Rail-with-Trails of the Twin Cities

In my previous post I discussed rail-trails, which are abandoned railroad right-of-ways repurposed as trails. The Twin Cities has many of these, but the region also has several so-called rail-with-trail corridors. Rail-with-trails are trails alongside active rail lines. They provide a safe path for people, deterring trespassing on railroad property while still allowing train movements, whether it’s freight we rely on or passenger trains to get us where we need to go.

To some extent, rail-with-trails can take advantage of the flat and straight path of rail lines, in addition to a low amount of road crossings. However, due to certain factors (primarily right-of-way constraints) the trail may have a less convenient route than the rail line on some segments. While not as perfect for those on foot and wheels as a rail-trail, rail-with-trails are still useable and an important asset for recreation opportunities and in some cases commuting purposes.

Just as in my previous post, information on these trails and the active rail lines along them is to the best of my knowledge.

Luce Line Trail

While the rail line was abandoned west of Plymouth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it’s still active between Plymouth and Minneapolis. Owned by Union Pacific since their acquisition of the Chicago & North Western in 1995, it serves several local shippers in the Plymouth and Golden Valley area with a single daily train. This segment of the Luce Line Trail was built in the early to mid-2000s, and most of the trail closely follows the Union Pacific tracks. Although not completely flat like the rail line, the trail is still mostly flat and straight. While the trail is mainly for recreation, it’s also feasible as a bike commuter route.

However, there are a few problem segments that involve biking along busy roads and detours instead of following the simple and straight path of the rail line. First is across the Plymouth-Golden Valley border under Highway 169, in which the trail runs along Plymouth Avenue. In addition to biking along a busy road, several industrial driveways and two busy intersections must be crossed.

Looking west at the intersection of Plymouth Avenue and Kilmer Lane in Plymouth. The Luce Line Trail switches from the left to the right side of the road, forcing trail users to cross this intersection twice. Notice the only refuge for trail users while waiting to cross is a tiny piece of concrete. Source: Google Street View.

The second problem segment is the detour around the Golden Valley Country Club. While most of the route doesn’t involve biking along busy roads, this segment is half a mile longer than the straight path of the rail line that cuts through the golf course. I assume the existing trail alignment along this segment is due to insufficient right-of-way width available through the golf course. There may also be safety concerns; a golfer accidentally hitting the side of a train with a golf ball isn’t as serious as accidentally hitting a trail user.

The third problem segment on the Luce Line Trail is the detour around Schaper Pond in Golden Valley. This is mainly an annoyance because there’s a gravel path parallel to the rail line that dead ends just before reconnecting with the main trail, and trying to take this shortcut would involve climbing a steep hill and going through thick vegetation. Hopefully, this almost-shortcut will eventually be the new alignment for the Luce Line Trail.

The yellow line is the existing trail alignment around Schaper Pond, and the blue line is the hoped-for future alignment of the trail. The red line is the active Union Pacific tracks. Source: Google Earth.

The final problem segment is between Theodore Wirth Park and Downtown Minneapolis, in which the trail winds its way around Theodore Wirth Golf Course, along Highway 55, and along Basset Creek before meeting with the Cedar Lake Trail. If you’re not familiar with the route, you may end up lost, as there are a few spots where the trail seems to end when in reality you just need to walk or bike along roads for a short length before the trail restarts. Optimally, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) would allow the trail along a short length of their right-of-way, beyond which the trail can utilize Canadian Pacific (CP) right-of-way where the tracks are inactive, thus reducing several turns and making the route much easier to navigate.

The yellow line is the current alignment of the Luce Line Trail on the western edge of Minneapolis. The blue line is the proposed new alignment that would mostly utilize inactive right-of-way owned by CP. The red line is the active tracks owned by BNSF. Considering BNSF was firmly opposed to the Blue Line Extension along these same tracks, it’s unclear how they would feel about a trail next to their tracks even if for just a quarter mile. Source: Google Earth.
The inactive CP tracks, which were originally used by the Electric Short Line and Dan Patch Line to access their passenger and freight terminal in Downtown Minneapolis. This was last used in the very early 2010s. Photo by author.

