There are several railroad routes named High Line, probably the most famous being in New York City, but the specific High Line that’s the subject of this post is a 9-mile railroad going through Bloomington, Richfield, and South Minneapolis. It’s owned by shortline railroad company Progressive Rail, and despite its short length there are several local industries that rely on it. Not only does it support these industries and their jobs, but it also provides an efficient alternative to shipping by truck.
Although Progressive Rail has shown no indication of abandoning the High Line, that hasn’t stopped interest in converting the railroad right-of-way to a trail. I’m a frequent biker for both recreation and commuting, and I fully support making my community of Bloomington a safer and easier place to bike. However, this shouldn’t come at the cost of a railroad that takes truck traffic off roads and supports jobs.
Instead of this being a rail vs trail issue, why not have a rail-with-trail solution? Admittedly that’s easier said than done, as railroad companies aren’t the most receptive to changes to their rail lines (BNSF with the Blue Line Extension being an infamous example), but a rail-with-trail could benefit Progressive Rail with new track infrastructure and reducing the likelihood of people trespassing on the tracks. The High Line could be a corridor that supports industries and jobs while also providing a recreational and bike commuter corridor for residents.
Past: From Interurbans to Local Freight
The High Line is part of the original route of the Dan Patch Line from South Minneapolis to Northfield. It was completed in 1910 and offered freight and interurban (predecessor to modern light rail) service. At the northern terminus in South Minneapolis, specifically 54th & Nicollet, passengers could transfer between the Dan Patch Line and the Twin City Rapid Transit Company’s Nicollet Avenue streetcar line.
In 1918 the Dan Patch Line was taken over by the Minneapolis Northfield & Southern Railway (MN&S), and in 1942 interurban service was discontinued. As freeways were developed post-World War II, the advantage of shipping by rail, especially low-volume freight, decreased with cheaper and faster truck service. Industries shipping by rail on the High Line gradually decreased as the MN&S was taken over by the Soo Line in 1986, and the Soo Line was taken over by Canadian Pacific in 1991.
In 2001 Progressive Rail purchased the High Line from Canadian Pacific, and this brought a reverse in the decline of shipping by rail on the High Line. While a major railroad company like Canadian Pacific is less attentive to small shippers, shortline railroad companies like Progressive Rail focus on providing convenient service to all of their customers whether they ship many carloads per day or only a few carloads per month. Any source of revenue is important to shortline railroads.
To the average observer the High Line may seem like a quiet railroad with railcars just sitting around and collecting dust, but in reality Progressive Rail has a well-run operation. If ownership of the High Line was still under Canadian Pacific, I can’t imagine there would be as much freight traffic as Progressive Rail has sustained.
The number of shippers on the High Line is unknown, but appears to be in the ballpark of seven to ten; only two are outside of Bloomington, which are Aggregate Industries and LeJeune Steel in South Minneapolis. On weekdays Progressive Rail brings railcars to West Bloomington to be picked up by Canadian Pacific, and takes railcars dropped off by Canadian Pacific to be delivered to industries along the High Line. For a decade I’ve recorded videos of these train movements, with train lengths ranging from 3 to 28 railcars, and an average train length of 11 railcars. The average train length shouldn’t be interpreted as an accurate number of Progressive Rail’s freight traffic on the High Line as it’s only based on 27 train movements. While it would be great to receive accurate data from the source, Progressive Rail doesn’t publish that information publicly.
Progressive Rail maintains the High Line to at least minimum standards set by the Federal Railroad Administration. Along the High Line the condition of the track varies with some segments in decent condition and others in poor condition. Segments in poor condition have rails from as old as 1910, very little ballast supporting the track structure, rotted ties, mud covering the tracks, and vegetation growing in between the rails. For a major railroad with frequent train traffic this would be unacceptable, but for the High Line where there’s only one local freight train going at a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour the existing track is adequate.
While shortline railroad operations can be profitable, they typically don’t generate enough revenue for major infrastructure projects. Case in point for the High Line, Progressive Rail tried to get funding from the state to replace ties and repair the bridge across Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. This isn’t to say that railroads shouldn’t be financially assisted considering how much we’ve given to trucking companies and airlines. In fact, I believe railroads should be given more assistance so their operations are safe, and efficient, and take some truck traffic off of our roads.
Future of Freight Traffic on the High Line
The number of industries shipping by rail and how much they ship depends on many factors including supply and demand, the cost of shipping, supply of workers (one freight train with two or three railroad workers can transport the same amount of freight as dozens of trucks that each require a driver), etc. This makes it difficult to try to predict how much freight traffic there will be on the High Line in the long-term. However, looking at the past can show the trend in freight traffic and how that may look in the future.
Along the High Line, there are spur tracks going to individual industries, and these are used for loading/unloading railcars. Progressive Rail brings the railcars into spurs, and when needed picks them up and brings them back to West Bloomington to be taken away by Canadian Pacific. Using aerial photographs from Hennepin County, Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online and Historic Aerials, I determined the number of spur tracks on the High Line in 1971 (when it was owned by the MN&S), 1984 (when the MN&S was transitioning over to Soo Line ownership), 2000 (the last full year the Soo Line/Canadian Pacific owned the High Line), 2012 (a decade after Progressive Rail took over the High Line) and today.
