There's a lot of information being bandied about concerning the proposed Northern Lights Express (NLX) passenger train service between Minneapolis and Duluth. Opponents fall back on the argument about the old Amtrak service to Duluth, which operated from 1975 to 1985, labeling it a "failure." Taking a closer look at the old service reveals it was not a failure of ridership, but funding, as Minnesota government seesawed back and forth with funding scenarios that prevented the service from being reliable.
State-subsidized Amtrak service from Superior, Wis., to Minneapolis began April 16, 1975, with a morning departure out of Superior and an evening one from Minneapolis. The train did not do well — there were a lot more people in the Twin Cities who wanted to go to the Twin Ports than the opposite. In April 1976, the train was saved from extinction by a last-minute appropriation from the Legislative Advisory Commission.
The lesson was learned. On Feb. 15, 1977, service directly into Duluth began, and the schedule was flip-flopped, with the train leaving Minneapolis in the morning and Duluth in the evening. Ridership increased dramatically. In April 1977, funding was again threatened, but legislators agreed to a one-year funding extension as ridership climbed.
Still the state still refused to provide long-term funding, instead coming up with funds at the last minute. Having the train constantly in funding peril had a side benefit: As people feared the service would end, they came out to ride. In November 1982, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation received its August 1982 billing from Amtrak, it indicated the train made an $18,000 profit that month! Still, on Sept. 6, 1982, state funding ran out.
A few days later, U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger announced he had persuaded Amtrak to make an accounting change that refunded $100,000 to the state. This kept the train running weekends through March 1983; during the holidays the train ran daily. In January 1983, an evening ski train began on Fridays through the winter sponsored by Amtrak, MnDOT and the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In February and May 1983, the state approved funding to keep the train running through 1984. Daily service was provided during the summer months. But in 1985, the train again faced a funding crisis. State money ran out for the train at end of March, and it made its last run April 7, 1985.
Ridership figures from Amtrak and MnDOT by year:
Now train service to Duluth may be revived as NLX, but the problem for some is the fact that the trains will not be profitable and will be subsidized. Many people desperately want Amtrak, which would operate NLX, to be a proper profitable "company." But if you or I set out to launch a company, we would never attempt Amtrak's mission: to serve the entire country, at a reasonable fare, with modern, reliable rail service. Amtrak is not a private company but a quasi-government agency, yet people want it to make a profit. But if there were profits in getting Grandma from St. Paul to Minot, private railroads would be falling over themselves to do it. There is no profit in doing that.
The damaging leap many Americans make from this is to declare that because it's not profitable it's not worth doing. I disagree — the reason we have government is to do the things that private industry cannot profitably do, to provide things that private industry cannot profitably provide and to secure and guarantee the preconditions for the success of private capital.
The point of passenger rail service like NLX is not to be profitable but to ensure mobility and access for people because that, in turn, fuels prosperity in the communities served and dignity to the people who live in them. That's where a subsidy becomes an investment.
If you want to get serious about subsidies, highways are a better place to look first. Since 2009, the federal government has transferred $275 billion from general tax funds into the Highway Trust Fund because gas taxes haven't been raised since the 1990s and come nowhere close to covering what's needed to subsidize construction and maintenance.
No one is saying to end that practice — but there should be alternatives for those who cannot or choose not to drive that are more expansive and comfortable than bus service. That's really what the original train to Duluth, and NLX, is about.
Steve Glischinski lives in Shoreview and is a regular contributor to Trains Magazine. He has written eight books on railroad subjects, including "Minnesota Railroads: A Photographic History, 1940-2012," published by the University of Minnesota Press.