The Case for Building Northern Lights Express, Part Two
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part article arguing for the environmental and community-building importance of the Northern Lights Express train between Minneapolis and Duluth. Read part one here.
“Trains are generally less problematic when you look at them per person because they can carry more people per energy expended. A train uses practically the same amount of energy to carry 1,000 people as it does to carry 100 people. So if you can put 1,000 people on that train, suddenly that’s 1/10th the pollution.”
– Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute
Junction by train
Once the NLX train line is built and operational, it could become a connecting line for several branch lines leading to other regional destinations. As the Midwest becomes a hub for people escaping the worst effects of climate change in the country’s coastal and southern regions, branch lines would be critical to meet increased service demands. And by starting construction of the branch line immediately upon completion of NLX, designers, engineers and builders would be able to apply the theoretical and practical know-how gained through the construction of NLX to complete the branch lines on time and within budget to build.
For reference, consider the Princeton Branch Line – a short branch line on the Northeast Corridor Line that runs from Princeton Junction northwest to Princeton non-stop. Also known as Dinky or Princeton Junction and Back (PJ&B), the branch is served by special shuttle trains. At 4.3 km (2.7 miles) along a single track line that was once double track, it is the shortest scheduled commuter rail line in the United States.
The Princeton Dinky takes about five minutes to travel from end to end in each direction. The Princeton branch has catenary electrification. That means the train runs on clean energy and is more energy efficient than the Siemens Charger diesel-electric passenger locomotives used by Amtrak (it doesn’t haul the 1,800 US gallons of diesel fuel those trains require). They also accelerate faster than diesel locomotives.
The following are possible sidelines that could be created sometime in the next 30 years:
- Years ago, passengers could take a train connecting Duluth to Staples and transfer to Empire Builder to travel to western cities like Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. From 1959 to 1966, the Northern Pacific offered two round trips per day between Duluth and Staples on trains 55 & 56 and trains 57 & 58; Both trains used Budd RDC-3 (Rail Diesel Cars). Locals sometimes referred to them as “Staples Streetcar”. Trains 55 and 56 were discontinued on June 7, 1966, while trains 57 and 58 ran until May 24, 1969.
- The May 1, 1969 release of the Northern Pacific Public Timetable shows that trains 57 and 58 make scheduled stops at Duluth, Superior (Wisconsin), Carleton, Deerwood, Brainerd, and finally Staples. At 17 other points along the route there were intermediate stops (small stations between the main stations or stations where the train only stops at a signal from passengers at the station or on the train). In the near future, once the Empire Builder is connected by a converted North Coast Hiawatha line and another line connecting Fargo, North Dakota to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, there should be sufficient passenger demand for the Staples Streetcar to be restored give.
- A northern branch could connect many communities in northern Minnesota as far north as International Falls, Minnesota with an international connection to Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada. A northeast turn could connect Two Harbors and then continue northeast to the increasingly popular Grand Marais and terminate in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
- Another branch could serve the tourist town of Ely, Minnesota.
About 20 years ago I saw plans for a proposed commuter train on a new track connecting Duluth to Ashland, Wisconsin. Let’s extend this line south to Prentice, then east to Bradley, then south again to Wausau, then east again to Green Bay, south to Milwaukee, and finally ending in Chicago. This route is similar to a proposed passenger rail project in northern Michigan that would run from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, with a north branch to Petoskey. Perhaps my proposed NLX branch lines aren’t so far-fetched after all, given that the Michigan Department of Transportation is investigating the route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City.
Transit Oriented Development
Traffic numbers vary widely along the I-35 corridor. According to James Miles, Associate of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT): “Existing quantities range from as high as 80,000 AADT [annual average daily traffic] just north of I-35, which splits in the subway at just 14,000 AADT north of Banning Junction. However, once the NLX trains start operating, shops and housing will be built around the NLX stations. We see that elsewhere.
For example, above the branch of the Long Island Railroad from Huntington to Penn Station are the 206-unit Park Lane North Cooperative Apartments and the 213-unit 118-18 Union Turnpike Apartments. These otherwise unremarkable apartment buildings are built on a wide bridge off the Jackie Robinson Parkway. These apartments are located 550 m (1,800 ft) from the Kew Gardens, Long Island train station (according to Google Maps). About 400 feet south of Key Station are two rows of one-story shops and restaurants built on a Lefferts Boulevard bridge over the tracks.
