Last year I posted about the potential for regional rail in the Twin Cities and Minnesota, and for this post I’ll be focusing on a route that has been of interest to me for over a decade; the Dan Patch Corridor between Minneapolis and Northfield.
Some background on myself: I’ve lived in West Bloomington my whole life, and my house is located about a mile from the railroad route known as the Dan Patch Line. I knew about the commuter rail proposal since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until high school that I started researching the topic and considered what, if any, passenger rail service should look like on the Dan Patch Corridor. In 2015 I started the Facebook page “Support the Dan Patch Rail Line” to bring together people who have an interest or concern in this proposal and to spur discussion about it.
Brief History of the Dan Patch Line
The Dan Patch Line’s original intention was for transporting passengers while freight mostly consisted of produce from local farms going to markets. That changed when the company Minneapolis St. Paul Rochester & Dubuque Electric Traction Company (more commonly referred to as the Dan Patch Electric Line) went into receivership and the Minneapolis Northfield & Southern Railway (MN&S) took over in 1918. It became a belt line for the major railroads to get their freight around the busy rail yards of Minneapolis and St. Paul and significantly decrease the amount of time it took for freight to reach its destination. In 1942 the MN&S ceased scheduled passenger service, and it was a small but very important freight railroad in the Twin Cities region.
The importance of the MN&S fell apart as railroads went bankrupt and merged through the 60s and 70s. The MN&S no longer had an advantage diverting freight traffic away from Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in 1981 the MN&S was purchased by the Soo Line. That purchase was intended to be part of a bigger purchase in which the Soo Line would also take over an important route between St. Paul and Kansas City. Those plans fell through when a different railroad purchased the rail line, and the MN&S was more of an inconvenience than an asset for the Soo Line. Since then freight traffic has steadily dropped on the Dan Patch Line, but in the present day it still exists with local freight trains on a northern section between Bloomington and North Minneapolis, and a southern section between Lakeville and Northfield. Port Cargill in Savage was served via the Dan Patch Line until the mid-2000s, but there are plans to restart that operation in the near future. South of Savage through Burnsville and northern Lakeville there hasn’t been a train since sometime in the 1990s, but Canadian Pacific still owns them and intends to reactivate that part of the corridor someday.
Original Dan Patch Corridor Proposal
In the late 1990s MnDOT studied several existing freight rail lines around the Twin Cities for commuter rail implementation, which included what is known as the Dan Patch Corridor between Minneapolis and Northfield. With the rapidly developing western and southern suburbs the Dan Patch Corridor ranked highly. However a feasibility study published in 2001 showed that there would be a high cost to upgrade the corridor for commuter trains. The conclusion was simply to wait and see, and focus on building commuter rail on the Northstar Line to St. Cloud and Red Rock Corridor to Hastings as those corridors already had track that could handle commuter trains. While light rail has been successful in the Twin Cities, commuter rail has been very slow to progress. Our only example of commuter rail (the Northstar Line) wasn’t implemented well, and there is a lack of political willingness to improve it.
In 2002 a piece of legislation made by NIMBYs for NIMBYs passed the state legislature and prohibited MnDOT, the Metropolitan Council, and regional railroad authorities from studying and building commuter rail on the Dan Patch Line. That law still remains despite several attempts at repealing it, the most recent being this year.
Here is the specific law:
[DAN PATCH COMMUTER RAIL LINE; PROHIBITIONS.] Subdivision 1. [DEFINITION.] For purposes of this section, “Dan Patch commuter rail line” means the commuter rail line between Northfield and Minneapolis identified in the metropolitan council’s transit 2020 master plan as the Dan Patch line. Subd. 2. [METROPOLITAN COUNCIL; PROHIBITIONS.] The metropolitan council must not take any action or spend any money for study, planning, preliminary engineering, final design, or construction for the Dan Patch commuter rail line. The council must remove all references, other than references for historical purposes, to the Dan Patch commuter rail line from any future revisions to the council’s transportation development guide and the council’s regional transit master plan. Subd. 3. [COMMISSIONER OF TRANSPORTATION.] The commissioner of transportation must not expend any money for study, planning, preliminary engineering, final design, or construction for the Dan Patch commuter rail line. The commissioner must remove all references, other than references for historical purposes, to the Dan Patch commuter rail line from any future revisions to the state transportation plan and the commissioner’s commuter rail system plan. Subd. 4. [REGIONAL RAIL AUTHORITIES.] No regional rail authority may expend any money for study, planning, preliminary engineering, final design, or construction for the Dan Patch commuter rail line.
