Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 18, 2011 weekly rail news

The big news:

  • Mn/DOT held three open houses this past week for 110-mph rail planning from the Twin Cities to Chicago (er, Milwaukee) in the Empire Builder corridor. I attended the one on Monday in person and followed the Wednesday webinar. Some major points:

    • People are annoyed that the train isn't going to run through Rochester, Eau Claire, or Madison. A few people in the Monday meeting expressed frustration with the process of route selection, and felt it wasn't open or straightforward enough. It's good that Mn/DOT released as much information as they did, but at times it seemed like they were just gathering more data than necessary in order to obfuscate their decision-making process.

    • Centerline-to-centerline track spacing was a significant topic of discussion in the Monday meeting. Canadian Pacific appears to be willing to run 110-mph trains next to freight trains at standard 14- or 15-foot spacing, while Union Pacific seems to want at least 20 feet between track centerlines—BNSF apparently wants 30-foot spacing. These demands by UP and BNSF mean that even if old trackbeds are present in (what is now) single-tracked territory, construction would be intensive and expensive enough that it would almost be like building completely new right-of-way. (At least according to the primary speaker at the meeting.)

    • The Tier I EIS is expected to take 18 months, so expect it in late 2013. It's going to be focused on Minnesota, since Governor is still in office on the other side of the river. (But hey, that recall signature drive is nearly done already. The recall election is still months away, though.)

    • At the Monday meeting, it sounded like frequencies other than just the 6x daily round-trips would also be examined—the 6x number was apparently based on the old Midwest Regional Rail Initiative plans which are several years old at this point (possibly more than a decade). (I figure it's a good idea to run more service since it would seem odd to have 8x roundtrips to Duluth but only 6x to Chicago...)

    • Wisconsin is willing to move forward with a "second Empire Builder" running from Chicago to the Twin Cities (and possibly beyond) each day, doubling the existing frequency. In the webinar on Wednesday, Dan Krom mentioned that possible endpoints in Minnesota could be Saint Paul (Union Depot), Minneapolis (Target Field/Interchange), St. Cloud, or possibly the Northstar's existing terminus in Big Lake. I was surprised he didn't mention the possibility of running to Fargo, though it currently takes 13h20 to make that run and would therefore require extra trainsets (as compared to a shorter run that could make a round-trip in under 24 hours). A 6-month study is expected to begin any moment now. The train would likely operate as an all-coach service, as opposed to the present train which has a mix of coach seating and sleeping compartments.

    • The Talgo equipment being built for the Milwaukee–Chicago Hiawatha Service will start undergoing testing in early 2012, probably shortly after January 1st. It sounded like Minnesota has had a few discussions with Talgo, so there's a modest chance we may end up doing what Wisconsin can't—keep the Talgo plant in Milwaukee open.

The under-reported news:

  • There have been some major changes in management at Amtrak. I'm not a huge URPA fan, but they've got a rundown of who's gone.

Planning, funding, and construction:

  • 46 grants for the third round of TIGER funding have been announced. Out of the $511 million total, Minnesota got two grants and North Dakota had one. Wisconsin didn't get any.
    • The Minneapolis Transportation Interchange (upgrading Target Field station) received $10 million toward its $81.2 million budget.

    • $10 million also went to the $100 million project to raise tracks and upgrade bridges on the Empire Builder route through Churchs Ferry, North Dakota, which has been impacted by Devils Lake flooding. BNSF and Amtrak have each committed to supplying about 1/3 of the cost, so about $20 million still needs to be raised.

    • Minnesota also got a non-rail grant, $1 million for a pedestrian bridge in Northfield (though the bridge will cross over some railroad tracks in addition to Minnesota State Highway 3).

  • Funding has finally been nailed down for Cedar Avenue BRT buses in the south metro.

  • The route 811 bus that connects to the Northstar Line is planned to be discontinued in March due to low ridership.

  • In Detroit, the city's M-1 light-rail line has been canceled. Service is expected to be BRT instead.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Rondo and I-94 vs. Central Corridor LRT

There are two buildings near the corner of Rice Street and University Avenue in Saint Paul that are the only remnants of a huge neighborhood bulldozed for urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 94.

Anyone who has followed the Central Corridor light-rail project has heard of Saint Paul's old Rondo neighborhood and how that community was displaced in the 1950s. The story goes that businesses and homes were torn down in the corridor between St. Anthony Avenue and Rondo Avenue (now mostly known as Concordia Avenue) in order to make way for the Interstate. The spectre of Rondo has weighed heavily on planners and transit advocates who don't want to see past mistakes repeated along the Central Corridor line. However, it's clear that many people involved have been unaware of the truly massive scale of what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, did you know that all of this land had been leveled in the 1950s?

