Metro Transit Opportunities in Plain Sight

Minneapolis-Saint Paul rail map, from MnDOT.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul rail map, from MnDOT.

I verge on being a train nut, and if I’m honest, I wish passenger service could be reactivated on most of the remaining rail lines in the U.S.  The rail network faces extreme competition from (seemingly) free roads, so it’s always easy to bash the expense of (re)implementing train service, but there are many cases where it provides a good alternative to highway expansion, and can provide city-to-city and town-to-town transportation better than buses on freeways. Freeways are designed for non-stop travel—the antithesis of most forms of transit—and often represent the second or third bypass of a community, often unwalkable distances from historic town centers. On the other hand, rails were often built very early and usually still reach core areas.

In Minnesota, most towns and cities that existed before World War II grew up on rail lines.  About half of the state and country’s rail network has now been ripped up—in many cases, that was probably the right outcome, but the national rail network had been dragged down by decades of over-regulation. The federal government began relaxing rules in the second half of the 20th century, and the abandonment of lines accelerated around the time of the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, which reformed 90-year-old legislation designed for a time when the railroads really did need to be reined in. After more than three decades of retrenchment and consolidation, the nation’s rail system is actually carrying record levels of traffic, but rail companies still lean toward abandonment of little-used lines rather than rehabilitation or expansion.

So while we’re probably near the bottoming out of total rail miles, it’s important to look at what remains and ensure that we don’t lose additional pieces. It’s worrying to hear talk of buying out the Twin Cities and Western in order to make way for Southwest LRT.  Despite being classified as a “short line” railroad, The Twin Cities and Western system has about 250 miles of track, including about 95 miles owned by the Minnesota Valley Railroad Authority (who subsidize operations to provide cheaper transportation for farmers and businesses along th eline), but it only interconnects with other railroads in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park (at a very constrained junction), and far to the west in Appleton. Chopping off the line would be a bad decision, and some reroutes could do more harm than good, especially since the line leads directly to the Northstar station at Target Field as things stand today (at least one reroute option would send trains south of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers).

Keeping Minnesotans mobile in the 21st century is a big challenge as the population ages, we deal with climate change, and we try to minimize the death tolls on our roadways while also transitioning to an always-on society with pervasive electronic communication. It’s important to take a broad look to try and find ways to provide quality transportation that connects people and places in ways that reinforces walkable, bikeable, and transitable infrastructure.

Most of Minnesota’s population is in the Twin Cities region, about 3.4 million people out of the state’s total 5.4 million (the U.S. Census Bureau includes some Wisconsin counties for the metro population, though including the St. Cloud area more than balances out that loss). With that balance, it’s vitally important to improve transit service within the Twin Cities, even though it’s a target of lazy criticism by outstate representatives.  If we were to set a goal of setting up transportation service to reach 80 or 90 percent of the state’s population, the Twin Cities can’t be ignored (most towns and cities of significant size are also clustered in the metro). But by the same token, focusing exclusively on the Twin Cities would only reach a maximum of 63% of the state’s population.

Getting back to the rail network, it’s worth pointing out that much of the state’s system only has a limited amount of traffic as things stand today. Amtrak and Northstar run on some of the busiest routes, making access charges very expensive. Some of the segment used by Northstar sees about 63 trains per day, but the Twin Cities and Western line that’s causing headaches for Southwest LRT planners only has three.

While I’m not in favor of buying out the TC&W in order to shut it down, I do think there would be value buying up a segment of it in order to making it a passenger-primary corridor, while maintaining freight access.  It could be upgraded to allow many commuter trains per day without adversely affecting freight operations. A possible outcome might be to initially build Southwest LRT through Uptown to Hopkins, which would likely have decent all-day ridership, and use the TC&W tracks to reach more commuter-oriented Eden Prairie and Shakopee.

But given the late stage of Southwest LRT planning, I’ll focus my attention farther north, in the Bottineau corridor. Like Southwest, it has appealed to area planners since it’s a historic rail corridor, currently known as the Monticello Subdivision. BNSF Railway currently operates just two trains per day on the line, which immediately parallels Interstate 94 and Hennepin County Road 81.  At the northern extreme by the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant, only a few trains per year use the track, putting that portion at risk of abandonment.

