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