BNSF Said No to Light Rail, Would They Say Yes to a Trail?

The Blue Line Extension hit a major roadblock when BNSF Railway refused to allow part of the light rail route on their right-of-way. This means delays and a higher cost to the project, but it’s also been an opportunity to reroute the light rail through North Minneapolis. What hasn’t been talked about however, is the possibility of a rail-with-trail corridor. If BNSF’s northwestern branch line, known as the Monticello Subdivision, has room for a double-track light rail line, then it seems reasonable to assume there’s enough space for a trail.

Rail-with-Trail

Last year I posted about several trail corridors in the Twin Cities that parallel active rail lines. These rail-with-trail corridors provide several benefits: a safe and legal path for people so they’re less likely to trespass on railroad property, the trail is as flat or similarly flat as the rail line, there are less grade crossings with roads, and it provides recreational and commuting opportunities that don’t require the use of a car.

Despite these benefits however, this doesn’t mean a railroad will automatically agree to a trail next to their tracks. For example, BNSF has refused to allow a trail on their trestle spanning the Mississippi River in Northeast Minneapolis. The trestle is only used once per day at most to serve one industry, and people trespassing on the bridge is a common sight. BNSF’s reasoning for not allowing a trail to be built is because of liability, as well as the potential for people to have easy access onto their property.

The local freight train that operates on BNSF’s Monticello Subdivision. This train typically operates a few times per week serving several industries between Brooklyn Park and Albertville. Photo by author.
BNSF’s Monticello Subdivision in Robbinsdale looking north. Broadway Avenue is on the right. Photo by author.

Whether the benefits of a rail-with-trail corridor outweigh the risks is up for debate, but based on my experiences with rail-with-trail corridors I believe it’s beneficial for both the public and the freight railroads. A trail alongside BNSF’s Monticello Subdivision from Minneapolis to at least Maple Grove in the north would add a substantial north-south link in the growing trail network of the Twin Cities. With only a few trains per week, as well as the poor quality in terms of condition and safety of existing walking and biking routes, the tracks are likely a tempting option for people to use as a shortcut and/or a route away from traffic. Instead of expecting people to not trespass and use the poorly designed sidewalks and trails that currently exist, let’s provide people with a safe, legal, and pleasant route for recreation and commuting.

Trail Alignment

Beginning at Bryn Mawr Park just west of downtown Minneapolis, this proposed trail, which will be referred to as the Monti Trail, would go in a northwestern direction for the entire route. Parts of the Monti Trail would utilize trails that already exist, notably through Theodore Wirth Park. The main concern is grade crossings with roads, but as previously mentioned an active rail line typically has sparse grade crossings.

BNSF’s Monticello Subdivision at Penn Avenue in Minneapolis is in the foreground going from bottom left to center right. The track that dead-ends is part of a spur owned by Canadian Pacific that’s now disused, and could be an opportunity to convert to a trail as part of the Monti Trail as well as improving the routing of the Luce Line Trail through Minneapolis. Photo by author.

Admittedly from Crystal going north it wouldn’t exactly be a quiet experience since the Monti Trail would parallel County Road 81. On the east side of County Road 81 there’s already a trail between Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center, but many streets must be crossed including the on-/off-ramps for Interstate 94/694. Between Bryn Mawr Park and a northern terminus at Maple Grove Parkway the Monti Trail would only have twenty-three grade crossings (split evenly it would be a grade crossing approximately every two-thirds of a mile). The existing trail on the east side of County Road 81 between downtown Robbinsdale and Broadway & County Road 81 in Brooklyn Park has twenty-eight grade crossings (not including driveways, of which there are many for homes and businesses along this trail), which split evenly is a grade crossing approximately every one-sixth of a mile. This substantial difference means the Monti Trail would be much safer, easier, and pleasant for trail users.

In addition to providing connections with other trails including the Luce Line Trail, the Monti Trail would provide connections to several Blue Line Extension stations. Both the trail and light rail would be a substantial step forward in making the northwest suburbs more multi-modal friendly.