North Cedar Lake Trail

Built in the early 2000s, this trail parallels BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision through St. Louis Park and Minneapolis. With a straight route and only a few road crossings, this trail is excellent for both recreation and commuting. The main issue with this trail is the limited number of places trail users can safely and legally cross the rail line. There are no official at-grade railroad crossings along this trail, and I’m sure BNSF doesn’t want them for safety reasons. Right now, the grade-separated crossings are few and far between, or you trespass across the tracks where there isn’t a fence blocking the path. However, in the near future there will be two new crossings for trail users: one in St. Louis Park consisting of a bridge over the tracks to Edgewood Avenue near Peter Hobart Elementary School, and one in Minneapolis consisting of a bridge over the tracks to Penn Avenue as part of the Green Line Extension project. Optimally, a crossing will also be built in the West End area of St. Louis Park eventually.

The under-construction bridge near Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park, which will provide a safe and grade-separated north-south crossing for trail users and kids going to/from school. Photo by author.
A regional rail station in the West End area would provide an opportunity to build a skyway over the tracks, creating another safe and grade-separated crossing for trail users and people accessing the West End area from south of the tracks. Photo by author.

Trail access in Downtown Minneapolis is a minor issue, as there are currently only four access points to the Cedar Lake Trail in the North Loop area. This is partly due to the trail being in a trench, and with most land along the trail developed, it would be difficult to build a new access point. However, I do hope that at least one more access point to the Cedar Lake Trail is built in the North Loop eventually. Another improvement would be extending the Cedar Lake Trail across the Mississippi River to Nicollet Island, which would significantly improve access to the trail from Northeast Minneapolis, and eliminate the requirement for trail users to use Hennepin Avenue to cross the river.

Kenilworth Trail

Once a part of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway’s (M&StL) mainline, they were acquired by the Chicago & North Western in 1960, and through the next few decades rail traffic on this route declined. The area in which this trail now runs had two rail yards: Kenwood Yard in the southwest corner of the Kenwood neighborhood (between the Cedar Lake Channel and 21st Street), and Cedar Lake Yard in the northeast corner of the Kenwood neighborhood, both of which were abandoned in 1984. Prior to construction on the Green Line Extension, you could find vast amounts of rubble from demolished railroad yard buildings tucked away in a small forest next to where the Kenilworth Trail meets the North Cedar Lake Trail. In 1985, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) purchased the right-of-way that became the Kenilworth Trail for future transit purposes. The Kenilworth Trail connects the North Cedar Lake Trail on the north end to the Midtown Greenway and Minnesota River Bluffs LRT Regional Trail on the south end.

For a few years in the early 2010s the trail faced an uncertain future due to a pinch-point in the right-of-way that was too narrow to fit light rail, freight rail, and the trail at-grade. Originally the plan was for freight trains to be rerouted on a lightly-used rail line through St. Louis Park, and this would allow space for light rail and the trail. However, St. Louis Park and Twin Cities & Western Railroad objected to that plan, which led to a few years of debate between they and Minneapolis and the Metropolitan Council.

This predicament could’ve been avoided decades ago when the HCRRA purchased the right-of-way. The pinch-point was created when townhouses were built adjacent to the right-of-way in the late 1980s. Had the townhouses not been built, it’s very likely the light rail, freight rail, and trail could’ve been built at-grade through the Kenilworth Corridor. Instead however, the decision was made that light rail will go underground in the pinch-point while the freight rail and trail remain at-grade. The tunnel for the light rail is currently under construction.

The southern end of what is now known as the Kenilworth Corridor in 1974. Lake Street is on the bottom, and the Kenilworth Corridor goes to the top right corner of the image. Source: Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online (MHAPO).
The same location in 1991, with the townhouses abutting the railroad right-of-way and creating the pinch-point that was the source of controversy for several years. Source: Google Earth.