View Urban renewal in the I-94 corridor in a larger map

Many buildings outside of that zone were also taken down, but typically in a more fine-grained manner, one or two at a time. But Rondo got painted with a broad brush and saw block upon block torn down.

Take a look at these aerial photos from 1947, 1957, and 1966. A large swath of destruction north and south of the highway trench is clearly visible.

Rondo 1947

Rondo 1957

Rondo 1966

Most of the homes and businesses that got demolished were not directly in the path of the highway, so it's a bit disingenuous to blame the neighborhood's destruction on I-94. It does seem to be true that the forces behind urban renewal and those behind the Interstate Highway System colluded to clear city slums in that era—indeed, some historians point to Franklin Roosevelt as an early advocate for demolishing run-down city centers and replacing them with gleaming new highways.

With an area that's gone through upheavals and near-total annihilation, I understand why residents with memories of Rondo have been concerned concerned about the impact of Central Corridor light-rail construction on the area. At the same time, however, the CCLRT is not going to decimate the landscape like highways did.

On its face, it is worrying to hear that 130 to 140 parcels are being acquired either through purchase or eminent domain along the light-rail line's route, but nearly all of those just represent slivers of empty land a few feet wide, where the University Avenue right-of-way had to be expanded outward in order to fit two LRT tracks, four traffic lanes, and the occasional turn lane. Other parcels are parking lots that will only be temporarily condemned so that work equipment can be stored near the street, and a few spaces are being used for permanent electrical substations to power the trains. Officially, the only building to face demolition for being in the path of the LRT line was the old Bremer Bank building in downtown (which I frankly found to be ugly anyway).

There are many other structures that have been torn down in the last few years along University Avenue, but that has been anticipatory development where new, relatively dense condos and apartment buildings replaced older structures—the opposite of what was going on in the 1950s when block upon block was torn down and replaced by tower-in-the-park structures or other clustered development where the resulting density appeared to be high, but on average turned out to be much less than what used to be there. Other suburban-style developments also crept in, such as at Sears where more land is devoted to parking than to the two-story building itself. While there have been concerns about neighborhood residents about "Manhattanizing" the area with skyscrapers, the historic destruction of the neighborhood has left many open spaces that can be filled with new homes and businesses without having to tear anything down or build anything especially tall. The Sears space alone could easily accommodate hundreds of new housing units if demand arises.

Bizarrely, even though I think Central Corridor planners have learned many lessons from what happened in the past, they still plan to run light-rail tracks immediately in front of the two surviving buildings I mentioned at the top of this post. On that block, the tracks will shift from running down the middle of University Avenue to running along the south side of the street, blocking driveways for those businesses. This will certainly frustrate the business owners, but the block they are on still has ample parking accessible from other nearby streets. I can't say that the owners will be happy with their new situation, but they won't be completely blocked off—actually, they'll be among the structures closest to the Rice Street/Capitol station, and should benefit from that.

(Incidentally, the next building to the west on that block is Saint Paul's current Greyhound depot. It will also be blocked from the street, but it doesn't matter too much since Greyhound is expected to move to the Saint Paul Union Depot by the end of 2012.)

So, while the story of I-94 and the urban renewal that went with was one of mass destruction, the story of the Central Corridor is merely one of major disruption. It will make a mess of the street for a while, and there's no guarantee that businesses will make it all the way through the construction phase—but those buildings will remain standing and will be ready to be re-occupied by newcomers at any time. In the end, I still strongly believe that the project will have been worthwhile, and hopefully it will bring about much more investment in the corridor that will make it busier and more vibrant.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

December 11, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

  • The Milwaukee Road 261 locomotive is nearing the end of its rebuild. The boiler had been taken off of the driving wheels several months ago, but they were reunited this week. Here's a photo.

  • Minneapolis musician Mason Jennings has a track called "Empire Builder":

  • There was a post on Greater Greater Washington this week about a Transit Near Me tool that a few folks have been working on. I've always thought that type of tool was a good idea, since it gives a personalized transit map of nearby lines that should be much easier to understand than a general transit map showing everything.

Planning, funding, and construction:

  • A reminder that there will be open houses for the 110-mph link between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee/Chicago this week: From 5–7 pm each night at the Stillwater Public Library (Monday, in Stillwater) and Winona County Historical Society (Tuesday, in Winona). There will also be a webinar Wednesday evening.

