A rail identity crisis in Minneapolis

Map of the proposed Hiawatha, Central, Southwest, and Bottineau lines and stations planned for the city of Minneapolis.

Map of the proposed Hiawatha, Central, Southwest, and Bottineau lines and stations planned for the city of Minneapolis.

This is what the region’s planned light-rail system looks like if you cut it off at the city limits of Minneapolis. It includes the Hiawatha, Central, Southwest, and Bottineau lines. While the first two largely stick to arterial corridors, Southwest (the planned Central/Green Line extension) and Bottineau (the Hiawatha/Blue Line extension) go as quickly as possible to under-populated freight railroad trenches. Again, this is in Minneapolis, where the vast majority of the region’s current transit trips begin and end. Something is wrong with this picture.

As of 2013, there are 11 active stations: Ten of them opened in June 2004 when the Hiawatha Line (now Blue Line) started operation, and the eleventh—at Target Field–opened in November 2009 to coincide with the start of the Northstar commuter service. What’s really surprising is that, despite the addition of three more routes, the number of stations within the city is only expected to double from 11 to 22: Four have been constructed in Minneapolis for the Green Line (Central Corridor), with probably another five expected to be added for the Southwest extension to Eden Prairie. The Bottineau extension of the Blue Line is only planned to add two stations within the city limits, almost completely bypassing the north side. Looking at these future routes, it almost seems like the Hiawatha Line would have been designed to run out of the city even faster, if not for that pesky Mississippi River in the way.

There are a couple of stops that will be just across the border, of course: Many people would be surprised to discover that the existing VA Medical Center station is just barely outside the city, in the unincorporated territory of Fort Snelling (along with the Fort Snelling stop and the two MSP Airport stops). On the Green Line, the Westgate station is barely past the border—one of the two platforms even extends into Minneapolis by just a few feet. On the planned Bottineau extension, stops at Plymouth Avenue and Golden Valley Boulevard are also just barely outside the city.

It’s really remarkable how Minneapolis only gets token access in the Southwest and Bottineau projects. With locally-preferred alignments primarily along freight rail corridors. They are no longer urban transit projects, but are instead commuter or regional services in disguise. And once that fact is acknowledged, it’s worth looking at how commuter and regional rail lines are set up elsewhere. In particular, why do we have to with building a double-track light-rail line right next to a freight line when they both have the same 4-foot, 8½-inch gauge? It would arguably be better for the existing freight lines to be upgraded to double-track and run passenger service over that instead of building something totally separate.

There has been some precedent for running light rail on freight tracks: The NCTD Sprinter in San Diego and New Jersey Transit’s River Line between Camden and Trenton are two examples. Austin’s Capital MetroRail uses essentially the same vehicles as NJT’s service, though it is classified as “commuter rail”. Those are mostly low-frequency services using significant stretches of single-tracked, non-electrified routes—because it was cheaper to build that way, of course. A closer analog to what’s planned for the Twin Cities is likely the UTA TRAX Blue Line in Salt Lake City, which is double-tracked and uses overhead catenary for power.

Frustratingly, the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Transit Administration have required those lines to use “temporal separation” so that passenger service has exclusive access to tracks during the day, while freight services have exclusive access to track in the overnight hours. The diesel-powered vehicles on the Sprinter, River Line, and MetroRail services are used in Europe on mixed-traffic routes, but somehow we haven’t figured out how to do that in the United States because of overblown fears that freight and passenger trains would crash into each other. Even though some services like the River Line have implemented active signaling systems to automatically stop trains before a crash could even happen, the federal government has balked at the idea of having freight service share track with lightweight passenger rail vehicles during daylight hours.

