today's route), the Northern Pacific from Saint Paul (closely followed by Interstate 35 today), and another route from the Soo Line which ran further east. Both of these latter two routes have seen big segments of track be abandoned, so they aren't practical for reuse without huge investments.

In the 1950s and 1960s, each railroad operated one or two trains per day on their line to Duluth, so their were about 5 daily round-trips in total. To the right is a Great Northern timetable, which shows the express Gopher train and the local Badger. Both trains ran through Minneapolis and terminated at Saint Paul Union Depot, but for comparison's sake, I'm going to ignore that last leg.

The express Gopher train took 2 hours 50 minutes northbound from Minneapolis to Duluth and 2h45 southbound, while the local Badger took 3h10 northbound and 3h05 southbound including all of its extra stops. Over the distance of 149 miles, the average speed ranged from 47 to 54 mph across these different trips.

When Amtrak took over the nation's passenger trains in 1971, Duluth was initially cut out of the passenger system, but service returned after several months. Frequency ranged from one round-trip per day to only a few round-trips per week, down to about one-tenth as much service as there had been a couple decades earlier if all three railroads were counted. The service finally ended in 1985.

What will it take to get passenger service restored to Duluth?

Great Northern successor BNSF Railway owns the tracks today, and there are about 17 daily freight trains on the route according to MnDOT. The same map shows a current speed limit of 50 mph, though it's unclear if passenger trains would be restricted to that same number (passenger trains are typically allowed to run 10 to 20 mph faster than freight trains on the same tracks).

Between Coon Rapids and Boylston, the average single-track section is about 10 miles long. There is one 16.3-mile section of single-track between Cambridge and Grasston which limits capacity. Another 20-mile section between Andover and Cambridge only has short sidings and might be considered as one segment of single-track.

Excepting a couple of short outliers, the average passing siding on the route is about 1.6 miles long, or around 8,450 feet. Freight trains can be up to around 7,000 feet in length, so there are some sidings where they are a tight fit.

The 20-mile section from Andover to Cambridge probably limits rail traffic to about two trains per hour at current speeds. There's an upper limit of about 48 trains/day on this line, though that would require a completely even distribution of traffic at all hours with each train operating at a consistent and relatively slow speed.

The most likely plan I've seen for NLX has had 8 daily round-trips. Adding 16 passenger trains to the existing 17 freights would result in 33 trains/day, and that's with a mix of trains operating under different speed limits. The line definitely needs some improvements to handle that much traffic and leave enough headroom for schedule slips and other disruptions.

It may make sense to double-track the entire corridor someday, though some early estimates for doing that ended up with $1 billion-plus cost figures.

Lengthening the short siding in Bethel and adding another near Stanchfield would chop the longest non-passing segments in half. Combining that with lengthening some existing sidings and adding three or four others would probably double the line's capacity, making it far easier to add passenger trains to the route while maintaining the ability to move freight and keep everything running on schedule.

Based on this cost estimating methodology from MnDOT, adding these sidings would be relatively inexpensive, probably around $40 million. However, since higher speeds are needed on this line to attract as many passengers as possible, it would only be one modest component of the total cost.

It's possible to dial the expenditures up or down on the route in order to target a "sweet spot" of benefits versus costs. As I mentioned in a post last month, if a passenger service is able to control its operating budget properly, it should be possible to pay off infrastructure cost through fares.

Previous studies have suggested that the Minneapolis to Duluth corridor could attract 900,000 or more annual rail passengers if the speed and frequency of service were high enough. This puts the Duluth line at or near the zone where it could make sense to for a private operator to put in around $2 million per mile, or around $300 million total, particularly if they received a low- or no-interest loan for the buildout.

It would be a challenge to construct a fast, frequent service for that amount, but might just be doable. But even if federal, state, and local governments had to cover the remaining amount in a public-private partnership, it could accelerate development of one of the most important transportation links in Minnesota.

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