Study Reduces Cost Estimates, Speeds for Proposed Minneapolis-Duluth Passenger Trains

A study of a proposed passenger rail route between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, has reduced the cost of the project, but also the speed at which trains would operate.

The departments of transportation of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which collaborated on the study, estimate that the project will cost between $500 million and $600 million, which is nearly half of earlier projections. This includes costs of stations, equipment, and track improvements.

Trains would operate at 90 mph rather than the 110 mph that was earlier planned.

Known as the Northern Lights Express, trains would use existing BNSF tracks and offer four round trips per day Service is projected to begin in 2020 with a travel time of about 2.5 hours.

The study estimated patronage for the first year to be 700,000 to 750,000 trips, which is expected to increase to 1 million trips by 2040.

Fare revenue would cover most of the operating costs, estimated to average $17.5 million per year.

Amtrak’s Minnesota-funded North Star was the last passenger train in the corridor, ending on Easter Sunday 1985 after the state ended its funding.

During the 1960s, the former Great Northern Railway operated the twice-daily Badger and Gopher in the corridor.

A source of funding for construction of the corridor has yet to be identified.

In the meantime, the next step will involved updating the preliminary project and operation cost estimates, and preparation of a final benefit-cost analysis after cost-sharing discussions with BNSF are completed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is conducting preliminary engineering, a Tier II environmental assessment, and financial and implementation plans. MinnDOT officials said the project could be ready to begin 2017, officials said.

As for funding, MinnDOT is eyeing the possibility of a federal TIGER grant or other federal funding.

Officials said that in seeking federal funds, a project needs to be ready to begin construction.

The project is being overseen in part by the The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, a joint powers board formed to explore options for renewing passenger service on the 155-mile corridor.

Also participating in the project are local communities along the route and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Passenger Rail & Environmental Services.

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