Mn Regional Rail Routes

A Comprehensive Transit Overhaul for the Twin Cities: Part III

This is the final entry of a three-part series detailing the rapid transit and regional rail requirements for the Twin Cities to become a transit-oriented, climate-neutral metropolitan region. The prior two weeks looked at rail rapid transit and bus rapid transit, respectively. This article will focus on regional rail in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota.

The previous rapid transit and regional rail proposals were updated to reflect the lessons mentioned in part one. In addition to the updated maps shown below, detailed maps of the rapid transit and regional rail systems can be seen here and here, respectively. Detailed information on each route is shown in the next sections.

Fantasy Transit Map Twin Cities 

Regional Rail in the Twin Cities

A regional rail system in the Twin Cities will require major upgrades to existing rail corridors, new rail corridors on certain segments, and most importantly working with the freight railroads who own the existing rail corridors. The latter can be a challenge as we’ve witnessed with Southwest LRT and Bottineau LRT, and while it’s optimal they work with local and regional governments on these proposals, that may not be the case and would require a federal government that puts public interest over private interest. While freight operations would be impacted to an extent, we should strive for a rail system in the Twin Cities that benefits both passengers and freight with upgraded infrastructure, increased track capacity, and advanced signaling systems.

While a regional rail system could be built across Minnesota, the majority of riders would be within the Twin Cities region, so for now the focus should be on a regional rail system serving the Twin Cities region and a small number of outlying areas including Mankato, Rochester, and St. Cloud. This would greatly improve transit mobility and accessibility across the region, and would cater to a variety of travelers instead of just suburban commuters who work in the central business district.

Stadler Flirt E Ecklund Photo

The Stadler FLIRT, an electric multiple unit with wide use in Europe, can operate with batteries instead of conventional overhead wires. This would make a regional rail system in Minnesota cheaper to build without needing diesel or installing overhead wires on the entirety of routes. | Photo: Eric Ecklund

Northstar Line (Minneapolis-St. Cloud)

It was foolish to not have the Northstar Line go all the way to St. Cloud when it began operations in 2009, but hopefully in the next few years the extension between Big Lake and St. Cloud will finally become reality. However, a couple other major improvements are needed on the Northstar Line; stations prioritizing people instead of cars, and increased track capacity to allow all-day service.

Since this rail line is one of the busiest freight rail corridors in Minnesota, the Northstar Line is severely limited in terms of frequency and time span of service. A capacity increase sufficient to allow half-hourly to hourly frequency as far north as Ramsey Station, and hourly to bi-hourly frequency to St. Cloud would be optimal. While there are plans for a third main track as far north as Coon Rapids, this would likely not be enough increase in track capacity and a third main track would need to go further north. Increasing track capacity would also benefit BNSF Railway (the owner of the tracks) and allow increased intercity rail services including the proposed Northern Lights Express to Duluth.

Bnsf 3 Track Line

Although building a third track on BNSF’s mainline would be costly and impact train operations during construction, the end result would be a modern rail corridor that has the capacity for the high amount of freight traffic while allowing expansion of regional and intercity rail. | Photo: Eric Ecklund

Dan Patch Corridor (Minneapolis-Northfield-Albert Lea)

Here is a detailed vision for the Dan Patch Corridor. Although there has been strong opposition from people who live along the tracks and reluctance from certain politicians to have an open mind to this and repeal the unconstitutional gag order, the fact is this corridor would be one of the most successful for regional rail service and would be a great asset for the region and Southern Minnesota.

Stillwater Corridor (Minneapolis-St. Paul-Stillwater)

Unlike BRT on Highway 36 to Stillwater, which has been considered but not yet officially studied, this service would have the advantage of being able to serve both Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul. As previously mentioned, BRT doesn’t typically perform well on long routes, and Minneapolis to Stillwater would be a very long route with an area that’s low density and auto-oriented east of I-694.

Besides possible opposition from the freight railroads, there are two main challenges for the Stillwater Corridor: building a new rail connection for seamless movement between Stillwater and Union Pacific’s mainline in southern Bayport, and re-establishing railroad right-of-way between Oak Park Heights and Downtown Stillwater. For the first issue there would need to be extensive excavation to build a new rail connection.

