Passenger Rail to Northfield?

Dan Patch line map

Dan Patch Line (photo Northfield Historical Society)

Although freight trains move through Northfield daily, it’s been about 45 years since the last passenger trains stopped at the Northfield Depot. Now grassroots efforts to restore passenger rail from the Twin Cities to Northfield and points south are gathering steam.

Even talking about taking the train to Northfield has been difficult.  From 1910 until operations ceased in 1942, the Dan Patch line carried passengers from Minneapolis through Saint Louis Park, Edina, Savage and south. The tracks still carry freight trains, but the prospect of returning commuter rail to the backyards of suburban residents led Edina legislators to write the Dan Patch Commuter Rail Prohibition into legislation passed in 2002 expressly prohibiting government agencies from studying or allocating any funds for the Dan Patch line.

Speaking out about passenger rail

Not Dan Patch: Inter-city passenger rail routes

Not Dan Patch: Inter-city passenger rail routes

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to repeal this gag order, so Northfield state legislator David Bly and grassroots organizers have employed a different strategy this time around: it’s not the Dan Patch line and it’s not commuter rail, it’s intercity regional passenger rail.

At this point, grassroots action is focused on building a coalition of communities along the proposed corridor supporting increasing the priority of this project from Tier II to Tier I when MnDOT updates its rail plan (mandated every 5 years). As part of this effort, the Northfield City Council and the Economic Development Authority both approved sending letters of support to MnDOT. The 2010 Rail Plan envisions an “intrastate intercity passenger rail network” on existing freight lines connecting regional centers to “the new Minneapolis downtown terminal” and Union Depot in Saint Paul.

Encouraging MnDOT to make this a higher priority would help build passenger rail back into the planning and finding a way around legislative impediments to discussing, studying and planning for transportation alternatives is a necessary start.  Comments are accepted until January 31, 2015; here’s the link to add yours.

Planning priorities

I learned to love trains as a college student outside Philadelphia and have had the good fortune to spend time in England and Europe where intercity trains and their links to other transit make a car unnecessary. Current efforts to relocate and restore the historic Northfield Depot could dovetail with the restoration of passenger trains; plans to make the Depot a transit hub (a project worthy of its own post) in Northfield add to the mix. Reliable train service from Northfield to The Cities would have changed my career choices, expanded school options for my daughter, altered some of my longer distance travel plans and made living in Northfield much richer.  Yes indeed, I would take the trains from Northfield to the Twin Cities. But much as I love trains, I want to see passenger rail integrated into a larger picture of the regional transportation puzzle.

Northfield, not quite metro: Northfield teeters on the edge of the metro with most of the city in non-metro Rice County and a small piece in metro Dakota County (which is not under the Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction). While almost in the metro with many workers heading north, we resist being the next Lakeville in character or development pattern. How should Northfield position itself in the rail (or any other state or regional transportation) planning?

Northfield, just off the map
Northfield, just off the map

Buses: Metro Transit bus projects like the Red and Orange Lines which reach or are planned to reach southern metro suburbs have been under development since the last Rail Plan took effect (Northfield’s Metro Express is also an important but limited service which could be part of the mix) and MnDOT documents suggest these services could siphon significant rail demand.  Reliable bus service might be less aesthetically pleasing to me, but would have worked to expand my Northfield horizons just as well as rail. Could Metro Transit and Northfield plan together?

Commuter or intercity rail? I fully appreciate the need to circumvent powerful political opposition to the Dan Patch commuter rail line and suspect funding falls into commuter pots and intercity pots of dollars, too.  But will most Northfield riders use rail service as daily, peak-hour commuters (more like the Northstar Line) or occasional travelers on intercity lines (more like Amtrak)?  Bearing in mind that Dan Patch discussions took place under the commuter rail heading (with the Dan Patch line having higher ridership projections than the Northstar Line), how does useful information from that conversation feed into the intercity debate? Or do commuters take buses and other travelers get on the train (and is this part of the discussion)?

I’d love to take the train from Northfield to the Twin Cities and beyond and support efforts to jumpstart planning.  After that, I’m more interested in a discussion considering all the options for regional transit including how state and Metro Transit discussions can occur together.

[A version of this post also appears on Small Town, Big Picture]

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17 Responses to Passenger Rail to Northfield?

  1. Ben Franske December 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    I think the time may be coming when this can be opened for discussion again… As a younger homeowner in Edina I can say 1) there are some shift happening in Edina where younger people are moving in with some different ideas about transportation amongst other things (I’ve commented on this here before) and 2) an opinion column in last week’s local paper addressed this specifically… http://current.mnsun.com/2014/12/column-edina-needs-to-evolve-with-the-region-on-transit/

    Personally, I’d love to see commuter rail happen on the Dan Patch, especially with SWLRT routed around Edina. I’d like to have a stop in Edina though and not just have the trains passing through.

    -Ben

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele December 16, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Given that the Red Line and Orange Line cover the SOTR travelsheds, I imagine this would be much more cost effective as an intercity rail line via the UP Spine Line.

    Or, potentially, this could interline with new greenfield tracks built for ZipRail to Hampton or Randolph (depending on the ZipRail alignment chosen) then south on former CGW ROW (if Hampton) then west on the other (existing) Chicago Great Western line from Randolph to Northfield. The downside is that this would skip traditional development pattern nodes at Farmington and Randolph. The upside is that it could share a potential planned ZipRail P&R at US 52 and Dakota County 42, and it would have near exclusive use of new railroad right of way (compared to the UP Spine Line which is one of the busier single track railways in the state).