  • The Starling Project got some coverage this week. It's an effort to connect commercial landlords who have properties along the Central Corridor with artists and small businesses that need space. They're initially focusing on the 1-mile stretch of University Avenue from Minnesota State Highway 280 to Vandalia Street (the only stretch of University itself that both has new pavement and tracks laid in the ground).

  • Fares are going up a bit for the Northstar Link bus which connects riders from St. Cloud and Becker to the Northstar commuter line in Big Lake. The standard one-way fare of $1.50 is going up to $1.75 (still cheap for a nearly 30-mile run).

  • Bombardier's CEO suggests that Amtrak should invest in its rail network rather than new high-speed train equipment.

  • PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter was fed Frank Lautenberg's statement "Last year we spent more than $40 billion on highways. And Lord knows we need that. But that's more than we spent on Amtrak in its entire 40-year history.". The result: True.


  • The Polar Express train operated by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad in New York derailed on Thursday the 8th. I first thought this was like other "Santa trains" around the country where the train itself carries Christmas-y stuff to onlookers in towns along the line, but in this case the train carries passengers to the "North Pole" to see Santa. It derailed outside Utica with about 300 people onboard, but only one person had a minor injury in the incident.


  • The National Association of Rail Passengers did a roundup of coverage of regional air service being cut. They highlighted the example of the Pittsburgh–Philadelphia link, which is expected to jump in cost from $118 to $698 for a round-trip (excluding taxes and fees) once Southwest exits the market in January.

  • In a week, it'll be 50 years since the Metropolitan Building got torn down in Minneapolis. The Star Tribune had a special story on it, including a shot of the central light well and its glass flooring.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

I guess I missed news of the BNSF holiday train, but the Canadian Pacific train is running through parts of Minnesota this week.

Planning, funding, and construction:
  • Christos reopened in the headhouse of the Saint Paul Union Depot on Thursday, December 1st. I poked my head in on Friday and saw that the main room is done, but there's still work being done everywhere else—including the area shown in last week's edition that includes a new (yet old-looking) elevator. Channel 9 seems to have been the only outlet to carry the news. (The reporter mischaracterized who is doing the work a little bit by saying it is being done by the federal government, but much if not most of the money came from the feds).

    First Phase of Union Depot Renovation Opens to Public:

  • Ramsey County is seeking private partners to manage the depot and operate its bike facility.

  • The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority also posted more videos of their own this week. I think this one is more interesting, as it gives an idea of how the repaired plaster will look in the waiting room:

    Their other video is weird because it includes a banner for the musical Always... Patsy Cline appearing at the Ordway (which I don't get because the show didn't exist until the late '80s).

  • In Jamestown, ND, the local paper lays out the controversy about a proposed rail loop and how opponents contend the money would be better spent repairing city infrastructure. You know things are complicated when a news article includes a glossary. Curiously, it seems that a new coal-fired power plant in the city (and apparently at the site) is not going to be activated until 2013. The plant was supposed to supply steam to a new ethanol plant. (Oh, but have you heard? We've basically hit the 10% ethanol blend wall.)

  • From Reason & Rail: Good news, but unambitious plans for passenger rail in Florida. (Yeah, that makes me think of what would have happened if passenger service to Duluth was only built to the minimum standard as opposed to something that should [hopefully] operate in the black.)

  • The Lake Superior Railroad Museum is seeking funding to help cover the costs of a 15-year inspectian and maintenance cycle for their Soo Line 2719 locomotive. They're trying to get money from a highway fund for the job.


  • Amtrak set a Thanksgiving week record for ridership, with preliminary numbers saying they carried 720,000 passengers. Final numbers should be available soon. The railroad put all of its available rolling stock to use to deal with the heavier loads.

  • Here in Saint Paul, Ford's oldest plant is shutting down in a few days. The Star Tribune had a good writeup.

  • Apparently all of the nation's rail unions have come to agreements with their respective companies, so there is no longer any threat of a strike on December 5th. As the URPA outlined, a strike would have been very bad and probably would have halted freight trains, Amtrak services, and commuter railroads.

  • Watco Transportation Services has bought two regional railroads and started a third. The Wisconsin & Southern Railroad and the Birmingham Southern Railroad were both purchased. The former has been questioned a bit because of the WSOR's connection to the Koch Family. The latter deal is expected to cause major layoffs for BSR workers. Watco also started up the Swan Ranch Railroad short line in Cheyenne, Wyoming in an industrial park situated between BNSF and Union Pacific tracks.

  • Another story in a thread that will become pretty common: BNSF is hiring, Whitefish, MT edition.