Dakota Rail Corridor (Minneapolis-St. Bonifacius)

The idea of some type of transit on this corridor has been mentioned in the past, but has never had serious study (for now). However, this corridor, utilizing existing BNSF Railway and Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority right-of-way, could be a reliever for congestion on Highway 12/I-394 and Shoreline Drive. The latter is the main thoroughfare on the north side of Lake Minnetonka, but for most of its length only has one lane in each direction. Widening the road would only encourage people to drive and congestion would be the same (induced demand), and it wouldn’t be a good investment when we should be lessening our dependence on roads, cars, and fossil fuels.

In addition to providing an alternative to driving on these congested roads, the Dakota Rail Corridor would also bring visitors to Downtown Wayzata and Lake Minnetonka without increasing vehicle traffic. Under this proposal the Dakota Rail Corridor would be combined with the Stillwater Corridor, which would allow quicker and easier transit between the west metro and east metro; going between Mound and Stillwater with regional rail could take 1.5 hours, while driving takes around an hour and current transit service (with a very limited schedule) takes 3.5 hours.

Between Wayzata and as far west as Mound, the existing Dakota Rail Trail would need to be permanently closed as the right-of-way is too narrow to collocate the trail and rail line. However, improved connections to the nearby Luce Line Trail would be built. Between Mound and St. Bonifacius, the right-of-way is likely wide enough for the Dakota Rail Trail and the rail line to be collocated.

Red Rock Corridor (Minneapolis-St. Paul-Hastings)

As of now BRT is officially proposed for this corridor, but it doesn’t have the demand for the proposed 15-minute frequency all-day in both directions; the 2040 estimated weekday ridership is only 2,200 (lower than the average weekday ridership of the Northstar Line as of Fall 2019). In addition, it would only go as far north as St. Paul and require a transfer to continue to Minneapolis. This corridor was originally proposed for commuter rail, but after the shortcomings of the Northstar Line it was decided that BRT would be pursued instead. However, all-day regional rail service on the Red Rock Corridor was never studied. Regional rail on the Red Rock Corridor has several advantages over BRT: a more comfortable and reliable service than the winding route on general roads proposed for BRT, a one-seat ride between the southeast metro and Minneapolis including the University of Minnesota, and track upgrades that would also benefit the freight railroads and Amtrak including additional intercity rail service to Chicago. The Red Rock Corridor could also be extended as far south as La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Minnesota Valley Line (St. Paul-Shakopee)

While there is an existing railroad corridor between Shakopee and St. Paul, it misses most areas with people and jobs. Although more expensive, the preferred alignment along Highway 13 between eastern Shakopee and Mendota Heights would have a lot more ridership. The Minnesota Valley Line would be an important east-west belt line for suburbs south of the Minnesota River and connect with a few north-south transit routes connecting suburbs with Downtown Minneapolis.

In addition to several connecting services towards Minneapolis, a bus shuttle between Mendota Station and both terminals at MSP Airport would be provided. MSP Airport would then be indirectly served by regional rail.

An extension further west with limited-stop service to Mankato and New Ulm could also be implemented in a future phase.

Rice Creek Corridor (St. Paul-Northtown Mall)

In addition to serving large employers including Medtronic and Cummins in Fridley, the Rice Creek Corridor would greatly improve accessibility and mobility by transit between the northwest metro and Downtown St. Paul.

Between St. Paul and New Brighton, the right-of-way is owned by Canadian Pacific and freight train traffic is frequent. A dedicated track for passenger trains would need to be built to allow all-day service in both directions without severely impacting Canadian Pacific’s operations. North of New Brighton, trains would utilize an existing rail spur that is lightly used by the Minnesota Commercial Railway, and then turn north at 71st Avenue and operate along University Avenue to Northtown Mall (sharing track and station infrastructure with the Lapis Line).

Skally Line (Minneapolis-North Branch)

Originally conceived as a regional rail service between Minneapolis and New Richmond, Wisconsin, the updated version of this proposal has trains turn north in White Bear Lake to serve the communities of Hugo, Forest Lake, Wyoming, and North Branch; these communities have greater demand for regional rail service to Minneapolis. As already mentioned, the Purple Line/Rush Line BRT should have a short northern extension to allow transfers with the Skally Line.