Part of the Kenilworth Trail has been closed for light rail construction since 2019, and is anticipated to remain closed until summer 2022 due to the ongoing tunnel construction. Although a certain amount of people supported closing the trail through the pinch-point permanently in order to allow for light rail and freight rail at-grade, there is no doubt this trail is heavily used for both recreation and commuting. The Kenilworth Trail is an important part of the urban network of trails in Minneapolis, and will likely gain more importance with direct connections to a few of the under-construction light rail stations.

South Cedar Lake Trail/Minnesota River Bluffs LRT Regional Trail

From the connection with the Midtown Greenway and Kenilworth Trail in Minneapolis to Hopkins, this trail closely follows tracks primarily used by the Twin Cities & Western Railroad. Up until the early 1990s, there were two parallel rail corridors from the western edge of Minneapolis to the Minnetonka-Hopkins border. One was originally owned by the Milwaukee Road, and the other was originally owned by M&StL. The Milwaukee Road route managed to survive and is an important link for agricultural shippers in western Minnesota and South Dakota. The M&StL route, taken over by the Chicago & North Western in 1960, was abandoned through St. Louis Park and Hopkins in 1994, which by that time was only used to serve a few shippers. On the western edge of Minneapolis, freight trains switch from the former Milwaukee Road right-of-way to the former M&StL right-of-way.

By 2000, the trail was built in Hopkins and St. Louis Park, but the connection to the Midtown Greenway had to wait until a couple years later because part of the rail line into South Minneapolis was still used to serve an industry. Since 2019, the trail has been closed between the western edge of Minneapolis and the western edge of Hopkins for light rail construction. The trail will reopen in segments between spring and autumn of 2021.

Having used this trail many times, the only issue I find with it is having to cross a few wide streets in St. Louis Park and Hopkins at-grade. Signs indicate that these are not crosswalks, so trail users must yield to traffic (though sometimes motorists yield anyway). With multiple lanes to cross at each road, and no signals indicating to motorists your intention to cross, it is a dangerous issue. As part of the Green Line Extension project, three of the trail crossings will be grade-separated to allow seamless movement for trail users. The remaining grade crossings are likely to have signals, so crossing the road will be safer for trail users.

The trail underpass at Wooddale Avenue in St. Louis Park, looking east. The new alignment for freight trains has been completed on this segment, and to the right of the freight rail will be the light rail. Photo by author.

Midtown Greenway

At the eastern end of the Midtown Greenway, specifically between Minnehaha Avenue and West River Parkway, this urban trail parallels CP right-of-way that is utilized by the Minnesota Commercial Railroad (MNNR), which serves a couple industries along Hiawatha Avenue. The Midtown Greenway was completed in sections, with the first section being built between the western edge of Minneapolis and 5th Avenue South in 2002-2003. After freight rail service to a grain elevator on Chicago Avenue ended, the Midtown Greenway was extended east to Hiawatha Avenue by 2006. The last section of the Midtown Greenway, between Hiawatha Avenue and West River Parkway, was completed shortly thereafter.

For years there has been a desire to extend the Midtown Greenway east across the Mississippi River on what is known as Short Line Bridge. CP has been reluctant to allow a trail on Short Line Bridge, and they have gone as far as not allowing people to inspect the condition of the trestle. The most likely reasons for this opposition are liability risks if a train derails, as well as safety risks; in 2006, arsonists nearly destroyed the trestle.

While CP should be willing to negotiate a deal to have the trail on Short Line Bridge, planners and trail advocates may just be waiting for the rail line to be abandoned. MNNR only serves a couple shippers on a regular basis west of the Mississippi River. However, it’s not a given that the rail line will be abandoned, so I believe more effort should be put into negotiating with the railroads to complete what would certainly be an important trail link.