  • Reason & Rail: Pacific Surfliner to move to a yield managed fare system

  • Greater Greater Washington: For highways, getting a 'D' isn't so bad

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Minnesota cities of 5000+ population

In order to help me understand population distribution in Minnesota, I made a map of all cities with populations above 5000 (cribbed from Wikipedia's list).

View Minnesota cities over 5,000 (2010 census) in a larger map

(I definitely recommend clicking the link to view larger.)

I've been trying to use it to make a map of the existing rail routes that could connect these cities together, but I've been getting a bit stymied limitations in Google Maps' "My Maps" functionality: As my line-drawing connects more points together, Google appears to be reducing the number of lines that can appear on a single page. As a result, my maps end up looking weird because only some of what I draw can be viewed at the same time. Very frustrating—Apparently I need to be less anal about getting every detail of the routes and be more loose about how closely I follow tracks.

Someday I may figure out Google Fusion Tables and how they can work with Google Maps, but my brain is not happy when I try to wrap it around that subject.

Anyway, it's clear that these communities don't really line up with Interstate highways.  I think what strikes me most, however, is how many highways have been built to communities that are much smaller than 5,000.

Oh, and while I'm having trouble getting maps to work nicely, I'll just note that nearly all of these cities have rail connections—they don't always go in directions that make sense for movement of people, but a passenger rail network that reaches 90% of these communities could be accomplished without building very much "new" stuff. A relatively small amount of new track (say, 100 miles or so) could make such a system very well interconnected and much more suitable for passenger use. (The system is currently optimized for freight, which doesn't care if it gets sent 40+ miles out of the way before reaching a destination.)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

November 28, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Planning, funding, and construction news:

  • Central Corridor light-rail construction on the western stretch of University Avenue is said to be finished (at least in terms of laying track and reconstructing the road surface) and ready to fully reopen to car traffic. I haven't had a chance to see it for myself yet, though.

  • Work on the Saint Paul Union Depot's headhouse has progressed enough to allow Christos, the Greek restaurant in the lobby, to reopen on Thursday, December 1st.

  • Rather shaky but informative video of a walkthrough of the headhouse work, starting downstairs in the new carriageway area:

  • In southern Minnesota, a spur to Hartland has been abandoned and is expected to become a bike trail.

  • $928 million has been pledged to California from the U.S. DOT in order to build their first high-speed rail line.

  • The state of Michigan has received $150 million from U.S. DOT in order to acquire the rail line to Detroit. This action should pave the way for repairs and upgrades to the track to allow 110-mph service.

  • President Obama signed legislation that should allow federal dollars to be matched against the unique private funding for the planned M-1 light-rail line in Detroit.


  • Service along MTA Metro-North Railroad's Port Jervis line has resumed in New York. It was severely damaged in Hurricane Irene. Despite resumption of service, repairs are expected to continue until June 2012.


A mile away from Bailey Elementary, a possible solution

The roundabout at Bailey Road and Radio Drive in Woodbury.

When I first came across this image of a roundabout with dedicated tunnels for bikes and pedestrians, I thought I had somehow wandered onto David Hembrow's blog about cycling in the Netherlands, but no, it turns out this is an image of an American roundabout.  A Minnesotan roundabout. A Woodburian roundabout.

A roundabout in Woodbury?  With two lanes, bike paths, and tunnels?  Yep.

A few weeks ago, Mike Spack linked to an online presentation by Joe Gustafson of Washington County Public Works that covered the project.  It's the first fully two-lane roundabout in the state, so the county used it to experiment a bit and collected extra data about its performance—hence the reason for the presentation.

However, the main thing that jumped at me was the roundabout's location: It's at the intersection of Radio Drive and Bailey Road.  You might remember Bailey Road from news stories earlier this year about Gordon Bailey Elementary School.  It became a cause célèbre for Minnesota urbanists after it was reported that of the 620 students, none of them walked or rode bicycles to school.

A 55-mph speed limit at an elementary school?
Now, I don't want to sound like a ratchety old fart talking about walking in eight-foot snowdrifts uphill both ways, but I did grow up in the southeastern Minnesota town of Byron, where kids within the city limits were (at the time) required to make their own way to and from school—whether it was by walking, biking, or getting a ride from a family member.  I mostly walked, but did ride my bike or get rides on occasion.  One of the main roads to my elementary school had a speed limit of 15 miles per hour, while others were normally 30 but restricted to 20 mph when students were present.

Because I grew up with a school on a slow street, I'm always amazed to see schools such as Bailey placed next to 55-mph suburban arterials.  Unfortunately, it has been a common practice in the United States for the past few decades.

