Rail vs Bus on the Red Rock Corridor

Back in the late 1990s, MnDOT analyzed several existing freight rail corridors in the Twin Cities region for the possibility of implementing commuter rail service. Three routes were chosen for their cost effectiveness and best potential ridership: the Northstar Line to St. Cloud, the Red Rock Corridor to Hastings, and the Dan Patch Corridor to Northfield. As we’ve seen, the Northstar Line has been half-baked with trains only going as far north as Big Lake and on a very limited schedule (6 weekday roundtrips pre-COVID). In addition, the suburban stations don’t have a lot of transit-oriented development surrounding them, and are primarily for park & riders. These factors contributed to ridership not meeting projections. In a single year the highest ridership for the Northstar Line was in 2017 with 793,796 riders, or 2,819 average weekday riders (source). Average weekday ridership during the COVID pandemic has been around 100 riders, or 25 riders on each one-way trip since service was cut to just 2 roundtrips per day.

Due to the fact that the Northstar Line was performing below ridership projections as well as the significant investment needed to improve the congested rail corridor, the preferred mode for the Red Rock Corridor was reevaluated. In 2013, support switched from commuter rail to bus rapid transit (BRT) between St. Paul and Hastings due to the cheaper cost and higher ridership (in theory) with frequent service operating all day in both directions.

However, since support switched to BRT there has been slow progress towards actually implementing BRT on the Red Rock Corridor. The most significant development in recent years was the opening of the Newport Transit Station in late 2014. With several transit projects taking higher priority for the Metropolitan Council, it will likely be years or perhaps more than a decade before BRT on the Red Rock Corridor receives serious attention. Despite that, I believe it’s best to have a conversation now on what truly is best for the Red Rock Corridor. In this post, I will make the case for why there should be a second reevaluation and why this time we should switch from BRT to regional rail on the Red Rock Corridor.

Commuter Rail Proposal

In 2001, a feasibility study of commuter rail on the Red Rock Corridor was published. The proposed route would be between Downtown Minneapolis and Hastings via Downtown St. Paul using existing BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific tracks. There would be four intermediate stations between Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul, and there would be three intermediate stations between Downtown St. Paul and Hastings. Just like the Northstar Line, trips would only operate during peak hour, with 4 roundtrips in peak direction and 1 reverse commute roundtrip.

Proposed route and stations for commuter rail service on the Red Rock Corridor. Source: Red Rock Corridor Commuter Rail Feasibility Study, 2001.
A Northstar Line train operating on the proposed Red Rock Corridor in 2009. The train is going westbound on BNSF Railway’s Midway Subdivision in St. Paul and is about to pass under the U of M Transitway. Photograph by Mike Hicks.

The average weekday ridership for 2020 was projected to be 5,900. For comparison, the estimated average weekday ridership for the Northstar Line between Minneapolis and Big Lake was 4,030* (based on this 2005 study) for the opening year of 2009. Assuming there would’ve been a similar inaccuracy with the ridership projection, the actual average weekday ridership for the Red Rock Corridor would’ve been somewhere in the range of 4,300-4,700 (if 2020 were a normal year of course).

The cost of building commuter rail on the Red Rock Corridor was estimated to be $421.8 million in 2010 dollars. The annual operating costs for Red Rock Corridor commuter trains and associated feeder bus services was estimated to be $7.9 million in 2010 dollars.

*The 2005 study assumed 18 roundtrips per day instead of the actual 12 roundtrips per day when the Northstar Line opened in 2009, so it’s likely that later on the projected ridership was lowered slightly.

Benefits of the BRT Proposal

While I do prefer regional rail over BRT, I will take an unbiased approach in this rail vs bus debate. The benefits, as well as the flaws in the next section, are mainly based off of the Implementation Plan from 2016.

Proposed route and stations for the Red Rock Corridor BRT between St. Paul and Hastings. The stations at Mounds Boulevard, Earl Street, and Etna Street would be shared with the Gold Line. Source: Red Rock Corridor Commission.