View BNSF Monticello Subdivision in a larger map

Interstate 94 is very busy on that stretch, and a widening project was recently pushed through for a three-mile stretch between Rogers and Saint Michael, and there will likely be continuing political pressure to keep widening the Interstate farther northwest. “Nobody will deny that Interstate 94 will eventually be three lanes in each direction all the way from the Twin Cities to Saint Cloud,” began a report from KARE 11 this past summer, which cited the support of Michele Bachmann and other politicians. Is that common wisdom really appropriate, when a potential relief valve sits a less than a quarter-mile away from the highway? It’s frustrating that train service had not been brought up as an alternative, at least at any time within the last decade.

Yes, it would overlap with Bottineau, and it’s only three to six miles from Northstar, though questions like that rarely arise when discussing highways (I-94, I-694, I-494, US-10, US-169, MN-100, MN-101, and MN-610 are in the corridor).  The line formerly went to St. Cloud and beyond, but had been truncated, probably due to competition from I-94 which it parallels so closely.  There would be potential to rebuild portions of that line, or to connect across the river to the Northstar corridor to keep operations relatively consolidated.

I’m sure there would be significant costs for rehabilitating tracks, as much of the line is only rated for 10 to 25 mph as things stand today.  The Northstar service was mostly built on tracks that already carried Amtrak’s Empire Builder, so in theory the costs to upgrade track would have been negligible, but it turned out that much of the route still saw significant rehabilitation anyway (only a short distance of new track was built for Northstar, primarily at the Big Lake maintenance facility, and for the spur that leads to the Target Field station in Minneapolis).

A grade separation project in Crystal where the line crosses the Canadian Pacific railway’s 20-train-per-day main line would also be needed if service frequency was ramped up to the maximum, but probably wouldn’t be necessary to begin operations. But an improvement project there could also lead to a proper junction at that spot, potentially allowing commuter service along the CP line, which parallels Minnesota State Highay 55.  Rockford or Buffalo could be good endpoints for commuter service, and intercity rail could continue as far as Winnipeg, opening up a mid-continent connection between the Amtrak and the Canadian VIA Rail network (today the gap is more than 2,000 miles, between the Toronto area in the east and Vancouver in the west).

Ideally, future rail services will be implemented with smaller, more nimble train vehicles than the bulky equipment we see on Northstar. The Federal Railroad Administration appears to be moving toward allowing lightweight diesel multiple unit (DMU) vehicles on legacy freight lines, which bear much closer resemblance to our Blue and Green Line light-rail cars. The combination of lighter/cheaper vehicles, better stop spacing, more frequent service, and opportunity for new branches makes the Monticello line a winner in my book. The idea had probably been examined and tossed aside in some long-forgotten Alternatives Analysis, but it really shouldn’t be ignored, and the whole Twin Cities system should get more attention.

Statewide, there was some attention paid to restoring intercity rail service in the 2010 State Rail Plan, though it was a wholly Twin Cities-centric network, possibly ignoring some good opportunities for outstate connectivity, such as along the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern line which stretches across the state’s southern tier.  Aside from (perhaps) corridors to Rochester, St. Cloud, and Duluth, it’s unlikely that these routes can operate at a profit, but their value should be measured in other ways.

Having grown up in a small town, I see a great benefit from building up and reinforce a good rail (and bus) network to in order to provide greater flexibility for growing families. Children and parents are both constrained when one has to take on the duty of chauffeuring others to remote commercial airports or other destinations because of insufficient existing services. Proper stations for rail or bus service also provide focal points which can reinforce traditional town centers, ideally counteracting today’s trend of building up along highways, and frontage roads.  They won’t work miracles, but are important tools for reinforcing good urbanism.

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

15 thoughts on “Metro Transit Opportunities in Plain Sight

  1. Andrew

    I totally agree Mike. Having Southwest LRT go down through Uptown and out to Hopkins makes sense with the more frequent stops and all-day movement up and down the line. And a commuter train can use the *already existing* freight corridor along Kenilworth to Eden Prairie to provide quicker trips for commuters to downtown. This seems like a win-win for everybody.

  2. Al D.

    Honestly I would be for this, and then have the Blue Line Extension go through North Minneapolis and end in Robbinsdale’s commuter rail station. I wish we would plan our LRT lines only out to inner-ring suburbs instead of outside the beltway where even commuter rail has a hard time getting ridership. Commuter rail in MSP would probably gain ridership if there was direct access to the U so suburban students could have a one-seat transit ride.

    1. Al D.

      Plus connecting commuter rail lines with outer suburbs with actual downtowns could help improve suburban density at least around their downtown regions, and could be used for city dwellers for summer day trips to Lake Minnetonka or White Bear Lake (via Wayzata and Northeast commuter rail link).