Just as with the Rice Creek Corridor, part of the route is on a busy freight rail line owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. A dedicated track for passenger trains would be needed, and this is possible since the single-track corridor used to be double-track and on some segments could be triple-track. East of what is known as Cardigan Junction, the corridor has always been single-track, but freight traffic drops off here to just a few trains per day. From White Bear Lake going north trains would utilize a rail spur lightly used by the Minnesota Commercial Railway until Hugo, and north of Hugo to North Branch the abandoned railroad right-of-way is currently occupied by the Sunrise Prairie Trail. The width of the right-of-way should be enough to allow for colocation of a rail line and trail.

Louie Line (Minneapolis-Montgomery)

The Louie Line would be a unique regional rail route. While trains would operate on freight railroad right-of-way for most of the route, for a few miles through Eden Prairie and Minnetonka it would be a tram-train operation utilizing Green Line Extension infrastructure. A tram-train is either a train built to operate on mainline railroads and also operates on light rail lines, or is a light rail train that can also operate on mainline railroads; the Louie Line would be the former. There are very few examples of tram-train operations in the U.S., but there are several in Europe (mainly France and Germany).

With the Green Line Extension being built at a cost of just over $2 billion, it makes sense to take advantage of this infrastructure as much as possible. The main feasibility issues are gaining key approvals for this operation and what infrastructure (tracks, bridges, tunnels, etc.) would need to be modified or completely rebuilt. There will be a few tight curves in Eden Prairie and one at Shady Oak Station, but regional trains would avoid those on dedicated track. Regarding height clearance, only single-level trains could be used, but height clearances will need to be further examined. One or more sidings may need to be built to allow the high frequency of the Green Line plus less frequent but all-day regional rail service.

The Green Line Extension was never planned to have regional trains sharing infrastructure, so if extensive modifications would need to be made then a Plan B may need to be pursued. This would most likely involve extending the Green Line further west via abandoned railroad right-of-way with limited service to Chaska and Carver, and extending the Minnesota Valley Line west from Shakopee with limited service to Montgomery via existing Union Pacific tracks. This would eliminate the need for a new trestle across the Minnesota River in Carver, and the existing Union Pacific spur line through Jordan, New Prague, and Montgomery is lightly used. However, a major shipper on this rail line closed down in early 2020, and it’s possible Union Pacific will abandon the tracks between what is known as Merriam Junction (northeast of Jordan) and the end of the line in Montgomery. Assuming a rail-trail is built, that would make it difficult to bring back rail service whether it’s freight and/or passenger.

Southwest Express (Minneapolis-Mankato-New Ulm)

Rail service between Minneapolis and Mankato has been long sought, but under current conditions would be difficult to establish; there is no direct rail line between these cities without having to go through St. Paul. However, the Green Line Extension to Eden Prairie may make this predicament easier to solve. Just as with the Louie Line, the Southwest Express would be a tram-train operation for a short distance through Eden Prairie and Minnetonka by taking advantage of Green Line Extension infrastructure.

The Louie Line and Southwest Express would have the same route between Minneapolis and Merriam Junction and then split off with the Louie Line going to Montgomery and the Southwest Express going to Mankato and New Ulm. In the western part of Eden Prairie, trains would utilize abandoned railroad right-of-way currently occupied by the Minnesota River Bluffs LRT Regional Trail.

Just like the Louie Line, if extensive modifications would need to be made to Green Line infrastructure for this type of operation then a Plan B may be needed. In this case it would likely mean the Southwest Express would have an eastern terminus at St. Paul Union Depot instead of Minneapolis. Transfers would be available to routes going to Minneapolis (e.g. Savage and transfer to the Dan Patch Corridor).

Olivia’s Corridor (Minneapolis-Glencoe)

West of Minneapolis this route is used by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad with a few trains per day serving rural towns and sending agricultural product to markets across the country and the world. This rail line was originally double track, so a second track could easily be rebuilt to allow for consistent frequency of regional trains throughout the day while still allowing freight traffic. Most trains would go as far west as the Clover Field neighborhood in Chaska, while other trains would continue west with stops in Cologne, Norwood Young America, and Glencoe (and perhaps a flag stop at Bongards). A bus bridge between Glencoe and Hutchinson should also be implemented.