Roads such as this can be deadly for students.  For me, this reality  came into stark relief when I was in high school—a student in nearby Kasson was killed crossing the 40-mph Mantorville Avenue (Minnesota State Highway 57) near that city's high school. He was hit fast enough to be lifted out of his shoes—the mental image of empty sneakers marking a crash victim's last footsteps is something that always sticks with me.

Gordon Bailey Elementary's main entrance to the west side parking lot.

Due to my own experiences, I'm inclined to think that parents and kids feel unsafe crossing Bailey Road, and that's why every student gets driven or bused to school.  In the original reporting on the subject, parents gave a variety of reasons for driving their children, but the school's location still sticks out like a sore thumb.

So, how do you make this road—out on the edge of the urban boundary—feel safe?  Ideally, I'd like to see schools located in town centers, like the elementary I grew up with.  Built up near the edge of streets that are designed to be slow, even if the slow area only lasts a block or so.

The school's closest intersection, a 4-way stop at Bailey Road and Woodlane Drive.
But here, we're dealing with an established facility that's on roads that are made for high speed.  Reducing the speed limit might help, but a road lined on one side by farmland is unlikely to be driven slowly.  Wide open spaces encourage wide open throttles, so a reduced speed limit would likely be ignored.

In this case, it seems the best option is to completely separate pedestrian traffic from the road, allowing people to get from one side to the other without having to wait for cars to pass or stop.

Tunnels or bridges across the road are the way to accomplish that.  Expensive solutions, but worth the money because they will save lives.  Certainly criticism would follow any such proposals, but critics should also recognize that they are usually remedies to problems that never should have existed in the first place.  Unwalkable locations bring latent costs with them, and building special grade-separated walkways just makes those hidden costs visible.

Schools should be built in walkable places, period.  They are engines of community, and should be treated as such.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Log of the Hiawatha, February 2, 1939

Here's a speed/timing log of a run of the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha in early 1939. The Hudson F-7 locomotive must have been brand-new at the time. I'd like to find a log of a Morning Hiawatha run from 1940 or 1941, since they apparently went a bit faster following track upgrades (the Milwaukee worked on their construction methods and eventually set up 1-degree curves with 3½ inches of superelevation and ran trains over them at 100 mph). This appears to be an afternoon trip, and was scheduled to take 6h30 from Chicago to St. Paul. I believe the fastest schedule ever made for that portion of the trip was 6h15.

Oh, before I get to the main thing, here's a summary of the segments people may be interested in:

Scheduled trip time

ChicagoMilwaukeeSt. PaulMinneapolis
St. Paul


Recorded trip time

ChicagoMilwaukeeSt. PaulMinneapolis
St. Paul


The only stations served by the train were Chicago, Milwaukee, Portage, New Lisbon, La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing, St. Paul (Union Depot), and Minneapolis—a total of 9. An extra brief stop occurred when the train encountered a red signal, apparently due to a broken piece of track. The temperature in Minneapolis was "several degrees below zero [Fahrenheit]" upon arrival.

In contrast, the Empire Builder's stations are Chicago, Glenview, Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing, and St. Paul (Midway)—a total of 11.  Midway station is located at roughly the same distance from Chicago as Merriam Park.

Nine streamlined cars, approximately 430 tons; Hudson-type (F-7) engine No. 100, tractive effort 50,300 lbs., 84-inch drivers, 23½ x 30-inch cylinders, boiler pressure 300 lbs. Engineer W. E. Stephens, Chicago-Milwaukee; Engineer H. B. Knowlton, Milwaukee-La Crosse; Engineer A. C. Hoard, La Crosse-Minneapolis.

1:00:00 p.m.1:00 p.m.
2.9PassWestern Avenue301:08:09
Pacific Junction521:11:581:09
Forest Glen671:17:41
Morton Grove851:21:08
Tower A-20921:25:121:22
Northbrook93, 90 curve1:25:37
West Lake Forest96, 98, 82 curve1:30:03
Gurnee100, 90 curve1:37:15
Wadsworth93, 86 upgrade1:39:521:37
Russell86, 80 curve1:42:44
Tower A-68931:56:541:54
Caledonia95, 1001:57:41
Oakwood97, 981:59:46
Lake95, 100, 71 curve2:02:572:00
Powerton71, 60 curve, 402:04:46
Washington Street312:08:522:09

