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.


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.