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