St. Paul Union Depot is a natural choice as a regional and intercity rail hub for St. Paul as the station is already in use and there’s plenty of room to expand when needed. However, Minneapolis is a different story. Amtrak doesn’t directly serve Minneapolis, but Target Field Station does have the Northstar Line providing commuter service to/from Big Lake and convenient light rail service to the central business district. In addition the Northern Lights Express, an intercity rail service to Duluth, could serve the station in the near future. However Target Field Station also has one major flaw; lack of room to expand, and that makes it questionable if Target Field Station will ever truly be a regional transit hub or if a replacement is needed especially if/when the region and state put more priority on regional and intercity rail services.
Before Target Field Station
In the pre-Amtrak era, Minneapolis had two major train stations; the Great Northern Depot and the Milwaukee Road Depot. In addition to the railroads with their respective name, both stations were also served by numerous other railroads. The Great Northern Depot was located on the present day site of the Federal Reserve Bank Building, and the Milwaukee Road Depot still exists and is used as a hotel. When Amtrak was formed in 1971 the Milwaukee Road Depot was closed to passenger service, and all trains moved to the Great Northern Depot. By this time there were only a few passenger trains still serving Minneapolis, and in 1978 all passenger operations moved to the Midway Depot in St. Paul and the Great Northern Depot was demolished. In 2014 Amtrak operations moved from the Midway Depot to St. Paul Union Depot.
A small depot was also located near the present day site of Target Field. This was used by the Electric Short Line (also known as the Luce Line), the Minneapolis Northfield & Southern (previously the Dan Patch Electric Line), and the Minneapolis Anoka & Cuyuna Range. Passenger services at this depot ended by the late 1950s, and the building was demolished by the late 1980s.
In addition to the depots there were several rail lines and rail yards in the downtown area that have been wiped out of existence; one example being the area around Gold Medal Park, which used to be a rail yard. A large railroad network that used to crisscross Downtown Minneapolis and the surrounding area was gone by the late 1980s except for one rail corridor; BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision, which still exists and in addition to being used by the Northstar Line is used by approximately 12 freight trains per day.
Target Field Station and the Surrounding Area
Before Target Field (the stadium) was built the area was a large swath of surface parking that used to be a rail yard to serve the many warehouses. Along with the stadium, Target Field Station opened in 2009 and the Hiawatha Line (Blue Line) was extended a short distance north from Hennepin Avenue. In November of that year the Northstar Line began operations. In 2014 a plaza and second light rail platform were built at Target Field Station, and the Green Line opened soon-after. The surrounding North Loop area has rapidly developed with several new and renovated buildings along and near the railroad corridor. Next to the commuter rail platform two mixed-use towers have been proposed, and could start construction next year. The rail corridor, along with Target Field Station, have very little room to expand.
When the subject of what to do about Target Field Station in terms of regional and intercity rail operations comes up, people often say that regional rail in the Twin Cities will be slow to develop and that’s only if it develops so it’s too early to decide what to do with Target Field Station. Not thinking years and even decades ahead is what brought us this predicament in the first place. If the Great Northern Depot were saved and railroad right-of-way around Minneapolis were preserved for future transportation purposes then we may not be having this current predicament. Just as with Union Depot in St. Paul, the Great Northern Depot could’ve been renovated and reopened for passenger rail. However, assuming the Stone Arch Bridge would need to be used for a rail connection, there would likely be a long battle between those trying to provide better regional and intercity transportation and those trying to provide good bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Downtown Minneapolis (both of which are important). Rather than analyzing the many what-ifs from past decisions, we need to think about what we have now and what do we do with it. Assuming regional rail becomes more important in the Twin Cities and Minnesota we have to think about where all the trains serving Minneapolis will go, and it’s better to start asking that question now instead of scrambling for solutions at a later time.
Station Options in Minneapolis
Expanded Target Field Station
As part of the Northern Lights Express project, Target Field Station’s commuter rail platform would be extended east and a third platform track would be built, but that’s as far as Target Field Station could expand without building tracks and platforms underground. Building underground would require tunnel portals at either end; from the west this shouldn’t be an issue, but from the east this would be difficult with the Mississippi River not far from Target Field Station and the surrounding area being mostly developed. In addition to the issue of diesel trains using those tunnels, there would also still be the issue of the constricted rail corridor and sharing tracks with freight trains.
Assuming each regional rail route operates at a frequency of every 30 minutes during rush hour, Target Field Station with two through-tracks and one stub track from the east could handle at most three regional rail lines including the Northstar Line as well as the Northern Lights Express to/from Duluth. Anything beyond that would be virtually impossible from an operations standpoint both for the regional rail routes and BNSF Railway.
In terms of connections to other transit routes, there’s the easy transfer to both light rail lines, but bus connections are limited. There are around a dozen bus routes near Target Field Station (several of them are express routes that only operate at peak time in peak direction), but they don’t directly serve the station.
East Minneapolis Station
Located just northeast of TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank Campus, this site has a lot of room for an intercity and regional rail hub. While not exactly close to downtown, it would directly serve the University of Minnesota. The Green Line’s Stadium Village Station is a 5-minute walk from the site, and the University’s shuttle bus service could easily serve the station. Another benefit of this station is Amtrak’s Empire Builder would be able to directly serve Minneapolis without the complications of trying to route in and out of Target Field Station. For local bus connections there is only the Route 6 bus nearby, while the Route 2 bus is half a mile away. However the E Line could have a stop at Stadium Village Station, so while not directly serving East Minneapolis Station it would be close by.