First off, there is the cheap cost of building BRT, since buses would utilize mostly existing infrastructure. This includes a few stations and a dedicated busway just east of Downtown St. Paul that will be built as part of the Gold Line project. The estimated capital cost of BRT on the Red Rock Corridor is $44.3 million in 2015 dollars, and the estimated annual operations cost is $7.9 million in 2015 dollars.

Secondly, there is the ability for buses to serve closer to destinations than regional rail could. This is primarily the case in St. Paul Park, Jamaica Avenue in Cottage Grove, and Hastings. This could also apply to Downtown St. Paul, but only if buses are routed through Downtown St. Paul instead of ending at St. Paul Union Depot.

Lastly, there is the high frequency (for our standards) proposed for the BRT service. All day on weekdays in both directions the frequency would be every 15 minutes, so it’s less likely people would need to figure out the schedule and can instead simply go to the station whenever they want to.

Flaws with the BRT Proposal

While it can be beneficial to use existing roadways to save on capital costs, buses would be operating in mixed-traffic, which increases travel time and decreases reliability. The end-to-end travel time of the Red Rock Corridor BRT between St. Paul and Hastings is estimated to be 66 minutes, which is around twice the amount of time as driving.

Although a 15-minute frequency is proposed, there’s always the possibility that the frequency could be reduced due to a driver shortage or not enough ridership to justify high frequency service. The Red Line BRT between Mall of America and Apple Valley originally had 15-minute frequency all-day in both directions, for example, but it ended up being reduced to 20-minute frequency.

Additionally, while the proposal for the Red Rock Corridor is marketed as BRT, in reality it wouldn’t be actual BRT. Most of the route would have buses operating in mixed-traffic, and the frequency would be every 30 minutes in the early morning, late evening, and all day on weekends. True BRT has dedicated roadway or bus lanes for most or all of the route, and a minimum of 15-minute frequency all day and everyday.

An interesting figure I found in the commuter rail study from 2001, with BRT being designated as inappropriate for the Red Rock Corridor. However, the official proposal from the 2016 Implementation Plan aligns more with “Advanced Bus” even though it’s marketed as BRT. Source: Red Rock Corridor Commuter Rail Feasibility Study, 2001.

The projected daily ridership for BRT on the Red Rock Corridor is 2,200 in the year 2040. If ridership were split evenly among the 124 daily trips proposed then each trip would have 17 riders. In 2017 (the latest year I could find for ridership data) the Red Line had a daily ridership of approximately 740. Although one may argue that the Red Line and Red Rock Corridor aren’t comparable because the former doesn’t serve the central business district of Minneapolis or St. Paul, the Red Rock Corridor would require riders to transfer to reach Minneapolis just as riders on the Red Line must transfer to the Blue Line at Mall of America to reach Minneapolis.

This leads to what I believe is the biggest flaw with the Red Rock Corridor BRT proposal. Not only would it not serve Downtown Minneapolis, it would not be possible to extend it further southeast to communities that would benefit from all-day regional transit service such as Red Wing and Winona. As of now the proposal for Red Rock Corridor BRT has the northern terminus at St. Paul Union Depot, which would further damage potential ridership because it wouldn’t directly serve the central business district of St. Paul. However, the same was proposed for the Gold Line, but eventually planners realized it would be best for buses to go through the central business district instead of forcing people to transfer at Union Depot.

When the Orange Line opens late this year, we’ll know more about the strengths and weaknesses of BRT operating on highways. The Orange Line will have more similarity to the BRT proposal for the Red Rock Corridor, so it should give us insight into how people feel about the service and how much ridership these routes can receive.

Benefits of Regional Rail

My proposal for regional rail on the Red Rock Corridor consists of an initial route between Minneapolis and Hastings via St. Paul Union Depot. A southeastern extension as far as La Crosse, WI would be built at a later date. Between Minneapolis and Hastings trains would operate all-day in both directions with 30-minute frequency during peak travel time and hourly frequency at off-peak time.

