Søüthstår: What If the Southwestern Suburbs Were Served by Commuter Rail?

On Monday I talked about Shørtstår, transforming a section of the Northstar commuter rail line into actually useful transit. As with all transit right-of-way problems, “the railroads would never agree” was raised. And that is certainly true if all you do is politely ask. However states are actually bigger and more powerful than railroads, though it may not seem so. They have powers of taxation and eminent domain. They have a monopoly of force. They occasionally even have the will of the people. Sometimes states even own the land under the railroad, as is the case with a section of the Twin Cities and Western (TC&W), which runs a massive two trains per day in the critical Kenwood region.

We have recently learned (to no one’s surprise, I hope) that the costs have risen on the Southwest LRT.

Well, there is nothing to say you couldn’t run some passenger trains in that corridor today. It wouldn’t be LRT, and it wouldn’t always be double-tracked unless it were upgraded, and it wouldn’t have a 10 minute headway, but why not test service  in the corridor along the existing RR right-of-way and tracks? If it is successful, it can be expanded in frequency, the line can be double tracked in part or in full, more train-sets acquired, and permanent stations built. It wouldn’t require a tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor or taking any homes or businesses. The TC&W could even be acquired for a hundred million dollars or so if they weren’t cooperative.

Southstar - A theoretical, conceptual, non-official line on a map for a commuter rail serving some of the Southwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities

Søüthstår – A theoretical, conceptual, non-official line on a map for a commuter rail serving some of the Southwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities

So why call this Søüthstår? If you look at the map, you could through-run the Northstar (or Shørtstår) trains on this line to the south and Southwestar doesn’t have the same ring. Why the accents? That’s just to get the attention of the Governor.

Even if it isn’t successful, we just saved most of $2 billion dollars.

The current political class is not very good at thinking incrementally, but if something big is good, often something smaller that does similar things at a lower intensity is also good, and it might be more good per dollar spent. (Which thereby lets you do other things).

You ought not build half a lane, or a single rail (monorail?), but there are increments of rail service (such as trains to Hopkins rather than Eden Prairie) that can be completed even if the whole cannot be.

I personally am skeptical of the whole thing, express buses should serve these destinations well, but if you are committed to trains, why wait until 2025? Just run some trains–demonstrate your point. Stop abiding by the tyranny of false constraints. Let’s turn Target Field Station into the Grand Central it was supposed to be.

9 thoughts on “Søüthstår: What If the Southwestern Suburbs Were Served by Commuter Rail?

  1. Mike Hicks

    This definitely wouldn’t be free to do, but it’s probably doable in short order with much less investment than LRT.

    According to MnDOT’s freight rail maps, the tracks allow speeds up to 30 mph for freight (maybe 40 or so for passenger), though the tracks closer in to downtown may not support speeds quite that fast. It would be necessary to get them upgraded by one or two rail classes, partly to support higher speeds (if the trains can achieve them given the stop spacing), but also to ensure good ride quality.

    There isn’t much signaling on the line — there’s CTC along BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision line, but the TC&W line is mostly “dark territory”.

    Upgrading the existing tracks and adding signaling would probably run at least $1 million/mile, but that’s not too bad. Adding a second track would probably be $2-5 million per mile with everything included, though it looks like some of the corridor has had double-tracking or at least more sidings in the past, which should keep costs down a bit.

    I think it’s possible to get headways of about 15 minutes each direction by just adding sidings in the right places. Once you get down below that, then double-tracking is usually necessary, but single-tracking short sections can work.

    Electrification of the line would probably blow all of that out of the water, though — that’s typically quoted at $5 million per track mile.

    Some of the bigger budget items would be stations, a maintenance facility, and additional sets of train equipment. $20 to $40 million per site, perhaps?

    But even if you spend $20 million per mile for electrified rail ($10 million per mile for each track) and add in the other point costs, it seems like this should be doable for $500 to $600 million if it followed the existing tracks all the way out to Eden Prairie/Chanhassen. Considerably less if it ended in Hopkins.

  2. Steven Prince

    Very interesting post, but do not count on using eminent domain. Federal law prohibits taking a railroad right of way through eminent domain, even to convert it to transit use. The Chicago Transit Authority tried exactly that (converting leased tracks to owned tracks by condemnation) in 2005. Here is what the federal court said::

    “Indeed, at least three other courts have concluded that eminent domain proceedings against rail property were a preempted form of state regulation. Most similar to the facts of this case, the court in City of Marshfield held that the ICCTA preempted the use of an eminent domain statute to condemn 6,800 feet of the plaintiff’s passing track. 160 F.Supp.2d at 1012–14. It did not matter to the court that the city merely wanted the railroad to relocate its track: ‘In using state law to condemn the track defendant is exercising control—the most extreme type of control—over rail transportation as it is defined in section 10102(9).’ Id. at 1013.”

    Union Pac. R. Co. v. Chicago Transit Auth., No. 07-CV-229, 2009 WL 448897, at *7 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 23, 2009) aff’d, 647 F.3d 675 (7th Cir. 2011).

    1. Nathanael

      It can be done; railroad ROW can be claimed by eminent domain. It just has to be done by using *federal* eminent domain. That power is delegated to *Amtrak* for purposes of intercity rail travel and must be confirmed by the Surface Transportation Board. It is conceivable that this could be done for an intercity route.

      It’s easier to simply buy out the entire stock of the corporation which owns the line. These companies have small capitalizations compared to a state government’s ability to float bonds.

  3. Elliot AltbaumElliot Altbaum

    This seems like a great idea, especially if paired with the stops in NE that you proposed.
    What would be the options for future expansion? Would this option limit the ability to build LRT in the future?

  4. David Greene

    The HCRRA property was dismissed for rail west of Hopkins for a reason. It’s almost entirely residential out there. Jobs and commerce drive ridership. That’s why SWLRT was routed the way it was. This proposed alignment doesn’t really serve anyone well.

  5. Janne

    What’s your point with randomly inserting confusing Scandinavian letters into your names? It isn’t funny, and only makes your posthard to read. And I can read them all fluently, when used appropriately.

  6. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Interesting and thought provoking idea worthy of further investigation (although I agree with Janne because I also read Swedish).

  7. Sarai Brenner

    NorthStar operating subsidies are ~$35/ticket/rider. Are these Southwestern suburban choice riders really the folks we should be subsidizing?

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