Despite the gag order still being law, that hasn’t stopped MnDOT from proposing intercity rail service between Minneapolis and Kansas City via the Dan Patch Line. In 2017 Edina looked at the opportunities and challenges of passenger rail on the Dan Patch Corridor, but they gave in to NIMBY pressure from residents who live along the tracks and didn’t pursue support for passenger rail and repealing the gag order, though it should be noted that stance could change at any time. You can view the final report here.
Lessons Learned in Recent Years
The Gag Order
The gag order has failed to do what its original intention was; silencing discussion of passenger rail on the Dan Patch Corridor. In fact it has had the opposite effect; more and more people are talking about it, attempts at repealing the gag order will continue to be made, and suburbs once hostile to the idea are now more open to it as they realize their transportation systems can’t solely rely on cars.
The gag order is NIMBYism taken too far. Concerns over the proposal of passenger rail on the Dan Patch Line are valid, but trying to silence discussion should not be valid. If a gag order can be placed on a commuter rail proposal there is no stopping politicians from making more ridiculous gag orders that are wasteful laws. There are even people who don’t support the Dan Patch Corridor but see the gag order as bad policy; one example being Matt Little, former Mayor of Lakeville and State Senator of District 58, who called the gag order “a bit silly”. While most suburbs have warmed up to the idea of passenger rail on the Dan Patch Line to some extent, Lakeville leaders are opposed.
Passenger Rail is Foreign
Although the Twin Cities has two light rail lines and one commuter rail line, passenger rail is still foreign to many people and that makes proposals like the Dan Patch Corridor misunderstood. People fear the rail line will divide neighborhoods, but the rail corridor already exists and it occupies a small width of right-of-way. While the freight railroads need to give permission, in theory building a road or trail crossing across a railway line is cheaper and easier than across a highway.
People are also afraid of the dangers of trains. However if you respect the rules of the railroad, including the obvious don’t try to beat a train at a railroad crossing, there’s a very good chance you’ll be safe. Unlike automobiles who may be driven by someone intoxicated, extremely tired, or reckless, trains are operated by professionals. With Positive Train Control being implemented nationwide this will make trains even safer.
There is also a claim that with a car you are free to set your own schedule, but that’s not necessarily true. If you’re going to work or an appointment, it still takes time to drive there and you have to set a time for when you leave and take into account traffic, road conditions, road construction, accidents, etc. While it is true there’s more schedule flexibility with a car, you’re still on a schedule no matter what mode of transport you choose. The flexibility of a car vs transit also depends on the service from the transit route. On one extreme is a bus that only runs a couple times per day in peak hour and peak direction, and the other extreme is a rapid transit route that operates frequently all day in both directions. With the limited track capacity on the Dan Patch Corridor the service can’t be the same frequency as our light rail lines (every 10 minutes), but all day service and trains running at a regular interval is a huge improvement over express buses and the Northstar Line with their very limited schedule.
Living with Rail
Through my travels around the U.S. and Western Europe, many of which were by train, I’ve found many thriving communities that exist alongside passenger rail lines. One of my favorite examples is Leirsund, a village just north of Oslo, Norway, that is located on the main line to Oslo’s international airport and reaches the northern city of Trondheim. After major track and corridor upgrades in 1998, the village exists with trains traveling at around 100 miles per hour and a frequency of at least 10 minutes in each direction from morning to evening. Here’s a video I took of a regional train flying by with someone’s backyard abutting the tracks. Neighborhoods along the Dan Patch Corridor won’t have to deal with this extreme, but it does show the extent to which communities remain perfectly livable with passenger rail.
Some residents along the Dan Patch Line feel they would get railroaded (no pun intended) with any passenger rail. They feel like their voices won’t be heard, and they think passenger rail on the Dan Patch Line would destroy the quality of life of their communities (as I already mentioned above, communities exist and thrive even with high frequency and high speed trains). For several years now I’ve been listening to people talk about the Dan Patch Corridor. From listening to views I’ve looked at measures to make sure the Dan Patch Corridor fits in with the communities it serves. Of course for some people they will only accept no trains, but my vision has a Dan Patch Corridor that residents can adjust to and improves the quality of life of the communities it serves by providing a new option for traveling and decreasing our dependence on cars. It will certainly be a change from the present, but nothing that would be impossible to adapt to.
No Typical American Passenger Rail
There are two modes of passenger rail that should not be implemented on the Dan Patch Corridor; intercity rail and commuter rail.
