The country’s largest interstate passenger rail provider was in Duluth last week, exploring service possibilities for the proposed line between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities.

An Amtrak official from the company’s Chicago Union Station office met with the mayors of Duluth and Superior to talk about the $550-million Northern Lights Express Higher Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Project — a years-old vision that remains unfunded while at the same time having cleared significant hurdles in recent years.

“I didn’t receive a pitch,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said about the meeting. “They brought their government relations to town to learn more about our interest and met with many different stakeholders. They’ll be back in March.”

Larson described the meeting as an “exciting escalation” in the development of the rail line, a 152-mile project which has proposed using existing BNSF rail to service a series of passenger stops between Duluth, Superior and Minneapolis. The train would average 60 mph and a travel up to 90 mph between stops, while sharing the rail line with freight trains.

Frank Loetterle of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has oversight of the project, described the visit as a positive sign. Amtrak and MnDOT have been in discussions for three or four years, he said, and have an understanding that Amtrak would operate the Northern Lights Express.

“Amtrak is trying to make clear to supporters of the project that they look upon it favorably and are excited about the possibility of providing the service,” said Loetterle, project manager working out of MnDOT’s freight and rail office in St. Paul.

Discussions with BNSF and Amtrak about the Northern Lights Express have been characterized as informal, Loetterle said. There are no agreements in place with either entity, and operational agreements won’t come into play before project funding.

To that end, supporters of the NLX proclaimed a significant victory in 2018, when the project was found to have no significant environmental barriers and could proceed without an environmental impact statement. It meant the project had reached the funding stage.

“The door is open,” said Bob Manzoline, director of the St. Louis and Lake County Rail Authority. “It’s ready to receive funding.”

For $550 million, MnDOT would upgrade 117 railroad crossings between Duluth and Minneapolis, build or update depots and platforms, and construct four to five sidings along the rail route that will allow freight trains to pull off and be passed by the passenger train.

Stations are proposed in six communities, including Minneapolis, Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Hinckley to go with Duluth and Superior.

Local state Reps. Jennifer Schultz, Liz Olson and Mary Murphy co-authored a bill requesting $4 million for the NLX project in January. Freeing up federal money would require state and local investments on a 20-80 scale, Manzoline said, with the feds requiring a 20-percent state-local match to unlock 80-percent of federal funds.

“There has to be a commitment before you can apply,” Manzoline said. “Before you ask for $20 million, they want to see $4 million.”

Manzoline predicted that for the NLX to be built, it would require a series of smaller investments along the way.

“The way these projects typically are done is in increments over a period of years,” he said. “Phasing it out over five to eight years would be doable.”

Previously published projections from the NLX Alliance, which is made up of supporters from cities along the route, showed 750,000 annual riders early on for the NLX — growing to 1 million trips annually by 2040.

Manzoline agreed that Amtrak’s increased involvement lends credibility to the project.

“People who ride and operate trains see the potential,” he said.

For Amtrak, the NLX would qualify as a state-supported train — separate from its self-funded cross-country operations and its Northeast corridor, where the company owns track throughout that part of the East Coast, Loetterle explained.

Amtrak’s state-supported routes rely on agreements which can be beneficial to the company, Loetterle said.

“Any shortfall in revenue is made up for by the state,” Loetterle said. “Whatever fares don’t cover, the state pays for.”

Manzoline further elaborated on Amtrak’s interest in the Northern Lights Express.

“They know short-line distance trains work,” Manzoline said. “Intercity service lines that are distances 200 miles or less fit right into their service. That works for Amtrak.”

Manzoline said Amtrak representative are scheduled to return to the Twin Ports from March 11-13.