High-speed rail to Duluth gains steam

MnDaily reports on: High-speed rail to Duluth gains steam
I get quoted.

The project’s estimated price tag is $750 million. Bob Manzoline, with the Regional Rail Authority, said that NLX is expected to carry 800,000 passengers annually.
David Levinson, a University of Minnesota civil engineering professor and an expert in transportation studies, disagreed with Manzoline’s ridership estimate. He called NLX an “outrageous” idea.
“The speed is too slow, very few people live immediately on the line and the destinations aren’t that popular,” Levinson said.
Though he believes NLX will eventually be built, he guessed that other rail projects, such as the Bottineau Boulevard Transitway, Central Corridor light rail and the Southwest Transitway will take priority and will push NLX’s opening to somewhere around 2025.
Manzoline said he thinks students will have a “substantial impact” on the NLX’s ridership numbers.
In fall 2010, 643 University students were from cities like Duluth in St. Louis County, according to the Office of Institutional Research. Currently, half of all undergraduates at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus are originally from the Twin Cities metro area.

If you believe the cost estimate, the capital subsidy is about $1000 per annual passenger, or about $33 per passenger over 30 years (ignoring discounting). If you believe the advocates, it breaks even operationally. I wonder how the now profitable private bus companies feel about this government subsidized competition.
What is the best use of $750,000,000 ? (Ok, it beats a Vikings stadium). Money spent on inter-city transport cannot be spent on urban transport.
Also, this is not High-speed rail.
As of 2006 flights from Mpls to Duluth had 227,361 riders. There is of course a casino, and providing rail service directly to the Casino is important public policy worthy of subsidy.

7 thoughts on “High-speed rail to Duluth gains steam

  1. 800k annual riders does seem outrageous. But if the total market is 21 million trips, the estimate is only a 4% market share. That may be a bit ambitious, but not really outrageous.


  2. See Intercity Bus: Jefferson Lines

    Strib has an article on Jefferson Lines, a local Intercity Bus company: Jefferson Lines: Flying low

    Traffic on daily roundtrips has risen from 16 passengers a day between Duluth and Minneapolis when Jefferson took over from Greyhound in 2004 to about 90 a day. And that’s before Jefferson added two more express routes last week.

    A 4% market share for rail in this market would be very high, given most people want a car on either end. Fewer than 8% of the region’s workforce works in downtown Minneapolis, and more than half drive to work. Fewer than 1% of the region’s residents live in downtown Minneapolis. A very small fraction is going to downtown Duluth or Hinckley. Access costs would eat up any time savings. And remember, skate to where the puck will be. What will cars be like in 20 years?
    This project should not be on anyone’s agenda, much less getting engineering funds (not that my former students aren’t appreciative).


  3. Maybe most people want a car on each end, but that would still leave room for 4% that don’t. In a few years, most of the Twin Cities’ tourist destinations will be reachable on decent-quality transit, and most of Duluth is currently accessible on decent-quality transit. I think the biggest hurdle for NLX meeting ridership goals will be the uncompetitiveness of Hiawatha vs. freeways, because otherwise it would be a no-brainer for anyone flying out of Duluth to take the train to MSP instead.
    I haven’t been able to quickly find data (just some rough calculations on a forum that found a 5.8% share for the Lincoln Service), but my sense based on ridership is that Amtrak corridors with more than one daily train and competitive travel time regularly have 4-6% market share. Feel free to prove me wrong.


  4. My point of view is that cars will become much more expensive to operate over the next 20 years. Fuel costs will rise. Base costs of new cars will rise due to more complex technologies. New methods will extract more energy from liquid or gaseous fuel, and more ways will be found to continue reducing “emissions” (stuff that isn’t CO2). Hybrid and all-electric cars will also make increasing use of batteries, which are going to take a long time to become truly cheap. Running costs of used cars will also go up for similar reasons.
    I don’t really think access is a huge issue: Downtown Minneapolis is the core of the Twin Cities’ bus network — about 100 routes converge within a few blocks of Target Field. Granted, most of those are express routes that only run one way each rush period, but compare that to MSP airport with one bus line and one LRT line, or today’s Amtrak station which generously has 3 bus routes running about two blocks away.
    For people who do drive, the “suburban north” station in either Fridley or Coon Rapids will probably be an attractive option. Going by today’s Northstar schedules, the trip time from one of those stations to Duluth should be less than 2 hours, yet the drive time from that part of the metro area isn’t much different than the time from downtown Minneapolis (according to Google Maps, anyway).
    I also feel it’s worth mentioning that much of the route lies in the MN-65 corridor, which is a pretty frustrating way to drive to Duluth. Certainly most people (and all Jefferson Lines buses) take I-35 instead, but I wonder how much impetus there is upgrade MN-65 to interstate standards, which would also cost a huge amount.
    I should ask around to see if there are any ridership figures for Amtrak’s old trains to Duluth in the ’70s and early ’80s. Anecdotal evidence from old news clips on YouTube and one or two other places indicates the route carried 450 to 550 passengers per 3.5-hour trip, at least during the summer months. It only ran a few times per week toward the end, as opposed to the 56 round-trips per week they seem to be planning now (8x daily). The new line should only need to carry around twice as many passengers per (operating) day as the old route did in order to hit their ridership projections.
    Anyway, I hope I’ve refrained from calling this route a “high-speed rail” line myself. Given that it would run with a speed profile that’s really similar to what the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha used to run from here to Chicago, it’s not a particularly exceptional thing that needs a new label.
    Is $750 million too much? It’s hard for me to say, though I feel it’s several times better than the planned bluff-to-bluff Stillwater bridge which is running a similar cost. There are a bunch of regulatory reasons why the price has gone so high — reforming the Federal Railroad Administration would help enormously. The price should be lower, but even at $30 per passenger every year, it’s probably equal to or less than Amtrak’s average passenger subsidy today.


  5. @Alex Well far be it from me to dispute figures from Batman90 on a pro-rail forum comment page
    But basically what this means is you are predicting that the MPLS to Duluth market will have more daily riders with NLX than the current and long-developed Amtrak Chicago to St. Louis Market.
    While the Twin Cities is comparable to St. Louis, Chicago is just a tad (100x) larger than Duluth. (granted the distance from Chicago to St. Louis is twice as far, but that only favors rail over car).
    @Mulad – Think about who is using the bus system in the Twin Cities, and how many of those people are going to Duluth. Aside from a few students, they are very different customer bases.


  6. Actually I don’t trust the prediction of 800,000 annual riders, it’s the 4% market share that I think is reasonable. That’s a guess based on perceiving a rough correlation between population and ridership on the handful of Amtrak routes that are competitive with cars in travel time, and also considering public transit mode share in the metro areas with time-competitive Amtrak routes (unlike you, apparently, I assume that people who use public transportation also travel on occasion).
    We wretched creatures outside the walls of Academia don’t have institutions to pay for subscriptions to scholarly journals, so unfortunately Batman90 is the best we can do sometimes. The NLX Feasibility Study isn’t much help, since the consultants unsurprisingly describe their proprietary market estimation formula in very vague terms. They do reveal some assumptions though, such as that the 3.5m annual visitors to Grand Casino translate into 7m annual trips on the corridor, which would make for 1/3 of total corridor trips. That seems a bit high to me and gives some weight to my suspicion about the total market for travel between Minneapolis and Duluth. But of course I know as much as Batman90 about the topic.


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