Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Northern Lights Express

Frequently asked questions

The project will be funded up to 80% with federal money and 20% with state money. In the 2023 session, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $194.7M. This provides the 20% state match needed to secure federal grants needed for final design and construction, and to purchase locomotives and cars for NLX.

In March 2023, MnDOT applied to two competitive federal grant programs to fund NLX, the Corridor Identification and Development program (CIDP) and the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Program (FSP). In December 2023, we learned MnDOT was awarded $500,000 in CIDP funds to start moving the project forward.

The cost estimate was calculated based on capital improvements that were identified in 2017. Today’s estimate of $592.3 million (FY2026) includes inflation factors.

The steps involved in getting the route operational will take time to complete, and the availability of federal funds will impact the timeline. The steps include:

  • Negotiating and completing all needed agreements
  • Updating the service development plan
  • Updating preliminary engineering
  • Environmental analysis work
  • Final design work
  • Infrastructure construction and improvements
  • Purchase equipment
  • Testing

  • Track upgrades, and new and extended sidings. Track improvements will allow for safe, on-time service for both passenger and freight traffic. The track upgrades will allow passenger trains to operate at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. The existing line has a single mainline track, so the sidings will allow trains to pass each other.   
  • Upgraded signals, which are needed so passenger trains can operate at higher speeds (90 mph) than freight trains.
  • Grade crossing improvements. Public gate crossings to have auditory and sensory warnings and gates.
  • New and expanded stations. Stations in Duluth and Minneapolis (Target Field) will be upgraded. New stations will be constructed in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, WI.

MnDOT has received $500,000 in the form of CIDP funds. The $500,000 in CIDP funds will be used to develop a scope, schedule, and cost estimate for updating NLX’s service development plan (SDP). This is the first of three steps under the CIDP. Step two is updating the SDP. Step three is project development, which includes updating preliminary engineering and environmental documents.

MnDOT will work with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to further develop and refine the work that has already been done on NLX. As we review and complete the steps needed in the CIDP, MnDOT will apply for FSP funds for final design and construction. The acceptance of the NLX into CIDP is an important step in moving this passenger rail service forward. Projects that complete the CIDP will be prioritized for future federal capital funding opportunities. 

The NLX is currently expected to have four roundtrips per day connecting Duluth/Superior and Minneapolis.

Original estimates based on cell phone data collected in 2011 placed ridership at 700,000 in the first year. We expect these numbers to change depending on several variables including how many rail cars are used, gas prices, time of year, etc.

Prices will be set closer to the start of service.

There are still additional steps that need to take place before we can determine the start date. However, the CIDP award is a critical step in moving NLX passenger rail service forward. Federal grant dollars along with the state funds appropriated are key to developing the timeline. Steps include:

  •  CIDP funding ($500,000) will be used to develop a scope, schedule, and cost estimate for updating NLX’s service development plan (SDP). This is the first of three steps under the CIDP.
  • Step two is updating the service development plan.
  • Step three is project development. This includes updating preliminary engineering and environmental documents. The state funds appropriated, coupled with the CIDP funds, will help support these development activities to get the project ready for construction and to make us more competitive in future rounds of federal grant funding.
  • FRA determines when each step is complete.

MnDOT will then need to secure additional federal funding for design and construction, which will determine when service will begin.

MnDOT completed a Tier 2 Environmental Assessment (EA) for NLX in 2017 and FRA issued a Finding of no Significant Impact (FONSI) in early 2018. As time passes and conditions and projects change, environmental work needs to be updated to account for these changes. MnDOT will work with the FRA to determine next steps, including what might need updating.