One example of a trail sharing a river crossing with trains is this one in Trondheim, Norway. Fencing prevents people from getting on the tracks, and guard rails ensure that if a train derails it won’t end up on the trail. Photo by author.

An eastern extension of the Midtown Greenway into St. Paul would connect to the recently opened trail along Ayd Mill Road, but the routing is open to speculation, as right-of-way constraints along the active rail line may require the trail to go along roads for certain sections. In addition to an eastern extension of the Midtown Greenway to Ayd Mill Road, a branch of the Midtown Greenway should go north to the University of Minnesota East Bank campus. This would utilize railroad right-of-way that has only one road crossing, and the railroad bridge across Interstate 94 is still intact.

The trail along Ayd Mill Road, which is a major step forward in extending the Midtown Greenway east. This could also be considered a rail-with-trail, as the trail parallels CP’s Merriam Park Subdivision. This particular segment of the rail line is nicknamed Short Line Hill. Photo by author.

Rice Creek Trail

From New Brighton to the eastern edge of Fridley, the Rice Creek Trail closely follows a spur owned by MNNR. The railroad serves several industries in Fridley and Arden Hills with a single daily freight train.

Looking south from the edge of Long Lake Regional Park. The Rice Creek Trail is on the right. On the left is the New Brighton History Center. Before the depot was moved to this site in 1990, it was located at the crossing of the Soo Line and Minnesota Transfer Railway (predecessor of MNNR) further south in New Brighton. Source: Google Street View.

At Long Lake Regional Park, the Rice Creek Trail splits into two segments: one following the rail line through Fridley and connecting with the Mississippi River Regional Trail, and the other following Rice Creek into Arden Hills and Circle Pines. This trail is mainly intended for recreation, as it connects several parks and local nature areas. In terms of improvements to the existing trail I don’t have any recommendations based on my experiences of using the trail a few times. Although the trail is very circuitous along a couple segments, this is due to its purpose of getting people into nature and being able to see Rice Creek.

Hiawatha LRT Trail

Technically this trail could be considered a rail-trail, as part of it was built on what was originally Milwaukee Road right-of-way. The railroad used it to access industries in Downtown Minneapolis and their train station, which still stands and is now used as a hotel. Passenger service on this route ended in 1971, and in 1986 the Milwaukee Road was purchased by the Soo Line. The Soo Line continued to use this route to serve industries until the mid or late 1990s. In 2001 construction began on the Hiawatha Line (now the Blue Line) light rail.

The Milwaukee Road’s rail yard in South Minneapolis for servicing locomotives and coaches. The rail yard was still used after the Milwaukee Road ended passenger service in 1971, but mainly for storing old locomotives and rolling stock. Franklin Avenue is on the bottom, Hiawatha Avenue is on the left, and Interstate 94 is at the top. Source: Hennepin County Aerial Imagery Viewer.
History comes full circle as the former site of the Milwaukee Road’s passenger rail yard is now used to store and maintain Metro Transit’s light rail fleet. Source: Hennepin County Aerial Imagery Viewer.

In 2004 the Blue Line was completed, which included a trail that follows the light rail tracks between the southern edge of Downtown Minneapolis and Minnehaha Parkway in South Minneapolis. Although the trail is next to Hiawatha Avenue south of Lake Street, there’s enough space that cars aren’t right next to you. While Hiawatha Avenue and the Blue Line cross over Lake Street, trail users must cross Lake Street at-grade. With the complicated design of the intersection plus the high amount of car traffic and foot traffic, it’s not easy going through on bike. It’s a shame a trail bridge wasn’t incorporated with the light rail bridge so trail users could quickly and easily go over Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue. Despite these shortcomings, it’s a very useful trail for both recreation and commuting, including going to/from light rail stations.

The Hiawatha LRT Trail along the Blue Line tracks in South Minneapolis. In the background is the Martin Sabo Bridge, which carries the Midtown Greenway across Hiawatha Avenue and connects with the Hiawatha LRT Trail. Source: Google Street View.