  3. Clay

    Preach it, brother! I like the way you think and I have often wondered the same thing about the Monticello sub. Is it still illegal to use DMU’s on a line that only has a freight train a couple times a year??? People here need to see for themselves just how well they work and those distances are perfect!
    A couple other observations that would be great to discus are also (I think) very feasible.
    1) the old rail line going up through New Brighton near old Hwy. 88 would work well to relieve commuter congestion on 35W and 694. This could be another place for DMU’s that could conceivably connect either to Target Field Station or Union Depot.
    2) We desperately need a good commuter station at the International airport! With limited room for expansion of runways, a regional rail connection at the airport is just as important as the downtown connections. I don’t know how it would be shoe-horned in/under the airport but I believe this is a necessary connection to make the rail system the most feasible alternative.

    Thanks, I love reading your articles!

  4. Froggie

    You briefly touch upon it in your article, but the track status (i.e. FRA Class of track) issue is a big one with these spur routes and any potential use of them for passenger rail. Another sticking point is that these lines are often single-track. One big benefit that the BNSF mainline had going for it when Northstar was being planned is that it was already double-track (and as I understand it, a lot of the upgrade cost for Northstar consisted of crossovers and signal improvements). For any decent frequency of service, you’d have to double-track significant lengths of these rail corridors.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      I think that double-tracking would be needed down near Target Field where spurs from Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific merge into the line, and the Monticello Sub itself merges into the Wayzata Sub, but I believe a good frequency of service could be achieved on the rest of the line with sidings (probably using two tracks at stations). There are short sidings in Monticello, Albertville, and Osseo. I think 15-minute frequency in both directions could be achieved with about 5 passing zones along the way. Northstar has 7 total stations, and this line could have at least that many, so I think it shouldn’t be a huge issue. It would certainly add to the cost, but service wouldn’t need to be that frequent to start out (Northstar is only half-hourly at peak times and is nonexistent the rest of the day).

  5. Froggie

    I’ve seen several tweets regarding the suggestion to route a train up to Winnipeg. A good idea, but a more realistic way to go about it is a 2nd Empire Builder train to Fargo, then route it north from Fargo. Track upgrades from Fargo to Winnipeg (not to mention a Customs station) would make it pricey, though.

    1. Mike Hicks Post author

      Yeah, though there aren’t direct routes from Fargo/Grand Forks to Winnipeg today. About a dozen miles of the most direct link have been abandoned and would need to be rebuilt — That’s a relatively easy thing to do in the unpopulated area, though it may need to contend with the tendency of the Red River to flood. MnDOT has a Winnipeg connection outlined in their 2010 State Rail Plan, but it was designated as a service to implement sometime after the year 2030. I’m pretty concerned that further abandonments will occur by that time (since the freight railroads are today most worried about making freight move most efficiently rather than having people move most quickly and directly), which may make it much harder to implement. Still, building/rebuilding the line would probably be the most effective option anyway, in order to reach Fargo-Moorhead (metro population 200,000) and Grand Forks (metro population 100,000).

      1. Froggie

        Considering the Empire Builder already runs between Fargo and Grand Forks, that section of line wouldn’t need rebuilding. The issue is north of Grand Forks.

  6. Paul

    This line may well only be a couple miles from the Northstar, but for those of us on the Wright County side of the river, Northstar does us little good because it is a colossal pain in the neck to get to either the Big Lake or Elk River stations.

    I agree that this would be a commuter rail winner. However, another the reasons why Northstar’s pricetag was relatively cheap is that the line is BNSF’s trans-continental main, and as such didn’t need much additional work to the tracks themselves. The Monticello Sub would be looking at a wholesale rebuild. Most of the track is jointed rail that is in poor shape. Add in rehab work at the Crow River bridge, siding extensions, and a new bridge at Elm Creek, and you’re looking at a big bill.

    Stations at downtown Robbinsdale, Crystal/63rd Avenue, Osseo, CR 81 and Maple Grove Pkwy (MG North?), downtown Rogers, St. Michael (former movie theater next to the SuperAmerica), downtown Albertville, and downtown Monticello. Sounds good from here.

    Your idea for a proper intersection between the lines at Crystal seems doable. The area is light industry that always seems to have space for lease, so property wouldn’t be that hard to get. Not sure how tight of a turn a commuter train could get away with. Stations at 169/Boone Ave, Hamel/Medina/Wayzata HS, the east end of Rockford, and Buffalo.

  7. Brendan

    The DMU issue is REALLY interesting. Would love to hear more about the prospects for bringing down the variable cost of passenger rail service in this way. Seems like an intriguing way to identify niche opportunities to use existing rail corridors for (relatively) inexpensive new service.

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