Safe Paths for People

While it’s disappointing BNSF refused to allow the Blue Line Extension on their right-of-way, it’s even more disappointing to see them and other railroad companies refuse to allow safe paths for people that would still allow their freight operations to exist. The trestle in Northeast Minneapolis, the long-sought extension of the Midtown Greenway into St. Paul, and other trail expansion projects have been blocked by railroads who focus on the liability risks instead of the benefits of a trail including prevention of people trespassing on their property. The railroads, along with the organization Operation Lifesaver, have tried to make it clear that tracks are only for trains. However, there seems to be little if any consideration of why people trespass on tracks in the first place. If people feel safer trespassing on railroad property and/or the legal routes for people are too long, then more needs to be done than just safety campaigns telling people not to trespass on railroad property. That must include better and safer paths for people, and the Monti Trail fits this goal.

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.

12 thoughts on “BNSF Said No to Light Rail, Would They Say Yes to a Trail?

  1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

    I agree there’s plenty of room along a lot of rail corridors for trails and that they make far safer and better trails than separated bike lanes on streets. My personal favorite candidate is the line connecting Ayd Mill Road at Lexington with downtown Saint Paul, which not only avoids a bunch of grade crossings, but also offers a gentle slope into and out of downtown.

    The big question is, how can we get railroads to buy into this? Cities and even states have little leverage over this federally regulated industry. Somehow we need a federal incentive fund and/or liability reform to make these projects more attractive to railroads.

    Reply
    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      You’re dreaming if you think the railroad would ever agree to a co-located trail. There’s absolutely nothing in it for them except liability exposure. Forget it. Never gonna happen.

      Reply
      1. Jerome Johnson

        In general and as a matter of policy, freight RR clearly do not want trails on their rights of way. There are, to be sure, plenty of counter examples, even here in MSP, where through political intervention or bureaucratic luck you see trails next to tracks – the Twin Cities Western and Kenwood Trail co-location in Minneapolis, for one and parts of the Cedar Lake Trail next to the high volume BNSF line through St Louis Park for another. So, the objective here for trail interests is to be vigilant and seize whatever opportunities for bureaucratic luck and political intervention come along. For the so-called Midtown Greenway extension into St. Paul and then along the CPR’s Merriam Park subdivision to the West 7th locale, the opportunity is actually now, as the ROW owner, CP Rail, seeks public sector support for its proposed merger with Kansas City Southern. One gambit would be to simply secure trail easements along the very edges of the CPR-owned right of way with limited liability for the railroad. Another would be for the public, through a county rail authority, to actually own the rights of way in question, leasing back the tracks to freight (and passenger) railroads and retaining the rights to do other things with the real estate itself, to include trails, of course. Since few CPR trains actually use the Merriam Park sub – there are better alternative freight train routes for them to get through St. Paul – and since it is already an important Amtrak route, CP might just agree to a lease arrangement like this to secure much needed Minnesota public sector support for a merger worth billions to its shareholders.

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      2. Eric Ecklund

        As Jerome mentioned there are examples here in the Twin Cities of trails on or right next to railroad ROW. Another one that comes to mind is the Luce Line Trail along Union Pacific tracks, so I wouldn’t shoot down the idea as “never gonna happen.” And there absolutely is something in it for the railroads; reducing the chance of people using the tracks as a path and risking getting hurt and/or interfering with railroad operations.

        Reply
  2. John F Dillery

    I agree with Dan Marshall – in particular the point about federal incentive funds and liability reforms. If a railroad isn’t completely protected from liability of having a separate trail adjacent to the tracks, then i understand their position quite well. Realistic plans are the ones that can happen in cases like this. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. N

    I work out of that Fridley yard that services the industries on the Monti sub, and I think that that would be terrible. I don’t get to work the Monti, very often but the handful of times I have there people trespassing on and in-between the rails. I can already hear the “but if there was a trail next to the track they would use that” argument, and that’s just not true. Giving people easier access would just cause the crews that use that line even more stress. You can give the BNSF a liability waiver but won’t help the crew who hits and kills someone sleep at night. Please, just stay away from railroad tracks!

    Reply
    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      Yes, the trail won’t prevent 100% of people from trespassing on the tracks, as I’ve seen with the North Cedar Lake Trail that parallels BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision through St. Louis Park. However, a fence could be installed between the tracks and trail to further reduce the chance of people trespassing. In a perfect world people would simply stay off the tracks like they’re supposed to, but this world is far from perfect and no amount of signage and telling people not to trespass is going to keep everyone off the tracks. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve the infrastructure for people who would follow the law and use a trail.

