Riverview Corridor: Finding a Good Balance Between Light Rail and Streetcar

Author’s note: I’m a member of the Riverview Corridor’s Community Advisory Committee (CAC). All of my opinions stated in this post are not intended to represent the opinions of the entire CAC.

The Riverview Corridor is a proposed streetcar route between the Mall of America and downtown St. Paul via Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. Most of the route will have dedicated right-of-way like our light rail lines, but a certain length will have streetcars sharing the road with general traffic. In addition, Riverview will use single-unit vehicles instead of the multiple-unit trains that are typical of our light rail lines. Riverview will be the first time regular streetcar service operates in the Twin Cities since the original system shut down in 1954.

The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Riverview Corridor, which is represented by residents who live near the route, began meeting on a bi-annual basis in the Spring of 2021. The CAC hears updates on the project and provides input, which is then forwarded to Riverview’s Policy Advisory Committee. More information on Riverview’s committees can be found here.

The more meetings we’ve had, the more hesitant I’ve been supporting streetcar for Riverview. It’s a route that certainly deserves an upgrade from Metro Transit’s existing bus service, but I’m concerned there will be more negatives than positives with streetcars. A lot of questions about what Riverview will look like have yet to be answered, and my views on Riverview heavily depend on what the answers will be.

Potential Issues with Streetcars

Mixed-Traffic and Single-Track Segments

The reliability and travel time of streetcars could be impacted by the mixed-traffic segments, and this heavily depends on their length and location. There’s also the increased risk of collisions with cars and pedestrians, which our light rail lines (especially the Green Line on University Avenue) have experienced despite their dedicated right-of-ways. The public will need a lot of education on how to share the road with streetcars and obey lights and signs that are intended to prevent collisions.

In addition to mixed-traffic segments, there might also be at least one single-track segment on Riverview. One likely location for single-track is the tunnel underneath Fort Snelling and across the Mississippi River on Highway 5. Besides the single-track option, the only other option is streetcars sharing the road with traffic on Highway 5. Although single-track on a high-frequency route should be avoided, the segment in the Fort Snelling area would only be approximately half a mile long, so high-frequency service should still be feasible.

Rendering of the western end of the single-track option at Fort Snelling. The eastern end of the single-track would be located across the Mississippi River. Source: Ramsey County.

A single-track segment would require switches at both ends that need routine maintenance to prevent a switch failure, which would severely impact operations on the entire route. However, a potential solution is having a gauntlet track, which doesn’t require switches. The original streetcar system of the Twin Cities used gauntlet tracks in several places where there wasn’t enough space or it wasn’t cost-effective for the usual double-track. Gauntlet tracks are still used in many places, and two examples I’ve seen are on the streetcar/tram systems of Amsterdam and Prague.

Due to the narrow street, this double-track tram line in Amsterdam becomes a gauntlet track for a short distance. Notice there are no switches, because the rails for each direction of travel are retained. Photo by Eric Ecklund.
A close-up view of the gauntlet track in Amsterdam. Unlike a typical track with one rail on each side, a gauntlet track has two rails on each side to allow trams in both directions to seamlessly pass through without the need for a switch to be in the correct alignment. Photo by Eric Ecklund.
An example of a gauntlet track in Prague, which is used by trams through this narrow space. A close-up view of the gauntlet track can be found here. Source: Google Street View.
A local and historical example of gauntlet track used by streetcars. This is at Bryant Avenue in South Minneapolis where streetcars crossed over Minnehaha Creek. Source: Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

Interlining with the Blue Line

Using the current alignment into/out of Mall of America by both the Blue Line and Riverview would create frequent and lengthy traffic backups due to trains crossing 24th Avenue at-grade. With that in mind, the preference is rerouting the tracks and relocating the train platforms. The relocated station would either be elevated or at-grade at the intersection of 82nd Street & 24th Avenue. This was originally the planned alignment for the Blue Line/Hiawatha Line in the late 1990s, but right before construction began in 2001 the alignment was changed to what it currently is with trains going into the Mall of America’s eastern parking ramp.

Rendering of the rerouted tracks with an elevated station at 82nd Street & 24th Avenue. Source: Ramsey County.

Direct access to the bus platforms and the mall would be retained. The relocated station would eliminate a couple of sharp curves where trains must travel slowly, as well as remove two grade crossings. With the elevated station option, the amount of time it takes to get between 30th Avenue Station (previously named 28th Avenue Station) and the bus platforms at Mall of America would be the same as it currently is, while the at-grade station would take longer than it currently is due to people having to cross 24th Avenue either at-grade (with a likely long wait for the traffic signal) or going up and down a pedestrian bridge. Having dealt with the slowness of getting to Mall of America Station and running or just missing my bus connection multiple times, I’m hoping the elevated station option is chosen.