Necessary track upgrades would be made to support regional rail service, which would also benefit the freight railroads and Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Currently, certain segments of the corridor are congested from busy freight traffic and cause severe delays for both freight trains and Amtrak trains. Through the Minnesota Commercial Railway yard in the Midway area of St. Paul track switches aren’t automatic, so Amtrak trains must stop and the conductor gets off to move any necessary switches (here’s a video showing that process at one particular switch). With track and other infrastructure upgrades for Red Rock Corridor regional rail service, travel time for the Empire Builder could be reduced while increasing its reliability, as well as make it more possible to increase intercity rail service between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

The Red Rock Corridor would serve the University of Minnesota and several areas in St. Paul including the Snelling-Hamline neighborhood in addition to Downtown Minneapolis, Downtown St. Paul, and the southeast metro. Almost every station would be served by local transit, and certain stations would have connections to rapid transit service such as the Green Line and A Line. In Hastings, a local feeder bus service could be established or alternatively an on-demand bus service similar to SouthWest Prime in which people can order a ride via an app and it will take them from their origin to their destination while possibly picking up and/or dropping off other riders.

The regional rail service southeast of Hastings could complement the existing Amtrak Empire Builder in Red Wing, Winona, and La Crosse. Additionally, the Red Rock Corridor could serve towns that aren’t served by Amtrak including Lake City and Wabasha.

Flaws with Regional Rail

The two main negatives for regional rail are the high cost for necessary track and infrastructure improvements, and the complexity working with the freight railroads who own the right-of-way. Since part of the route is on one of the busiest freight rail corridors in Minnesota with up to 60 freight trains per day, there would need to be substantial track, signal, and other infrastructure upgrades.

The amount of freight traffic also limits the potential frequency of regional rail. While BRT could have a frequency of every 15 minutes in each direction, regional rail would likely be limited to a maximum frequency of every 30 minutes in each direction.

As mentioned earlier, requiring riders to transfer at Union Depot for the short trip to the central business district of St. Paul would hurt ridership. With BRT it could be rerouted through Downtown St. Paul instead of terminating at Union Depot, while for regional rail this wouldn’t be possible.

A Dilemma for Both Modes

No matter what mode of transit is chosen for the Red Rock Corridor, there is the fact that population density along the route between St. Paul and Hastings is low. Transit ridership on this corridor is also low, even before the COVID pandemic. A notable example is the Newport Transit Station, which cost $6.2 million to build and includes an indoor waiting area and a 170-space park & ride lot. According to this article, daily ridership on express buses to/from Newport Transit Station was only 8-10 people in 2016, two years after it opened.

The park & ride facilities at Lower Afton Road and Cottage Grove were busier, but that was before the COVID pandemic. With express bus ridership decimated, as well as many former downtown workers now working from home, it could take many years for these facilities to recover their lost ridership.

The COVID pandemic has also brought to light the need for transit to cater to more than just suburban commuters who work in the central business district from morning to evening. Whether it’s bus or rail, with all-day service in both directions, the hope is it would be convenient for more people and serve diverse travel needs. This is where I believe regional rail has a major advantage over BRT on the Red Rock Corridor. BRT would only go between St. Paul and Hastings and serve a limited number of potential one-seat ride and one-transfer trips. Regional rail between Minneapolis and Hastings (and hopefully further southeast), however, can serve significantly more potential trips with zero or one transfer required.

Discussion on the Future of the Red Rock Corridor

One of the supposed benefits of switching from commuter rail to BRT was it could be implemented faster. However, that theory appears to have failed as there is so far no sign of funding Red Rock Corridor BRT until at least the early 2030s. While BRT would definitely be cheaper than regional rail, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the better choice. Just as with the Northstar Line and Red Line, I believe BRT on the Red Rock Corridor would be a half-baked attempt at a transit improvement and would garner less ridership than hoped for.

Eventually, the Red Rock Corridor will have a turn getting serious attention from planners and stakeholders. Before and during that time, however, I hope there will be discussion of reconsidering the travel mode for the Red Rock Corridor. I created a Facebook page for spurring that discussion. While regional rail has a high cost, it also has a high benefit, so it should be given a fair look.

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.