87.0PassMilwaukee Shops39, 442:23:33
Grand Avenue34, 47, 442:25:19
Elm Grove68, 70, 59 curve2:33:13
Brookfield75, 842:37:152:34
Pewaukee91, 68 curve2:41:41
Hartland70, 822:44:582:43
Oconomowoc90, 86, 902:50:392:48
Ixonia88, 952:54:31
Richwood81, 88, 77 curve, 8[?]3:04:51
Astico90, 923:12:44
Fall River86, 70 curve3:24:073:24
East Rio91, 70 curve3:24:073:24
Rio76, 67 curve3:25:37
Wyocena90, 923:29:36
Portage Junction503:35:10

Cheney92, 70 curve3:51:05
Wisconsin Dells653:55:50
Lyndon99, 100, 89, 984:02:22
Mauston88, 894:09:06
221.0Ar.New Lisbon

Lv.New Lisbon844:17:404:18
227.0PassCamp Douglas59, 914:24:10
Oakdale90, 93, 91, 934:29:00
Tomah88, 31 switches4:33:18
Tunnel City34, 45 tunnel4:36:244:36
Raymore74, 934:39:44
Camp McCoy91, 954:44:00
Sparta88, 904:46:414:46
Bangor90 until slowing4:53:55
West Salem80, 904:56:49
Medary47, 575:02:155:04
Grand Crossing405:04:08
280.8Ar.La Crosse

Lv.La Crosse475:14:285:14
281.2PassWest Wye Switch25, 485:16:15
Bridge Switch39, 535:18:58
River Junction36, 705:20:42
Lamoille74, 715:33:31
CGW Crossing605:39:28

309.4PassTower CK455:48:35
Minnesota City67, 695:52:47
Weaver71, 806:04:22
Kellogg71, 80, 706:10:24
Reads Landing69, 706:17:19
Lake City69, 80, 706:26:42
Frontenac77, 82, 60 curve, 736:31:51
369.9Ar.Red Wing

Lv.Red Wing
372.0PassIsland Siding716:45:45

Ar.Red Signal Indication

Lv.Red Signal Indication

Rearof train over broken rail89, 806:55:20
384.5PassBlackbird Junction857:02:40
Hastings40, 35 bridge7:06:586:59
St. Croix Tower31, 60, 807:08:43
Newport59, 807:20:207:15
St. Paul Yard70, 50 until Xing7:25:16
411.5Ar.St. Paul

Lv.St. Paul
412.4PassChestnut Street307:37:157:35
Fordson Junction38, 45, 487:38:537:37
Merriam Park487:45:007:44
Tower G50, 227:47:187:47
South Minneapolis277:50:267:50
NOTE: Speeds as shown represent speed at station, occasionally on slow order curves, and maximum and minimum between stations.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 20, 2011 weekly rail news

The big story:

View Twin Cities to Chicago 110-mph rail in a larger map

We have our route. Yes, it's the former route of the Hiawatha, now plied by Amtrak's Empire Builder. It's the route you know and love, so there may not be any new destinations to visit—but you should actually be able to plan a day- or weekend trip and be ensured of getting there and back on time. For the leisurely traveler, there won't be any more need to get up at 6 AM to catch the train (just in case the Builder is running on time). And with six daily round-trips planned for the new service, there shouldn't be any more need to plan an extra day in Chicago for a connecting train (just in case the Builder is running six hours late).

The price tag for this endeavor is estimated at $2.4 billion (in 2010 dollars), with costs split almost exactly down the middle between Minnesota and Wisconsin—$1.2 billion each (a price that seems to resemble the cost for a certain sports franchise's planned stadium).

Price appears to be the primary reason this route was chosen: It's a few hundred million dollars cheaper than the next-least-expensive option. The current route doesn't have any grades greater than 1%, and centralized traffic control (CTC) is installed along 99.8% of the distance.  It's apparently only 5 minutes slower than the quickest option, which would be taking the shorter, less curvy route from Wyeville through Eau Claire to the Twin Cities.

If/when the line gets upgraded, Wisconsin will get the glory in terms of speed, with all of the line's 110-mph territory running east of the Mississippi River that state. Curves along the river mean that speeds in Minnesota will probably be restricted to 90 mph.

I do have to qualify statements about Wisconsin a bit, since their governor is clearly anti-train.  He has voiced support in the past for enhancements to the Empire Builder, and Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Mark Gottlieb reiterated that in a letter in August, but apparently this means they would be amenable to running a second daily train along the route, but not necessarily making it run faster or more frequent than that.  (Running a second train would probably still cost more than $100 million, according to Amtrak's 2009 study for restoring the North Coast Hiawatha).

I suppose there's some hope that Gov. Scott Walker can be recalled and the political landscape will become more favorable. It will be a tough task, however—the recall effort needs about 15% of the state's eligible voters to sign the recall petition in order for an election to even happen.