Approximate number of spur tracks on the High Line in 1971: 45
Approximate number of spur tracks on the High Line in 1984: 33
Approximate number of spur tracks on the High Line in 2000: 20
Approximate number of spur tracks on the High Line in 2012: 20
Approximate number of spur tracks on the High Line today: 18
The latter half of the 20th century shows a significant decline in industries shipping by rail, which can be partly attributed to the development of freeways, the growing advantage of shipping by truck and deindustrialization. Since 2000 however, only two spur tracks have been removed, and I believe this can be attributed to Progressive Rail’s catering to shippers big and small. If this trend continues relatively unchanged then the High Line should be able to sustain profitable freight traffic in the long-term.
Just as with my observations of train movements, looking at the number of spur tracks isn’t the most accurate way to determine freight traffic levels, but it does show that the High Line still has a diverse amount of shippers. Railroads that rely on only one or a few shippers for business are more likely to become unprofitable and abandoned. Examples include Canadian Pacific’s Ford Spur in St. Paul, which relied almost entirely on the Ford Plant, and Union Pacific’s Chaska Industrial Lead, which relied entirely on United Sugars in Chaska. After the Ford Plant closed in 2011, the Ford Spur was mainly used for storing railcars until being mothballed in 2013 or 2014. The Chaska Industrial Lead was severed in 2007 after severe flooding on the Minnesota River caused a trestle to collapse, and the small amount of revenue Union Pacific was making from United Sugars wasn’t enough to justify the cost of building a new trestle, so the rail line was officially abandoned in 2011.
While Progressive Rail continues to use the High Line, there’s been interest in converting the High Line into a regional trail. Bloomington’s Alternative Transportation Plan labels the High Line as a future regional trail (p. 3-8 and 3-9), Richfield’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan labels the High Line as a potential trail (p. 80) and Hennepin County’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan labels the High Line as a planned off-street trail (p. 2-46). In a planning document for the so-called “CP Rail Regional Trail” between Bloomington and Crystal, Three Rivers Park District labels the High Line as a “Search Corridor” (p. 28).
On one hand, these proposed trails may end up either not being built or use an alignment off the railroad right-of-way. For example, the CP Rail Regional Trail Master Plan proposes a trail alignment off the railroad right-of-way through Bloomington, and between Edina and Crystal, the master plan acknowledges an exact alignment for the trail hasn’t been chosen. On the other hand, however, these maps show possible trails on the exact alignment of the railroad as if city and/or county leaders are predicting or hoping the railroad will be abandoned. Whether they view railroads like the High Line as an important asset for commerce and industry, or a dirty and noisy nuisance, is anyone’s guess. Either way, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the High Line is an active railroad sustaining well-paying jobs, providing an alternative to trucking, and it’s a profitable operation for Progressive Rail.
In an earlier post I showed examples of rail-with-trail corridors in the Twin Cities and their benefits for both communities and railroad companies. Like any railroad the High Line has trespassers. There are already several desire paths onto and across the High Line, which shows that people take the risk of trespassing instead of taking a legal route. I’m not encouraging trespassing on railroad property, but a frequent occurrence of this shows there’s demand for better and safer walking/biking routes.
Could a trail fit along the High Line? For most of the route that answer is yes. Based on Hennepin County records, the minimum width of the High Line’s right-of-way is 50 feet. An example of a rail-with-trail corridor with narrow right-of-way is the Kenilworth Corridor in southwest Minneapolis. At its narrowest, the Kenilworth Corridor is 62 feet wide and occupied by a freight rail line and the Kenilworth Trail (temporarily closed for light rail construction), which will have a 14-foot wide trail for bikes and a 6-foot wide trail for pedestrians. There will be 17 feet of spacing between the center of the track and the edge of the trail. Freight train movements on the Kenilworth Corridor vary, but are typically a few per day with train lengths ranging from 10 to 100+ railcars.
A 12-foot wide multi-use trail on Progressive Rail’s right-of-way could also have a 17-foot wide buffer between the center of the track and the edge of the trail. There would also be approximately 4 to 7 feet of buffer from adjacent property boundaries.
While the track would need to be realigned on certain segments, this would be an opportunity to upgrade the track infrastructure on the High Line to ensure the safe movement of freight trains.
Working with the Railroad
As mentioned before it’s easier said than done working with a railroad when it involves changes to their property. While the public may see a rail-with-trail as a win-win, the railroad may only focus on potential liabilities and the permanent change to their right-of-way. My hope is that instead of being like BNSF where they virtually dropped all communication with the people working on the Blue Line Extension, Progressive Rail would share any concerns they have about a rail-with-trail proposal, and the cities and Hennepin County would work with them to address those concerns. This shouldn’t be a winner-take-all situation, and it doesn’t have to be as long as the public and private sides are willing to work together.