Rochester Rail Link (Minneapolis-St. Paul-Rochester)

While there have been a couple proposals for high speed rail (200+ mile per hour bullet trains) between the Twin Cities and Rochester, this proposal is more modest with trains likely to only reach a maximum speed of 110 miles per hour. Between Minneapolis and Rosemount, trains would utilize existing railroad right-of-way and between Rosemount and Rochester, trains would operate in the median of Highway 52. Infrastructure like viaducts and retained cuts would be built where the grade changes are too steep for trains to climb.

There would be two types of service; one that operates non-stop between the Twin Cities and Rochester, and one in which trains would make stops at a few towns along the Highway 52 Corridor. In addition to regional trains, this corridor could also be used by intercity trains, which would allow some Amtrak trains to serve Rochester operating between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

An alignment on Highway 52 is preferred due to the straight route and the right-of-way already existing. Rochester lacks existing rail infrastructure to the Twin Cities; the Chicago Great Western Railway right-of-way that was used by passenger trains between the Twin Cities and Rochester was abandoned decades ago and much of the land has been plowed over for farming or developed. Existing rail infrastructure could be used between the Twin Cities and Rochester via Owatonna, but this would be an indirect route and wouldn’t have competitive travel time compared to driving.

Hwy 52 Rail Median

This is what the alignment would look like for the Rochester Rail Link along Highway 52 between Rosemount and Rochester. | Photo: Eric Ecklund

Eagandale Line (St. Paul-Northfield)

In addition to serving several employers in Mendota Heights and Eagan including Thomson Reuters, this regional rail service would also serve walkable downtown districts in Rosemount, Farmington, and Northfield. Most trains would operate as far south as the existing transit station in Rosemount while limited service would continue south and stop in Farmington and Northfield. The Eagandale Line would also connect to the airport bus shuttle operating between Mendota and both airport terminals.

Soo Liner (Minneapolis-Medina)

Between Minneapolis and New Hope, this route would operate similar to light rail with a high frequency (up to every 15 minutes in each direction) and close station spacing, while trains operating between Minneapolis and Medina would operate at lighter frequency and skip a few stations to decrease travel time.

The high frequency service between Minneapolis and New Hope should be possible as the existing rail line, owned by Canadian Pacific, is lightly used with one train per day at most. Double-tracking the entire corridor would be needed for the proposed frequency of regional trains in addition to future freight traffic. However, local freight trains serving industries along the corridor could only operate at night when regional rail service isn’t operating. West of New Hope to Medina, there isn’t enough demand for high frequency service and the rail line is a major east-west freight corridor for Canadian Pacific with at least a dozen freight trains per day. This segment would also need a second track to allow regional rail service and existing freight traffic.

Monti Line (Minneapolis-Monticello)

This would be an important alternative to driving on Interstate 94 in the northwest region, and will be even more important if the Blue Line Extension is cancelled.

Through the Maple Grove/Osseo area there are two possible routes: one continuing on the existing railroad right-of-way through Osseo and northern Maple Grove, or turning west and trains operating along the I-94 Corridor for a few miles. The latter option is preferred because it would directly serve the rapidly developing Arbor Lakes and Maple Grove Parkway areas of Maple Grove.

This regional rail system would be complemented with an expanded intercity rail system connecting several Minnesota cities with the Upper Midwest.

Strong Champions are Needed

From an engineering perspective, all these proposals are feasible, but not surprisingly all of this would cost a lot of money and require a lot of political and public will. It would also require a change of rules including shortening the extensive and costly environmental review process for transit projects, new funding streams to build and maintain these projects, and a willingness from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to require private freight railroads to work with transit agencies and allow European-style trains and tram-train operations.

The alternative to this is not doing enough, or sticking with the status quo of prioritizing road widening and upgrades while transit receives little in comparison. That will make current residents consider other places to live and work, and deter people from visiting and potentially settling in our region. In an age where human-caused climate change is a widely accepted fact, and the Twin Cities is at risk of falling behind peer cities in the U.S. and the world when it comes to climate change mitigation, we can’t afford to not do enough or keep the status quo. While the proposals outlined above may not be exact if/when built, something very similar to this will be needed for the Twin Cities to remain competitive in keeping and attracting residents and jobs, as well as meeting our climate goals.

The phrase “don’t let perfection be the enemy of good” may be brought up as a reason why we shouldn’t expend this much effort into our transit system. The truth is no transit system anywhere is perfect, and this proposed transit system certainly would not be either. However, this system would be “good”, and this system or something very similar is what the Twin Cities region needs.


About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.