Anyway, while Rochester got left off the main line, Mn/DOT did underscore the fact that a separate fast link is planned from there to the Twin Cities by issuing a letter on Friday.  Nonetheless, running the Twin Cities to Chicago train along the existing route means that the service can be rolled out more quickly than if a new route was chosen.  If things go well, trains could be running in 2016.

Fun stuff:

  • My crappy video of workers grinding recently-welded rail along the University of Minnesota bus transitway on Friday night:

  • rome2rio is another new site that lets you plan trips using a mixture of modes, and it includes a CO2e calculation. (Curiously, it does not seem to understand Metro Transit's system except for the Hiawatha Line, and also thinks that the Empire Builder currently runs twice daily.)

Planning, funding, and construction:



  • The Amtrak station in Minot, North Dakota, damaged by flooding along the Souris River five months ago, has finally reopened following repairs.

  • BNSF freight trains and the California Zephyr were rerouted for 24 to 48 hours following a bridge fire along the route in Iowa.

  • A car went under a gate arm and was struck by a Hiawatha Line train today, with the car's driver apparently treated and released from the hospital.

More thoughts on getting Northstar to "work"

Just because I spent quite a long time last night and this morning coming up with a response to this thread over at Minnescraper (which is a great forum for Twin Citians to check out), I figured I'd repost it here, along with a map I made of bus connections to/from the service as I mulled things over:

View Northstar connections in a larger map

I get pretty conflicted about the Northstar Line. It's not so much a failure itself as it is a product of a broken system that kills good ideas and rewards bad ones. The train basically does what it was designed to do—the ridership might be a bit below the target, but that misses the point that it was a nonsensical target in the first place. It isn't really designed to help people live without a car—the contrary: It was all about getting car-owning commuters into downtown with less delay. The Northstar is basically meant to be a dynamic extra lane for U.S. 10 that appears briefly in the morning and evening rush hours. It can be considered a success if it prevents Mn/DOT from expanding the highway, though I doubt they're going to be able to restrain themselves from doing so.

Questions about farebox recovery ratios and operational cost never really mattered, nor did mobility for individuals hampered by age, health, income, etc. If it had been designed as a train where people could walk to the stations, the stations themselves would have been in different locations. I always point at Elk River as the egregious violator, where the current stop is two miles from Main Street.

However, I do think the service can be molded into something that would more or less "work." Right now there are a handful of buses that connect to the line in Anoka, Coon Rapids, and Fridley, but there probably should be more. I'm not entirely sure how useful additional stations would be in Minneapolis itself, particularly since the huge Northtown Yard complex gets in the way. I could see a station going in at Lowry Ave or a bit further south near the Northrup King building, but neither of those make a whole lot of sense when there's the route 10 bus running along Central pretty frequently (it would be nice for people who live far out yet work in Northeast, but I'm not sure how many people do that).

I'd like to see the Elk River station moved two miles northwest into the center of town. Similarly, the Big Lake station should have been half a mile to a mile further west (though at least it's close enough to be within walking distance of a grocery and a few other things). The Coon Rapids station is also in a somewhat weird location, though I've always been stymied on how to get it placed somewhere better. However, I do believe that either the Foley Boulevard station should have been built (where there's currently a giant express bus park & ride) or a stop should have been put in a bit further south along 85th Ave, which would put it about 3/4 of a mile away from the transit center at Northtown Mall (a doable 15-minute hike if you wanted to walk, or a pretty easy bus route extension). Unfortunately 85th Ave is also relatively unpopulated due to an office/industrial park to the north and a nature center to the south, but the office park area does at least have a decent amount of land to redevelop if someone wanted to (though I suspect some of that may be semi-protected wetland...).

I've also pondered converting Northstar to an exclusively regional service by only having a single trainset in operation all day long, but making it run all the way from St. Cloud down to Minneapolis and back. For the same number of train-miles per day, the service could make three daily round-trips with a single crew over the course of about 9 hours. Add that to the Empire Builder, and you've basically got a 4x daily service to St. Cloud (albeit with two different termini in the Twin Cities). I figure it could be accomplished for around $20 million or less -- the main cost would be in restoring 9 miles of double-tracking to the line from Big Lake up to Becker. (The big problem with restoring the track is that it would be too close to intersections along U.S. 10 for Mn/DOT's current standards, so they want to spend many millions more to shift things around. Nevermind the fact that the tracks have been there for well over a century at this point, long before U.S. 10 became a divided highway.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Existing Twin Cities to Chicago route chosen for 110-mph upgrade

View Twin Cities to Chicago 110-mph rail in a larger map

I'm surprised, unsurprised, pleased, and displeased all at once at reading that the existing route of Amtrak's Empire Builder (and historically that of the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha) has been chosen as the route for 110-mph (177 km/h) enhanced-speed rail service between the Twin Cities and Chicago.  Mn/DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration have agreed on the route, so it will be their focus going forward.