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele December 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

      So, what I’m saying is I doubt we will see passenger rail on the Dan Patch line… not because of the legislature’s discussion embargo or any political reason, but because much of the line is in extremely poor shape and built with extremely poor geometry. It would cost a fortune to rebuild, and another fortune to soften curves and grades to allow a speed that is in any way useful. And the travelsheds for SOTR and the near-SW metro are better covered through other investments existing and planned.

      • Matt Brillhart December 19, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

        Matt, are you referring to the SOTR area where the geometry/curves are bad?

        What about the use of this line purely north of the river, from West Bloomington to Downtown Mpls? I know it gets a little weird through St. Louis Park, but the curves aren’t terrible. Do you think something like a DMU would be feasible there on existing or rehabbed tracks? Is it single track the entire way from West Bloomington to downtown, basically making any consideration of this corridor for LRT or DMU pointless?

        In my mind, the ideal passenger use of the Dan Patch track would be something that goes between downtown and Normandale Lakes all day long, making stops @ Edina Industrial, Edina Grandview, SLP Green Line xfer, SLP West End, and Target Field Station. Likely a DMU running on freight track, since the freight isn’t going away and there isn’t room for LRT alongside it. Could freight be restricted to nighttime use only so the DMU could just roll back & forth all day, with some sidings for passing?

        • Janne Flisrand
          Janne December 21, 2014 at 9:45 am #

          Matt and Matt, could you please translate the jargon in your comments into human-readable text? Even with my grad degree and 98th percentile transportation nerdiness, I have no idea what you are saying here. I’d love to engage, but can’t.

          • Ben Franske December 21, 2014 at 10:25 am #

            SOTR = South of the River, DMU = Diesel Multiple Unit (a self powered diesel train where the cars contain engines rather than requiring a separate locomotive, think something like light rail but diesel instead of electric), LRT = Light Rail Transit, SLP = St. Louis Park, CGW = Chicago Great Western (former railroad company)

            • Janne Flisrand
              Janne December 22, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

              Thank you. I wish this were standard practice for streets commenters.

  3. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang December 16, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    I have family in West Bloomington and Faribault so I’ve selfishly always wanted the Dan Patch line to become a reality. I would use it as an occasional inter-city passenger service. Even without an extension to Faribault, I would take it to Northfield for weekend excursions along with a bike ride down highway 3 the rest of the way to Faribault and further west along the state trail to my mom’s place on Cannon Lake.

  4. Send it to SPUD December 16, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    “the new Minneapolis downtown terminal”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! What a fancy title for “Target Field Station” — which while nice, is in actuality little more than a couple of glorified platforms.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller December 16, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

      And parking. Don’t forget about parking.

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele December 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

        Yep, especially the nice new parking in front of Caribou.

  5. Keith Morris December 19, 2014 at 5:15 pm #

    Without passenger rail there I’all never visit. If it was an option I would’ve already checked it out.

  6. Nathanael December 21, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    ” But will most Northfield riders use rail service as daily, peak-hour commuters (more like the Northstar Line) or occasional travelers on intercity lines (more like Amtrak)? ”

    The majority will be students riding up to the Twin Cities in the morning *on weekends*, and back down in the evening. So that’s a commuter “day train” pattern.

    Most of the remainder will also be “occasional travelers on intercity lines” — students coming to and from college, people visiting for conferences, locals going to the airport. Most of these will want to come to Northfield in the morning and leave in the evening, so you’ll want service in both directions in the morning and in both directions in the evening.

    There’s already quite a lot of (subsidized) bus service. It’s no substitute, and I found it obnoxious enough when I was at Carleton that I figured out how to get a car permit. I wouldn’t have done this if a train had been available. Now, with my motion-sickness I may not be entirely typical, but there are quite a lot of people who feel the same way about train vs. long-distance bus.

    • Nathanael December 21, 2014 at 12:04 am #

      You could probably get by with one morning train each way and an evening train each way most of the time. Careful scheduling could probably do this with a single trainset.

      But then at the beginning and end of term at Carleton and St. Olaf, and around Reunion for each college, you would probably want to run several extra trains each day to handle the crowds.

    • Nathanael December 21, 2014 at 12:07 am #

      For reference, I was hopping mad when the ‘Dan Patch gag rule’ was passed in 2002.

      It had looked like the corridor was progressing well just a few years before when I was in college; it already had been rated as the best-performing of the potential commuter rail lines (better than Northstar).

      College towns “punch above their weight” when it comes to train ridership; this is true across the country. (It’s kind of obvious why; lots of students without cars.) This is what makes Northfield the best commuter or intercity rail opportunity in the state.

    • Nathanael December 21, 2014 at 12:10 am #

      I have to say that the “commuter”/”intercity” distinction may be meaningful legally, but it means very little in real life.

      The line will have a few daily commute-to-work users (professors who live in the Twin Cities), but not very many. But it will have a lot of “day trip to the Twin Cities” users, some of whom will probably do so every single weekend.

    • Nathanael December 21, 2014 at 12:15 am #

      By the way, the Cedar Avenue bus ridership projections are going to turn out to be too high, and if the Dan Patch route opens, it’ll steal riders from it pretty quick. *There is almost nobody who prefers a bus to a train*, all else equal. The state’s report is far too optimistic about the Cedar Avenue buses.

      But St. Paul-Northfield via UP would work just as well as the Dan Patch route for Northfield. As long as there are two trains a day each way (north & south morning and evening).

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