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    2. Pat

      I have worked on a majority of rail lines in Minnesota. I also am against trails near the tracks. People today have an all about me attitude and don’t hesitate to walk through private property. There are miles of fencing along the tracks from Minneapolis to St. Paul and out towards Wayzeta along the cedar lake trail, and the number of cut sections of fencing is absolutely ridiculous! All because they don’t want to walk to an entrance 500 feet away! Now add the fact people get use to background noises, so even when a train is approaching they don’t realize they are about to be hit. I have personally witnessed from experience what a person looks like that has been hit by a train. They don’t come with a body bag, they use black garbage bags and garbage tongs! Next let’s add the juveniles who want to try and hop trains! The list goes on and on on why not to have trails next to the tracks! I mean what’s next? Put sidewalks on interstates? There are way more roads than rail. If you want more walking paths add sidewalks to roads that don’t have any. Add bike lanes to the roads! Rail personnel don’t want or need trails by the tracks!

      Reply
      1. John F Dillery

        Thank you for representing the real world. In a really civilized place, all major railways are fenced as completely as our interstate highways are and heavily policed. That should be our goal. Rail safety protections are more important than anything else in rail right of way.

        Reply
      2. Eric Ecklund Post author

        Pat,

        The North Cedar Lake Trail isn’t completely fenced off from the BNSF tracks. Also from what I’ve seen the fence is cut where the nearest legal crossing is over half a mile away, not 500 feet as you claim. While the new pedestrian bridge over the BNSF tracks near Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park is a good start, there’s still a lot more to be done to provide good accessibility across the tracks. I would be curious to know how many people trespassed on the tracks before and after the North Cedar Lake Trail was built. While there aren’t statistics on that, I’ll make an educated guess that people used the tracks as their trail before the North Cedar Lake Trail was built. My dad grew up in St. Louis Park in the 1960s and walking on the tracks was the norm, so let’s not pretend people decades ago always stayed off railroad property.

        There’s a reason people prefer trails away from roads. In 2017 there was an estimated 137,000 pedestrians injured and 5,977 pedestrians killed in traffic crashes across America (source: https://www.cdc.gov/transportationsafety/pedestrian_safety/index.html). If people have the choice between walking next to a road with possible reckless and/or impaired drivers versus walking near train tracks that are professionally maintained and operated it shouldn’t be surprising when people choose the latter. That’s not to say we don’t need more sidewalks and bike lanes, but especially when it comes to bike lanes there is strong opposition from motorists because it’s taking away space from them. There’s also the American driver culture that is impatient, unsafe, and reckless, and that can’t be changed overnight even if we make an aggressive push on safety education and changing our infrastructure.

        While it’s unfortunate that people have been killed trespassing on railroad property, that shouldn’t stop us from providing safe paths for people who do stay off the tracks.

        Reply
  4. Jerome Johnson

    Another approach to this issue would be to fully separate the freight from the transit/recreational usage of the Monti right of way by serving the few remaining rail freight users, all in or west of Osseo, with trains running southeast out of Becker and Monticello rather than northwest out of Minneapolis. That, of course, would require a new rail river crossing, most likely where the track now ends a few miles west of downtown Monti, and then about five miles of new track over uninhabited farm and industrial land to reach the BNSF main line near Becker. That would cost at least $100 million these days, a bit too pricey for just a trail between Maple Grove and Bryn Mawr I suspect, but not so much if the cost is absorbed by the $1.5 billion Bottineau Extension or if a couple of road lanes (plus shoulders) are added to the rail crossing bridge to take trucks out off Hwy 25 thru downtown Monti and to better move cars between I-94 and Highway 10. That would also bring bipartisan political support. Under such a scheme, freight trains would no longer run through Robbinsdale, Crystal or With Park, leaving the ROW there for transit and trail oriented development, to include the Bottineau LRT restored to its original pathway.

    Reply
    1. Monte Castleman

      There’s a very long term plan to build a freeway from I-94 to beyond St. Cloud, which would include a new highway bridge. However the problem is that you’d either have to build several miles of track from the bridge at it’s approved location near Clearwater to the nuclear plant, or move the bridge to closer to Monticello and figure out how to route the freeway through or around Clear Lake and Becker.

      Reply

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