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Duluth Passenger Rail Alliance / Twin Cities to Duluth by train in 2 1/2 hours?

A group trying to bring high-speed rail between Duluth and Minneapolis will have to decide whether to build a new, 30-mile section of track north of Sandstone to increase train speeds.

The improvement would add an estimated $60 million to $90 million to the current $400 million price tag for the Northern Lights Express project.

That track improvement is one of more than 10 variables being considered for the 150-mile route from Duluth to Minneapolis, according to a new feasibility study by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance and BNSF will meet this week to discuss the study's recommendations.

The goal is to have train travel time rival that of an automobile. A car can go from Minneapolis to Duluth in about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The alliance estimates a train can go from Minneapolis to Hinckley in about one hour, but would need 2 1/2 hours to go from Hinckley to Duluth.

Improvements to the route from south of Oliver, Wis., to Sandstone, would increase speeds from the 40-to-80-mph range to 110 mph, significantly cutting travel time.

Alliance Chairman Bob Manzoline said faster travel time would bring higher ridership and therefore more revenue.

"We will have to go back and plug these numbers into our calculations," Manzoline said, "and a decision will have to be made."

DJ Mitchell, assistant vice president of passenger operations for BNSF, said the recommendations include many variables.

"You can take route X or you could take route Y plus 10 minutes," Mitchell said hypothetically. "There are a lot of options here that will affect run time. There have been no conclusions. ... They have a smorgasbord of decisions to make."

Other options include rebuilding bridges and increasing speed around curves, Mitchell said.

The alliance will continue to plan for the federal government covering 80 percent of the project's cost, with the remaining 20 percent coming from state and local funding.

On Nov. 19, the alliance will meet with state officials to gauge the project's progress. On Dec. 10, the alliance will present recommendations to its board of directors on how to move forward. Meanwhile, the alliance is seeking proposals for a federally required environmental impact study.