2024 rail series no. 1

Seeing Double: The Midwest’s Other North-South In-State Rail Project

Groundwork’s effort to establish a North-South Passenger Rail in Michigan is part of a national movement to improve and expand train lines that connect big and small cities around the country. Public opinion research and travel trends show that across the United States, a growing number of people don’t want to drive and fly everywhere. Further, factors such as access to dependable rail services and public transit are becoming increasingly important considerations as young people decide where they want to live and start their families, and seniors choose where they’d like to retire.

Graph: Majority wants more transportation options

When the Urban Land Institute asked 1,202 adults if access to convenient public transportation was important to them when deciding where to live, most said yes.

Many policymakers and municipal leaders have taken notice of the desire for passenger rail and are working to develop rail options to help their communities thrive. This article is the first of a series in which we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most exciting passenger rail projects happening around the country. We’ll look at what they hope to accomplish and how our North-South Rail Project could accomplish similar aims here in Michigan.

The proposed rail project most similar to Michigan’s north-south line is found in our chilly Midwestern compatriot Minnesota. Christened the Northern Lights Express, or NLX, the project has made significant progress. The train will run 155 miles from Minneapolis to Duluth via Superior, Wisconsin, on tracks that will be rated for 90 miles per hour. The service would connect more than four million Minnesotans in the north and central regions of the state by rail for the first time in decades.

Similar to Michigan’s North-South Rail Project, Minnesota’s Northern Lights Express would connect a major southern metropolitan area with northern population centers.

MN rail route

Northern Michigan has been without passenger rail since 1966, but in Minnesota, where passenger rail service to Duluth ended in 1971, Amtrak introduced a replacement service less than five years later. It would be short-lived, however, as the federal government cut Amtrak’s funding in the 1980s and Minnesota decided not to continue financially supporting the line. The service, first known as the Arrowhead before being modified and renamed North Star, would operate its last trains in the spring of 1985.

So, for nearly 40 years, the people of Duluth and Northern Minnesota have lacked a rail connection to the rest of the state and country. The NLX project seeks to end this state of affairs by reestablishing the original service with modern improvements. Plans include a shorter travel time, free wifi, charging ports at each seat, and new stations, among other amenities. It’s been a long journey. Planning the new service began in earnest in the early 1990s, and an exploratory study was completed in 2000. Here in Michigan, the North-South Passenger Rail project completed its exploratory study in 2018.

Minnesota’s Department of Transportation, numerous labor groups, chambers of commerce, cities, and universities have persevered because they recognize the potential benefits of passenger rail are enormous. More than 700,000 passengers are expected to ride in the first year, generating ticket revenues that will cover a significant portion of the line’s expenses while significantly decreasing emissio