CAMBRIDGE, Minn. (WCCO) – Some 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles a day make the drive up Interstate 35, between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

They are largely students, business people and tourists heading up to the North Shore.

Nancy Lara is among them and says at times the drive can is congested in the summer and slippery in the winter.

It’s why Lara supports the idea of a high-speed train that would connect the two metropolitan areas.

“It would be a quick and easy way to go, and I wouldn’t have to drive. I think it would really be nice. Good for the people,” Lara said.

She just might get her wish.

Northern Lights Express is a high-speed passenger train that is being proposed for the popular corridor. The train would run on existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight rails between Target Field and the Duluth railroad depot.

As currently envisioned, NLX would make four stops along the way for passengers to board and exit. It is expected those passenger stations would be built in Coon Rapids, Cambridge, Hinckley and Superior, Wisconsin.

“This train should be able to go from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports in just under two hours,” project manager, Frank Loetterle, said.

The train would be similar in design to Amtrak’s current Empire Builder, which runs through Minnesota between the coasts. Only this passenger service would operate at much faster speeds, up to 110 miles per hour.

That’s a far cry from the former Amtrak passenger service that ran between the Twin Cities and Duluth through 1985.

“The biggest difference between what was and what we’re planning today is the speed. The old Amtrak service operated on bad tracks, it was very slow and the travel time was quite long,” Loetterle said.

The NLX concept is in early planning to select exact station locations and designs.

Public open houses have begun to help provide the public with a chance to see the designs and weigh in on the pro’s and con’s.

Cindy Beyer makes the drive to Duluth and hopes the high speed train becomes a reality.

“It’s not that bad, from Minneapolis to Duluth, but I think it’d be much nicer taking a train. You’ll save on gas, save on everything,” Beyer said.

“Anytime you can let someone else do the driving, that’s fine!” Ted Coles said.

Five-million dollars in federal grant money is now paying for preliminary engineering studies. An additional $3 million in state bonding dollars will cover early environmental reviews.

Both studies should be completed in early 2016.

The biggest hurdle will follow that when applications are made for construction funding. That would happen sometime in 2016, which just happens to be a presidential election year when funding could be difficult to secure.

But should it be successful, construction could begin by 2017 with completion and operation scheduled for early 2020.

While passengers have become well acquainted with the North Star commuter rail service that operated between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, this service would be much different.

Unlike the schedule that has trains running only in the morning and late afternoon, the NLX trains would operate throughout the day and evening, perhaps making up to eight round trips per day.

Because the concept is in early planning and design, its total cost and projected ridership are still being determined.

The next open house is set for Hinckley on Wednesday, Dec. 10 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. It will be held in the Hinckley Finlayson High School.

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