Planners aiming to avoid a rail traffic jam

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2010 - 11:24 PM

Transportation officials are preparing to add passenger routes to the 150 freight trains that already squeeze through St. Paul junction.

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Members of the Minnesota Ballpark Authority and Met Council were among those who rode the line Wednesday from Big Lake to Target Field Station.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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As dreams of a passenger rail revival begin taking shape, with St. Paul's Union Depot as its hub, planners are laying groundwork to make sure freight trains aren't left at the station.

About 150 freight trains a day roll through St. Paul.

And in the next 10 to 20 years, a variety of passenger train services are expected to be thrown into the mix: a half-dozen more Amtrak trains; high-speed trains going north to Duluth, east to Milwaukee and south to Chicago; commuter lines running to Hastings, Mankato, Rochester and Hinckley, Minn.

With all of those converging in the middle of that freight traffic, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) is working to head off a potential rail bottleneck.

Mike Rogers, senior transportation planner with the RCRRA, said the agency has embarked on a rail capacity study, expected to be done a year from now. It will identify limitations on the rail system around Union Depot and figure out how they can be resolved.

Solutions could involve laying more track, finding ways to coordinate scheduling among the three major and numerous local rail freight companies and other options.

Several pinch points have already been identified, Rogers said at a recent open house at Union Depot. The main one is what's known as the Hoffman Avenue junction. Track from three major railroads converges in a "Y" at a point just below the Kellogg Boulevard bridge a half-mile east of Union Depot.

Five percent of the nation's rail commerce moves through that single junction, Rogers said.

The Northstar commuter line from Minneapolis to Big Lake runs on track owned by BNSF, the largest railroad operating in Minnesota. And Amtrak's Empire Builder passenger train from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore., also runs daily through the Twin Cities on track shared with freight companies.

Same infrastructure

"You can't develop passenger service in isolation from freight lines," said Dan Krom, director of the Passenger Rail Office for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "You're going through their infrastructure."

Amtrak enjoyed its second-highest year of ridership last year, and the Empire Builder is its most popular route, Krom said. Plans are in the works to add six more trains daily from St. Paul to Chicago using existing lines.

As the Northstar line shows, BNSF has a strong history of cooperating with growth of passenger service, said Amy McBeth, spokeswoman for the railroad. "But expansion can't be at the expense of freight."

The railroad wants to protect its investment, and ensure that any rail capacity taken by passenger service is replaced and paid for, she said.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT have embarked on a separate study of the issue that is broader in scope.

The RCRRA study is looking more at mechanics of creating harmonious rail and passenger service in the east metro, but the Met Council/MnDOT study is looking at the entire freight transit system in the region, said Steven Elmer, planning analyst with the council. Some of the issues overlap, and Elmer is a technical adviser to the RCRRA.

One of the goals of the council and MnDOT is to find ways the agencies can work with the private sector to improve freight transit by rail, air and land.

Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

  • ALL ABO-O-O-O-ARD

    The rail renaissance is underway, with some projects complete and others in various stages of progress.

    WHAT'S HERE

    HIAWATHA LIGHT-RAIL LINE: The one that got things rolling runs from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis.

    NORTHSTAR COMMUTER RAIL LINE: Runs from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake along existing freight railroad tracks.

    WHAT'S PROPOSED

    CENTRAL CORRIDOR LIGHT-RAIL LINE: Will connect downtown St. Paul's Union Depot to downtown Minneapolis and the Hiawatha light-rail line. Work is under way, in case it's not obvious by streets torn up across downtown St. Paul. Service is slated to start in 2014.

    RED ROCK CORRIDOR: Commuter rail from Hastings through St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. Service could start by 2018.

    NORTHERN LIGHTS EXPRESS: Commuter and passenger rail from St. Paul to Duluth.

    AMTRAK: The station is slated to move from St. Paul's Midway area to the Union Depot in 2012. One train, the Empire Builder, runs through the Twin Cities daily, and the number could increase by half a dozen by 2016.

    GATEWAY CORRIDOR: Runs from St. Paul along Interstate 94 to the St. Croix River bridge. A study was launched this month to determine the best mode of transit (light rail, commuter rail or buses) along one of the most congested stretches of road in the Twin Cities. A new transitway could be operating by 2022.

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