West Minneapolis Station
Located on what is currently gravel pits and a large impound lot, in a few years this will be the Green Line Extension’s Basset Creek Valley Station on Van White Memorial Boulevard. While West Minneapolis Station would be farther from downtown than Target Field Station, the site has plenty of undeveloped land for a regional and intercity rail hub, and passengers would be able to transfer to the Green Line and be in downtown in less than 10 minutes. Shuttle buses from the station to downtown could also be provided. Local bus connections at this site are currently non-existent, and when the Green Line Extension opens there will likely be a local route operating to/from North Minneapolis.
The main reason the Green Line Extension is being routed through here is the development opportunities. With the Green Line Extension under construction, development plans in the area should be coming in the near future, and then we’ll know if this station site will have the same issue as Target Field Station in terms of room for growth.
In addition to possible development taking up land there are a couple of other issues. Just like Target Field Station this station site would have the issue of regional trains sharing tracks with freight trains through the constricted downtown rail corridor, and this severely limits the amount of regional trains that could be operated. Another issue is having to transfer to reach downtown. While this should be easy with the Green Line Extension and shuttle buses, less people would be willing to ride than if regional trains directly served downtown and their journey was a one-seat ride.
Minneapolis Central Station
This is the most expensive option, but is also the most efficient from an operations standpoint and would be convenient for the majority of riders. This station would be underground in the middle of Downtown Minneapolis, and rather than being a layover station it would have just two platforms and four platform tracks with regional trains continuously passing through all day. Light rail and many local and express bus routes are within easy walking distance of this station site.
Since this would be in a tunnel, only trains that can run on electricity could operate to this station, so intercity trains wouldn’t be able to serve Minneapolis Central Station. Whether or not this station is built it should be a goal to have regional trains run completely or partially on electricity instead of diesel to be more environmentally-friendly and cut emissions. With battery technology continuously improving our regional rail lines could utilize battery electric multiple units (BEMUs) so overhead wires would only need to be installed on certain short segments to charge the batteries. Routes too long for BEMUs could use hybrid locomotives that run on electricity from batteries in urban areas and tunnels, and diesel outside of the urban area.
The main issue with this option is the cost and complexity of building tunnels and an underground station in downtown. However this may be simpler with approximately a third of the tunnels under I-394 instead of a developed area.
A map of the build-out scenarios can be viewed here.
This assumes a few regional and intercity rail routes are built that serve Minneapolis. While Target Field Station could be expanded for this, it would likely be cheaper and easier to build West Minneapolis Station, and this would allow room for growth later on. Due to track capacity issues through downtown most trains from the west would terminate at West Minneapolis Station and require riders to transfer to the Green Line Extension or shuttle buses to reach downtown. Most trains from the east would terminate at East Minneapolis Station and riders would have to transfer to the Green Line if they wish to continue to downtown. One regional rail line would be through-routed and connect West Minneapolis and East Minneapolis (i.e. Northfield-West Minneapolis-East Minneapolis-St. Paul Union Depot-Hastings).
The Base Build-Out assumes a few more regional rail and intercity rail routes are built than the Minimum Build-Out. Under this scenario West Minneapolis Station and East Minneapolis Station would be built, but both stations would be larger than the Minimum Build-Out. There would be slightly more regional trains through-routed between West Minneapolis and East Minneapolis, but it would still require riders to transfer to reach downtown. The downtown rail corridor, including across the Mississippi River and Nicollet Island, would have to be double-track or possibly even triple-track to allow more regional trains in addition to freight traffic.
This assumes a fully built-out regional rail network in the Twin Cities region with several routes meeting in the urban core and a frequency of every couple minutes in each direction. This would require dedicated track on several segments including in Downtown Minneapolis where regional trains would operate underground and serve Minneapolis Central Station. Trains bound towards Big Lake and White Bear Lake would turn north from Minneapolis Central, emerge at-grade just north of the North Loop, and cross the Mississippi River on a currently lightly-used trestle in Northeast Minneapolis. The rest of the regional train traffic would continue east from Minneapolis Central and cross the Mississippi River on the Northern Pacific Bridge Number 9, serve East Minneapolis Station, and continue towards St. Paul Union Depot and points further east. From Minneapolis Central going west trains would either go on BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision or turn north onto BNSF’s Monticello Subdivision. Regional trains to/from the Monticello Subdivision would go underneath the Wayzata Subdivision and the Green Line Extension near the Basset Creek Valley Station.
A mix of the Minimum Build-Out and Maximum Build-Out is recommended. Target Field Station would be kept for certain intercity rail services as well as two potential regional rail routes; from Medina to Target Field Station and then continuing north to Big Lake, and from Monticello to Target Field Station and continuing east to White Bear Lake. The rest of the regional rail routes would serve Minneapolis Central Station and East Minneapolis Station. East Minneapolis Station would also handle intercity rail services.
While the existing rail corridor through Downtown Minneapolis and across the Mississippi River would still need upgrades, it would need substantially less to handle the traffic in this recommendation. Transferring between Target Field Station and Minneapolis Central Station would be easy via underground light rail (since we’re building a tunnel for regional trains, the light rail lines also deserve a tunnel to increase capacity and allow new light rail routes).
Target Field Station already exists, so we should take advantage of that as best as possible. While not necessarily being a regional transit hub, it should still serve a purpose while the main regional rail hub is located somewhere else, preferably right in the middle of Downtown Minneapolis. Minneapolis Central Station wouldn’t only be useful for commuters who live in the suburbs, as regional rail would be an all-day service that allows urban residents to access jobs in the suburbs that are currently difficult to get to without a car, plus suburban residents with jobs in other suburbs. As already stated, a light rail tunnel should also be part of this, and in no way should this be a regional rail tunnel vs light rail tunnel debate. Both are important in order to provide the necessary capacity and convenience of service that we need if our regional transit system is to be improved.