The Resurgence of Trains

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I recently read an from the Planning Magazine titled “Rail Relationships” which I found interesting because it acknowledged the necessity for cities to build adjacent to long standing rail infrastructure as they run out of available land but also addressed the economic need to preserve their operations. The most interesting facts compared the efficiency and cost of moving goods by rail and by truck. Rail was shown to cost less, be more fuel efficient, and safer. As someone who is a fan of trains I am supportive of their resurgence.

Wall of shipping containers waiting to be loaded onto a train

Wall of shipping containers waiting to be loaded onto a train next to Columbia Park in Minneapolis

Anyone stuck at a train crossing for any length of time might disagree with me, especially if this occurs on a daily basis during their commute. The answer to this problem, which the City of Anoka is currently working on, is constructing bridges or underpasses at track crossings. This allows trains to continue moving product while allowing traffic to flow and increases safety. You cannot find this kind of solution for truck traffic, which often slows traffic flow on the interstate or creates blockage when delivering in dense urban areas.

The old Soo Line bridge over Columbia Park

As we embrace development near existing rail lines and yards we need to be cognizant of their relationship. Sound barriers or berms are key in reducing the impact of noise and vibration. The author of “Rail Relationships” identified these among other issues created by the operation of rail lines as necessary to plan for when developing projects adjacent to them. It is imperative to think about their relationship before design starts otherwise projects may fail for lack of mitigation options.

Another major concern identified was land use. Back in the day, there was no consideration given to residential developments next to rail lines, which is why we have so many. Now we need to pay special attention to the types of uses we allow next to rail lines. In Rochester a developer wanted to locate an apartment complex next to a rail line. The site plan even showed the tot lot next to the rail, a dangerous location for children to play. Lincoln, Nebraska recently relocated rail lines to allow for the expansion of their Historic Haymarket District. The West Haymarket includes a new event arena, commercial buildings, and apartments. The layout of the district was done in a manner that protects both the rail function in its new location and the residential units.

The historic train passenger platform canopy and rail landscaping in the West Haymarket 

The historic train passenger platform canopy and rail landscaping in the West Haymarket (Lincoln, NE)

Despite your love or hate of trains for their disruptive tendencies, they provide a necessary function in our economy. They can also be a solution to environmental concerns and increase safety in the supply chain. I support their resurgence and hope to see cities embrace them and plan for their continued use. Another perk of rail lines is the famous Holiday Train, something I would hate to lose.

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train that rolls through the mid-west every winter.

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train that rolls through the mid-west every winter (this stop in Columbia Heights)


About Stephanie Rouse

Stephanie Rouse, AICP, is a planner for the City of Minneapolis and the metro area director of APA's Minnesota Chapter. She is interested in preservation and water management.

2 thoughts on “The Resurgence of Trains

  1. karen

    Good stuff.

    Rail for freight is important issue, it is very good way to ship goods long distances, and probably, if whole cost of system is considered, much more efficient for bulk shipping than barges.

    I remember when there was a big rails to trails movement 40-50 years ago and I read something in late 70s where a guy said we should stop it because those from RR lines might where we want to put transit in future – he had a good point.

    There are some places where the trails are much used and beloved, but I do think of what might have been if the Gateway trail from East Side St. Paul out to North St. Paul and Oakdale, and then trails off to north and Stillwater – would have made a great LRT extension. I know people love them for recreation also, just wasn’t a ton of forward thinking about what best to do with the alignment.

    1. Stephanie

      That is a great point. Rails to trails has been a huge success throughout the US, but at the expense of transit. In many cases the old railroad right of way has been sold off to individual property owners making either use nearly impossible to see through.

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