Watching a front window video on a train from Huntington to New York Penn Station, I was very surprised to see these massive structures being built on bridges over Long Island railroad tracks. At first I thought these structures were built over a rock tunnel rather than two concrete bridges. The wide bridges appear at the 57 minute mark in the video.
Building structures near transit stations are referred to as “Transit Oriented Development”. It creates dense homes and businesses in close proximity to transit stations on foot or by bike, helping our cities meet their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
Let’s encourage our elected officials to pass legislation urging real estate developers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to develop similar homes and businesses in, around and above NLX train stations and railroad tracks. I hope for many such developments.
A need for speed
Years ago, the Box Tops had a hit, “The Letter,” with the lyrics, “Give me a ticket on a plane. / I don’t have time to take an express train.” Speed has become everything in our culture.
But the question for a traveler is not only how quickly you can get to your destination – but also how comfortable, convenient and environmentally friendly your journey is. Speed alone should not be a deciding factor, otherwise we would all be driving Formula 1 racing cars.
America’s fastest train, Acela, Amtrak’s flagship bullet train along the Northeast Corridor, travels approximately 34 miles at 150 mph. It has an average speed of 82 mph between Washington and New York while it travels around 66 mph between New York and Boston. America’s newest passenger train service, Florida’s Brightline, currently operates at 79 miles per hour. These passenger trains attract thousands of passengers each day, reducing car and air travel from increasingly congested highways and skies. Similar to these other commuter rail lines, Northern Lights Express offers fast service, with speeds up to 90 mph and an estimated travel time between Twin Ports and the Twin Cities of 2.5 hours. In short, you don’t have to have the fastest trains in the world to make train travel appealing to the traveling public.
According to MnDOT, “In the first year, about 700,000 to 750,000 people are expected to ride the train. In 20 years, the number of passengers is estimated at around 1 million per year. These numbers take into account how likely someone is to take the train instead of driving. Factors include age, gender, car ownership, cost of gas and reason for travel.” To put this in perspective, MnDOT notes that “drivers make approximately 3.6 billion trips between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports each year. If just 1 in 5,000 of those journeys switch to the train, NLX will meet its passenger projections.”
Keep in mind that federal and state passenger forecasts are based on conservative numbers. As soon as a line starts to move passengers, e.g. B. the METRO Blue Line, the actual passenger numbers are often far higher than their forecasts.
In addition, NLX will save lives by preventing road accidents while reducing carbon emissions. Reducing carbon emissions along the Interstate 35 corridor will help the Midwest comply with the 2015 Paris climate accords. Also remember that once this important service begins, NLX’s top speed will be gradually increased to well over 150 km/h, making train travel faster than driving.
For proof that Americans do, in fact, ride recently created passenger trains, look to Seattle’s Sounder commuter rail service. This two-line commuter train is operated by BNSF on behalf of Sound Transit. Passengers began traveling on the S line on September 18, 2000 and on the N line on December 26, 2003. In 2019, both lines carried 4.6 million passengers, although the top speed of these trains is 79 mph, slower than the 90 mph of our future NLX.
Now is the time
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, who recently announced her candidacy for a third term, is a longtime supporter of the NLX, calling it “a unique opportunity to improve the connection between the Twin Cities area, Duluth, and Northeast Minnesota.” .” She says, “Now is the time.” And she’s right.
According to projections by the U.S. Department of Transportation, rush-hour traffic on Interstate 35 between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports will be severely congested by 2035 (“and-go conditions” by 2035.)
When NLX ridership reaches approximately 1 million per year, NLX will reduce traffic and congestion on I-35 and nearby north-south roads such as Minnesota State Highway 65. To move passengers and cargo along the I-35 corridor, we need to get NLX transit up and running as soon as possible.
NLX will be one of the most economically built mass transit projects in the United States and will provide taxpayers with a great return on their investment. It is the only viable option to increase the supply of affordable housing, reduce road traffic, increase economic growth, and at the same time improve air quality in corridor I-35.
As a bonus, the more commuters use public transport, the fewer parking spaces we need in our cities and communities. The land now used for parking can then be repurposed for human needs rather than large cars.
So I’m asking you to get in touch with your elected officials and tell them to support the building of NLX now.