Interlining with the Green Line

Unfortunately, it was determined that interlining Riverview with the Green Line in downtown St. Paul is infeasible because the current track and switch alignments wouldn’t be able to handle the extra train traffic. The existing light rail station at Union Depot could be expanded, but it would require significant physical changes including the permanent closure of 4th Street to car traffic.

Alignment options for Riverview being considered in downtown St. Paul. Source: Ramsey County.

Now there are two options being considered for downtown St. Paul: 5th/6th Streets or 7th Street. Both options would have streetcars turning onto Broadway and ending in the back of Union Depot, which would be adjacent to the bus platforms and Amtrak platforms. While the new alignments wouldn’t utilize existing light rail tracks and stations, the 5th/6th Street alignment would make transfers with many bus routes (including future BRT lines) quick and easy, and it could be an opportunity for dedicated transit lanes through downtown St. Paul.

Difficulty to Through-Route

With the new alignments being considered in downtown St. Paul, the preference is for Riverview streetcars to originate/terminate in the back of Union Depot, which would make it very difficult and unlikely to extend Riverview beyond downtown St. Paul. Despite building an extension of the Green Line and plans to extend the Blue Line beyond downtown Minneapolis, the design of the Green Line in downtown St. Paul makes it very difficult to build an extension. I believe it would be a repeated mistake to do the same with Riverview. Not everyone’s origin/destination is in downtown.

The proposed eastern terminus for Riverview streetcars. On the right are the bus stops for Union Depot, and on the left in the background are platforms for Amtrak. Source: Google Street View.

Different Rolling Stock

Existing and future light rail lines in the Twin Cities will use the Siemens S70, but for Riverview, the streetcar variant of the Siemens S70 or an entirely different vehicle might be ordered. From a maintenance and operations perspective it would be optimal to have a common fleet for all of our light rail and streetcar routes. However, I’ll note that a new maintenance facility will need to be built for Riverview no matter what rolling stock it uses.

A Siemens S70 at Robert Street Station in St. Paul. Photo by Tony Webster.
The streetcar variant of the Siemens S70 in Atlanta. Photo by Cqholt.

Benefits of Streetcars

What may come to mind when thinking of streetcars are either old streetcars now used for heritage and tourist purposes (e.g. Como-Harriet Line), or modern streetcars that some American cities have built with the intent of making areas more attractive to development while not necessarily improving transit (e.g. Detroit’s Q-Line). Riverview definitely wouldn’t be the former, and I hope it won’t be the latter in terms of lacking upgrades in transit service. I envision Riverview as similar to tram systems in European cities like Amsterdam, where this mode of transit is just as important as the rest of the transit system.

A streetcar/tram navigating through the narrow and bustling streets of Amsterdam, which has one of the largest tram networks in Europe. Photo by Eric Ecklund.

There are several ways streetcars on Riverview would be an upgrade over the existing bus service provided by Metro Transit’s Route 54. While not the full dedicated right-of-way like light rail has, streetcars on Riverview would still have dedicated right-of-way for the majority of the route, whereas Route 54 has virtually no dedicated right-of-way. With streetcars utilizing the existing Blue Line infrastructure and stations between Fort Snelling and Bloomington, Riverview will be able to serve both terminals at MSP Airport (Route 54 only serves Terminal 1). Having taken transit to/from many airports in the US and Europe, trains are almost always easier to use for air travelers, especially those with luggage. Riverview will also have more capacity than Route 54; a streetcar can hold at least twice as many people as a 60-foot articulated bus, and there’s more room for mobility devices, strollers and bikes. There’s also the ease of getting on/off streetcars with level-boarding platforms, which is difficult to replicate with buses.

Recommendations

A map showing the recommended route and station locations for Riverview can be looked at here.

Mixed-Traffic and Single-Track Segments

Mixed-traffic operations should be limited to less than 10% (approximately 1.25 miles) of Riverview’s route. In addition, the mixed-traffic segments should be able to be easily converted to dedicated right-of-way.

Where streetcars operate on the road, the tracks should be placed in the center of the road instead of on the sides of the road. Center-running reduces the chances of slowdowns caused by turning traffic, parked/stalled cars (like this example) and delivery vehicles.

Traffic signals are another important factor to consider for making Riverview have a reasonable travel time and good reliability. Optimally every signalized intersection would have preemption (like the Blue Line along Hiawatha Avenue) for Riverview streetcars, but at the very least every signalized intersection should give priority to Riverview streetcars. While signal priority doesn’t guarantee streetcars wouldn’t have to wait for a signal, it improves the chances.