At the other end of the scale, there are some very busy bus corridors in Minneapolis which deserve to be upgraded. Over time, they’ve been cut out of being potential light-rail lines, though the city is currently pursuing adding streetcar services—something that has caused tension between the city and the Metropolitan Council. Riding the Blue Line down Hiawatha Avenue, it’s easy to see why it was derided as a “train to nowhere” ahead of its opening. There are few obvious destinations along the bulk of the route, at least in comparison to historic streetcar corridors like Hennepin Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, Chicago Avenue, University Avenue, and others. The Blue Line does have a massive traffic generator at its southern end with the Mall of America (think of the daily attendance at the Minnesota State Fair, and multiply that by every day of the year), but it’s still hard to imagine that rail service along any of those streets would carry any fewer people per mile as the Hiawatha corridor. So are streetcars really the right way to improve service along a busy commercial street which likely has higher inherent transit demand?

The Hiawatha Line blew past ridership expectations when it opened, and now ranks as the 5th-busiest light rail system in the country in terms of boardings per mile. Rather than going “lighter” than “light rail” with streetcars, it seems clear that the true urban corridors in Minneapolis should be getting re-examined for fully grade-separated service like a subway (the “heavy rail” that light rail is “light” in comparison to). That concept was largely discarded in the region many years ago, the argument usually being that “Minneapolis isn’t dense enough”. Yet the idea hasn’t really been revisited even with Hiawatha surpassing ridership levels that weren’t expected for another 15 years at least.

A comparison of the sizes of 40- and 60-foot buses, a typical streetcar, and 2- and 3-car Blue Line trains. 3-car trains are current standard weekday service.

A comparison of the sizes of 40- and 60-foot buses, a typical streetcar, and 2- and 3-car Blue Line trains. 3-car trains are current standard weekday service.

Back in the streetcar era, the frequency of service on Nicollet Avenue was every five minutes off-peak and three minutes or less during the busiest parts of the day—it should have been possible to look down the street and see two or three coming your way and a couple of others heading in the opposite direction. Of course, the good thing about sub-3-minute frequencies is that they’re showing up all the time, which makes riders happy. But cramming that many rail vehicles onto a surface line mingling with regular traffic means that any disruption can propagate down the line pretty quickly. Each streetcar also needs its own operator, while a longer train can get by with fewer employees per number of passengers.

I’m not sure transit demand is quite high enough that streetcars would go back to historic levels if they were implemented on Nicollet Avenue again, it would probably get pretty close. The Blue Line is running 3-car trains all day long (though they’re probably only needed at peak times), so streetcars along Nicollet would have to run three or more times as frequently as Hiawatha’s current 10-minute schedule at certain times of day. The frequency can be reduced if multiple streetcars are chained together, but that means larger boarding platforms are needed.

Proper subway lines have higher capacity, faster and more frequent service, and a minimal visual impact on the land above. Longer trains can be used since they don’t have to fit between street-level intersections, and the vehicle types can be switched up if the entire route is grade-separated (traditional subway lines allow passengers to walk between cars because the operator cab can be reduced in size—there isn’t a need for all-around visibility and there’s no risk of crashing into automobiles). Underground trains can operate very frequently and at higher speeds since there isn’t cross traffic to worry about—even curves can be eased to allow faster trains, since they don’t have to fit past buildings. With rights-of-way reduced or even eliminated, more land is available for developers on the surface, meaning that costs can be offset by very intense transit-oriented development.

Washington, D.C.’s Metro system has really been a poster child for that aspect of building underground. They’ve also discovered that underground lines stand up better over time since they aren’t exposed to weather—a major thing to consider in Minnesota with our heavy use of road salt in the winter. Going underground may also allow the deadlock to be broken between the idea of “railstitution” of busy bus routes with streetcars and the alternate concept of “Arterial BRT” (not technically bus rapid transit since it lacks exclusive lanes, but pulling in every other aspect including better stop spacing, level boarding, and off-board payment).

While the momentum behind existing transit projects in the Twin Cities shouldn’t be totally disrupted, it is clear that something has gone wrong with our list of priorities when bridges and tunnels abound on the suburban Southwest LRT corridor, while the far more crowded urban segment along Washington and University Avenues saw tunnels discarded over cost concerns. This isn’t just a problem for the Twin Cities region either—many other light-rail corridors across the country have taken the path of least resistance, and ridership has typically suffered because of it. That’s not acceptable in a future where people will be asked to live more multi-modal lifestyles.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at http://hizeph400.blogspot.com/