Untangling the busiest rail chokepoint in Minnesota

A Friends of the 261 excursion train crosses the lift bridge in Hastings. A second bridge is proposed here if passenger traffic increases.

We in the Twin Cities are underserved by intercity trains. In a region of 3.3 million people, we only have Amtrak’s Empire Builder stopping once each direction each day as it plies its way between Chicago and Portland/Seattle. However, this is still a significant hub of rail activity. Transcontinental lines of two railroads connecting the Pacific Northwest to Chicago mingle here. The Empire Builderuses both—BNSF Railway’s route to the west, and Canadian Pacific’s line to the east.

One of the great mixing bowls for freight traffic in our region is located just east of the Saint Paul Union Depot. Up to 150 mostly long, slow trains run through or shuttle around the area on busy days, moving about 10,000 rail cars in the process. The twin lines of BNSF and CP actually share track for a few miles before criss-crossing each other in Newport and again just north of Hastings. There are three significant rail yards in the area, one each for BNSF and CP, and another from Union Pacific, just to keep things interesting. BNSF and CP also each have big offloading facilities for automobiles along the tracks—the former near Dayton’s Bluff and the latter in Cottage Grove.

Major rail traffic flows in the Twin Cities.

It’s a busy area, expected to get even busier in the coming years. The freight railroads are expecting to see traffic go up by 3 to 5 percent annually (though some of that traffic increase comes from lengthening rather than adding trains). Proposed passenger services (5x daily roundtrips for the Red Rock commuter service and 6x daily roundtrips for higher-speed train service to Chicago) would also have a significant impact. Some additional tracks will be needed in the area, plus possible commuter train platforms. This turns out to affect a lot of different things along the corridor, and so the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority partnered with the railroads and several other organizations to plan things out with the East Metro Rail Capacity Study (currently available in a draft form).

The study has identified dozens of possible improvements in the corridor from downtown Saint Paul to Hastings on the east side of the river where passenger trains run, plus a few things on the east side also thrown in to help with overall traffic flow.

A big problem in the area is speed: Trains often slow down to a crawl of 10 miles per hour or less as they switch between tracks, cross bridges, and climb some significant grades. Tracks also get blocked for extended periods as trains move in and out of yards. One of the first improvements recommended in the study is the replacement of 50 to 60 existing low-speed switches with ones capable of moving freight at 40 mph, which alone should make for significant differences in capacity. Mile-long trains whit may have taken 6 minutes to move past a point should then be able to pass by in 90 seconds.

Speeds are also planned to be improved throughout the corridor by realigning existing rails to even out curves which currently require slowing.

Another issue has been trains blocking main tracks as they serve yards and other facilities adjacent to the main line. In particular, Canadian Pacific’s automobile offloading site in Cottage Grove has a siding that’s too short, often leaving the head end of the train sticking out on the main track. New or lengthened sidings are planned in that spot and in several others to help keep the through tracks clear.

Now, goods can tolerate a fairly significant amount of delay as they move by rail, but people are much more finicky. In order to provide the best service, a couple of flyover bridges for passenger trains are outlined in the plans. These sound exotic, but it’s worth noting the presence of several major road bridges in the immediate vicinity. The first flyover is planned just east of the Saint Paul Union Depot and would skip over tracks at the Division Street wye and drop trains right into an area known as the Hoffman Interlocking. The bridge will be relatively steep at a 2.5% grade (2.76% accounting for curvature), so it could only be used by passenger trains. Heading southeast, the flyover would lead straight into a dedicated passenger track.

(It’s worth noting that a tunnel had also been proposed here, but that idea was discarded because it would have put the tracks below the water table and well within the 100-year floodplain of the Mississippi).


Proposed Saint Paul Union Depot flyover. View East Metro Rail Capacity Study in a larger map

Another flyover is planned down near Hastings where the BNSF and Canadian Pacific lines split in order to traverse opposite sides of the river. This would lead to a new lift bridge next to the existing one, which would be aligned to direct trains straight to the west side of the existing Hastings depot.

The last big operational issue I’ll mention is the crossing over of traffic between BNSF and CP at both Newport and again just north of Hastings. There’s little need for this traffic to cross over twice, and one major change put forth in the plan is a relocation of BNSF’s existing tracks down along the river to a new alignment next to the CP tracks which closely parallel U.S. Highway 61. This would move the tracks out of the Mississippi River’s 100-year floodplain and open up the opportunity to use the old rail alignment as a recreational bike path.

It’s not clear whether all of this will be needed, so it’s important to note that many improvements will either move forward or be put on the back burner on a case-by-case basis. However, it was an important exercise to go through, since the changing track layouts affect other projects in the area. The Union Depot flyover has impacts on where the proposed Bruce Vento Trail bridge can be situated, and other changes farther down the line affect things like the placement and type of support columns for the replacement Warner Road bridge over the tracks (now planned to be built of steel rather than concrete), and siting of potential Red Rock Corridor stations (the study recommends changing the proposed platform locations for both the Lower Afton Road and Cottage Grove/Langdon Village stations).

How much traffic growth will actually occur remains to be seen. The study planned for an overall increase of 36%, but that value isn’t tied to any particular year in the future. But certainly some growth will happen, and it’s important to be prepared.

Area transportation planners learned from their experiences with the Northstar commuter line that it was important to get the host railroads involved in discussions early and keep them involved. Past efforts at computer modeling had not gone over well since the railroads didn’t know what assumptions had gone into them. This time around, the study group interacted with the railroads frequently and tried to get as much detail about current operations that they could.

The overall price tag for the proposed improvements is projected at $827 million, though transportation officials estimate that about 2/3 to 3/4 of that will be paid for by the railroads themselves, since many of the changes are needed by them regardless of whether additional passenger service happens. It’s likely that this will be divided up into a number of smaller projects as need arises and funding becomes available.

If and when—hopfeully when—passenger traffic increases on the line, riders will be assured a much less delay-prone ride.

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