Riverview should use gauntlet track through the Fort Snelling Tunnel and across the Mississippi River. While technically single-track, this is a better option than sharing the right-of-way with traffic on Highway 5, and gauntlet track eliminates the need for track switches. Optimally this would be the only segment on Riverview that requires gauntlet track or single-track, but a couple of other segments would be acceptable as long as each segment is less than half a mile.

Rolling Stock

Since the rolling stock for Riverview will require a new maintenance facility and the only connection with the light rail system would be at Fort Snelling, there has been a preference towards a specialized rolling stock for Riverview. If this is decided, then the rolling stock should have as close as possible to the same capacity as a 2-car Siemens S70 train (approximately 462 people). An example from Spanish train manufacturer CAF is the Urbos 100, which has a maximum capacity of 397 people while being 5 feet shorter in length than a 2-car Siemens S70 train. The Urbos 100 is entirely low-floor, whereas the Siemens S70 is 70% low-floor, so the Urbos 100 has more room for people with disabilities, mobility devices, strollers and bikes.

The 9-module Urbos 100, used in Budapest, is one of the longest trams in the world. Photo by Albert Lugosi.

Ford Spur

The Ford Spur should be used by Riverview streetcars between West 7th & Alton and West 7th & Toronto (2.8 miles in distance). The dedicated right-of-way is there, and there are fewer crossings with vehicles and pedestrians (17 grade crossings on the Ford Spur vs 28 intersections on West 7th). Four stations (Homer Street, Montreal Avenue, Otto Avenue and Randolph Avenue) would be away from West 7th, but are within an acceptable distance.

Homer Street: Between West 7th and Ford Spur is 830 feet

Montreal Avenue: Between West 7th and Ford Spur is 0.255 miles

Otto Avenue: Between West 7th and Ford Spur is 0.26 miles

Randolph Avenue: Between West 7th and Ford Spur is 500 feet

Due to the indirect route between West 7th and a hypothetical station on the Ford Spur for Montreal Avenue (which would likely be above I-35E as part of a freeway cap), Riverview could instead continue on West 7th between Alton and Montreal before switching to the Ford Spur. This would allow a station at West 7th & Montreal while still taking advantage of the Ford Spur’s dedicated right-of-way between Montreal Avenue and Toronto Avenue (1.75 miles in distance).

Using the Ford Spur would also reduce the amount of track embedded in concrete. Embedded track is more expensive to maintain than track on rock ballast due to road salt and other debris, which has been an issue on our light rail lines.

Colocation of Riverview and a trail is possible along the Ford Spur. While there are several pinch-points where the right-of-way is only around 50-feet wide, two tracks for streetcars and a trail with separate lanes for bikers and walkers can be accommodated.

Graphic showing colocation of a streetcar and a trail on the Ford Spur. Source: City of St. Paul.
Pinch points on the Ford Spur. Riverview would only use the Ford Spur right-of-way between West 7th & Alton (near St. Paul Avenue) and West 7th & Toronto (near Randolph Avenue). Source: City of St. Paul.

Currently the Ford Spur is still owned by Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). However, the Ford Spur’s connection to the national railway network has been removed, so it’s a big step towards CP abandoning and selling the right-of-way. If/when that happens, Ramsey County and St. Paul should swiftly make an offer to CP in order to protect this right-of-way for trail and/or transit use. A study of the Ford Spur’s future use was already done in 2018.

Through-Running

In downtown St. Paul, Riverview needs to be aligned to easily allow an extension. Our downtowns are great as transit hubs, but this doesn’t mean every route, especially trunk routes like Riverview, should end in downtown and require a transfer no matter where people are going.

Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is where the Blue Line/Hiawatha Line originally ended, but planners knew eventually it needed to be extended beyond downtown. This alignment easily allows for the Blue Line and Green Line to be extended north and west respectively. Source: Google Street View.

While through-running would likely mean Riverview wouldn’t directly serve Union Depot, an alignment on 5th/6th Streets could have a station within two blocks of Union Depot.

More Than Just a Streetcar

The reasons to support Riverview should be more than just it being a streetcar line; it’s an opportunity for high-capacity and high-frequency transit with dedicated right-of-way for most of the route, and serving several important destinations including Mall of America, Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport and downtown St. Paul. In addition, it’s an opportunity to better connect the west metro and east metro, especially if it’s designed to easily allow an extension beyond downtown St. Paul.

I partly agree with criticisms regarding choosing streetcar over light rail for Riverview, mainly the lack of fully dedicated right-of-way, but if Riverview at least closely follows the recommendations I gave then I believe it would be on par with the many successful tram systems in European cities. Riverview could also be a model for other American cities that want to establish, expand or improve streetcar routes.

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.