I do not support intercity rail between Minneapolis and Kansas City that would utilize the Dan Patch Line. That proposal calls for only one suburban station, likely in Savage or Burnsville. For the rest of the suburbs, Amtrak trains that would likely use large diesel locomotives would go through without stopping, and that would be very difficult to push onto communities considering people are already hostile to the idea of a train that would serve their community. The Dan Patch Line also has several curves and grade changes which makes it less than ideal for intercity rail service. Routing an intercity rail service to Kansas City via St. Paul and the eastern suburbs on a rail corridor built for intercity trains is a better proposal.
In addition to intercity rail, the Dan Patch Corridor should not replicate typical commuter rail service like the Northstar Line; service catered only to suburbanites going to downtown in the morning and coming back in the evening. Just as with intercity rail, large diesel locomotives like those used on the Northstar Line wouldn’t fit well on the Dan Patch Corridor. The Northstar Line also primarily serves people driving to the station rather than people walking, biking, and taking transit. While it’s good to have people using their car less, it’s even better when we can have people not use their car at all.
Regional Rail Vision
The Dan Patch Corridor would be a hybrid between light rail and commuter rail; a regional rail service, which is all-day service in both directions serving several suburban stations in addition to Downtown Minneapolis and Northfield (and could be extended as far south as Albert Lea). Trains every half hour during peak time in peak direction and hourly at all other times is an appropriate frequency for this type of corridor.
Instead of diesel locomotives and coaches as is typical on American passenger rail lines, the Dan Patch Corridor would instead use European-style self-propelled trains similar to our light rail trains but allowed to operate on tracks used by freight trains. These operate on a few commuter/regional rail routes in the U.S., but are usually diesel multiple units (DMUs). While today’s DMUs have cleaner emissions, they’re still diesel and still have emissions. Electric multiple units (EMUs), while cutting emissions, require overhead lines that in addition to being expensive to install and maintain would likely not be welcomed in communities. With battery technology continuously improving the ideal train for the Dan Patch Corridor is battery electric multiple units (BEMUs). Instead of overhead lines on the entire corridor only a few short sections would need overhead lines to charge the batteries. No diesel emissions and getting electricity from renewable sources would make the Dan Patch Corridor a truly environmentally friendly transportation option. These trains would also be quieter than diesel locomotives, and to make operations even more quiet all at-grade crossings between Minneapolis and Lakeville, as well as Downtown Northfield, would be upgraded to quiet-zone compliance; no train horns would be sounded except in an emergency. A few major roads (e.g. Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington and 185th Street in Lakeville) would receive grade-separation to improve safety and traffic flow. In addition a few new pedestrian crossings would be built in order to reduce the barrier of the rail corridor and encourage people to cross at designated crossings.
Stations would be designed to be easily accessible by people walking, biking, and taking transit to the station. While there would still be parking for people driving to the station, there needs to be high priority on encouraging people to access stations in other ways. Better walking and biking infrastructure, especially in auto-centric suburban areas, is needed. Another need is improving bus service; not only would the Dan Patch Corridor provide convenient service between the suburbs and Minneapolis, it would also be a north-south belt line connecting with several east-west transit routes. Those routes should have higher frequency and longer service hours, and a few may even become rapid transit routes at a later time. Transit oriented development around stations is encouraged, and this is already happening around a few potential station sites, most notably the Grandview District in Edina.
One obstacle, besides funding and political and public willingness to build this, are the freight railroads. There are several freight railroads that own right-of-way on the Dan Patch Corridor route; BNSF, Canadian Pacific, Twin Cities & Western, Progressive Rail, and Union Pacific. Two important questions need to be answered; what demands will they have to accept such a proposal, and what are Canadian Pacific’s plans for this corridor as they hold on to right-of-way that hasn’t seen a train in over 20 years? As we’ve learned from the struggles Southwest LRT and Bottineau LRT had/have with freight railroads, communication is important.
As the population continues to grow along the route, and as more development happens that supports this kind of service, that will increase the chances of the Dan Patch Corridor being built. The Orange Line BRT, contrary to what some believe, won’t impact the chances as they are two very different routes. The Orange Line could actually increase the chances if it can connect with the Dan Patch Corridor somewhere in Burnsville or Lakeville. The Green Line Extension certainly gives it a boost as one of the stations will be walking distance from a potential station site in St. Louis Park.
Conclusion: Discuss Dan Patch
Eventually I think the gag order will be removed as more politicians see it as bad policy even if they don’t support the Dan Patch Corridor. It won’t mean construction will begin the next day, but it will open the door to an updated feasibility study that I hope will be similar to what I propose or pretty much the same. I encourage people to keep talking about the Dan Patch Corridor and telling their legislators to remove the gag order. The more discussion about it, the more evident it is that the gag order has failed.