Mississippi River Trail

This trail is proposed to eventually go along the entire length of the Mississippi River between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico, but the specific segment we are looking at is between Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul. Starting at the Rock Island Swing Bridge in Inver Grove Heights, this trail closely follows Union Pacific’s Albert Lea Subdivision (also known as the Spine Line) until Kaposia Landing in South St. Paul. As part of the Robert Piram Regional Trail project, this trail will be extended north, paralleling the rail line for a short length but mostly going along roads and ending up at Harriet Island in St. Paul.

A view of the Mississippi River from the trail in South St. Paul. The Union Pacific tracks can be seen on the far right. Photo by author.
The Mississippi River Trail parallel to the Union Pacific tracks in South St. Paul. Source: Google Street View.

Although the trail goes through a few busy industrial areas that aren’t the best spots for recreation, there are good views of the Mississippi River. Because of the winding route and the areas the trail goes through, it appears to only be intended for recreation, as it would likely be difficult to utilize this trail for commuting purposes.

Dan Patch Line

For many years, suburban communities along the Dan Patch Line have desired a rail-trail on this lightly used rail line. However, the rail line has managed to survive under the ownership of CP, Progressive Rail, and Twin Cities & Western. Although the tracks between Savage and Lakeville haven’t been used in around 20 years, CP has rejected offers by Dakota County to purchase the right-of-way. In addition to being a potentially important north-south freight corridor, it will likely be an important north-south passenger rail corridor in the future.

There are opportunities for rail-with-trail corridors along the Dan Patch Line. One already exists, and another is under construction. The Nine Mile Creek Trail runs between Hopkins where it connects with the Minnesota River Bluffs LRT Regional Trail and Richfield where it connects with the Nokomis-Minnesota River Regional Trail. Although most of the trail is along roads, a short segment parallels the Dan Patch Line in Edina, which allows the trail to cross under 70th Street. While the trail is mainly intended for recreation, there are several employers near the trail in Edina and Minnetonka, which could make it useful as a bike commuting route.

A CP freight train heads south next to the Nine Mile Creek Trail in Edina. Trains go through a large metal culvert (partly seen in the bottom right corner) under 70th Street that was built sometime in the 1960s. The trail uses a separate tunnel to go under 70th Street, and then winds its way up to street level. Photo by author.

In Burnsville, part of the Lake Marion Greenway will go along the Dan Patch Line for a short length. The trail will take advantage of the railroad’s underpass at County Road 42, so trail users won’t have to cross that wide and busy road at-grade. The segment along the Dan Patch Line is under construction and anticipated to be completed by June 2021. Eventually the Lake Marion Greenway will run between Savage and Farmington via Burnsville and Lakeville.

The trail underneath County Road 42 in Burnsville. The CP tracks, last used a couple decades ago, are showing their lack of maintenance. Photo by author.

Future Rail-with-Trail Corridors

There are several other rail-with-trail corridors in the Twin Cities, and there are many opportunities for future rail-with-trail corridors. However, this heavily depends on the railroads working with communities. In addition to CP’s objection to the Midtown Greenway using their trestle, BNSF has objected to a trail on their trestle in Northeast Minneapolis that is only used by a single daily freight train. As mentioned before, their concerns are liability and safety risks, which is understandable. Future rail-with-trail corridors will likely require long negotiations with the railroads and other property owners to make the trails reality.

A potential boardwalk along the Dan Patch Line in Bloomington, which would connect residential neighborhoods to the south with Hyland Ski Area and Normandale Lake to the north. Photo by author.

Despite these difficulties, more rail-with-trail corridors would benefit the region with more recreational and non-motorized commuting opportunities. They would provide safe paths so people aren’t taking dangerous shortcuts on or across train tracks. Rather than seeing active rail lines as roadblocks to trail corridors, they should be seen as opportunities for multi-modal corridors with non-motorized transportation alongside freight and/or passenger rail.

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.