I'm surprised because I had come to the conclusion that the route planning had gone on hiatus, mostly because of the election of Governor in Wisconsin. I went to a meeting a year ago where route alternatives were discussed, and was told there to expect another iteration of open houses in January or February, but several months went by and they never happened. I'm pleased to be wrong about that, and to read that the plan now is to move forward with an environmental impact statement. The Winona Daily News laid out this schedule:
  • 2011–2013: Environmental impact statement
  • 2013–2015: Design, engineering, and construction begins
  • 2016: Soonest the enhanced-speed service could begin operating

I'm unsurprised because they chose the existing route. It's the most straightforward option since it's the only remaining passenger rail corridor up to Minnesota. However, I'm displeased because this seems to show a lack of forward thinking: It doesn't connect to Rochester (our fault) or Madison (Wisconsin's fault).

Only existing rail corridors were studied, so the geography of those two cities always posed a problem. Both would increase the route's distance and lengthen end-to-end travel times.  For instance, going through Rochester on existing tracks would force Twin Cities-bound trains to continue west until Owatonna.  A true high-speed greenfield route through Rochester would be faster, but ideas like that were not considered.  However, keeping to existing tracks shortens development time by several years.

The plan calls for six daily round-trips for the new service.  From what I've read before, I believe that's in addition to the existing daily Empire Builder and probably a second train along that route up to Fargo and possibly beyond as a restoration of Amtrak's old North Coast Hiawatha service.  I may get proven wrong, but there should be eight daily round-trips between the Twin Cities and Chicago within several years.

Going forward, this will hopefully become just one link (albeit a major one) in a mesh of lines through Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The Northern Lights Express from Minneapolis to Duluth will likely begin preliminary engineering soon, and the Zip Rail line from the Twin Cities to Rochester is beginning a service development plan.   If funding can be found, the 110-mph Northern Lights Express could open a year or two before the service to Chicago.  In contrast, a more-or-less direct link to Rochester will require a new corridor to be built, so it's appropriate for them to design it to the highest standard possible.  While it would likely begin service at 110 mph, the Zip Rail folks have ambitions to run between 150 and 220 mph (240–355 km/h) on the route.

The links to Chicago, Duluth, and Rochester are the only "high-speed" corridors in Mn/DOT's 20-year Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan from last year.  I hope that the gears will soon be set in motion to build a true high-speed link from the Twin Cities to Chicago.  It's an idea that's more than 20 years old, but unfortunately it wasn't included in the rail plan.

Friday, November 11, 2011

November 13, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Planning, funding, and construction:

  • The Central Corridor is now considered 1/3 complete. The CCLRT Twitter feed suggested that there will only be one more year of heavy construction. Portions of University Avenue on the west end of Saint Paul are getting ready to reopen to 4-lane traffic, and the Washington Avenue Bridge is expected to close this coming weekend in order to switch traffic from the north side to the south side.

  • Four stations along the Central Corridor are being renamed:

    • 29th Avenue station → Prospect Park station
    • Rice Street station → Capitol/Rice Street station
    • Capitol East station → Robert Street station
    • 4th & Cedar station → Central station

    Most of those seem pretty reasonable, but it seems that a lot of people are scratching their heads over the "Central" station in downtown Saint Paul.

  • The city of Ramsey is holding a celebration on Wednesday to promote the forthcoming Northstar station that will be built there next year. Construction is scheduled to begin in March, and the station is expected to open in December.

  • John Mica has said that he no longer wants to forcibly take over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and put it in private hands.

  • The Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved a transportation funding bill on Wednesday, an action that was seen by some as a good sign of bipartisanship (especially following Tuesday's election where a number of Republican overreaches were turned back by voters). However, the bill included frustrating elements such as allowing bike/ped funding to be raided if the states desire, and an override to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for the proposed $690 million Stillwater Bridge.

  • The board of Chicago's Metra commuter rail agency has voted to increase fares by 25 percent.

  • Out east, the planned Greenbrier Express luxury train from Washington, D.C. to White Sulphur Springs, WV is reportedly being put on hold. There is some concern about the cars meeting FRA regulations. Workers who were reconfiguring heritage rail cars for the service have been laid off, though a team of engineers who were designing the cars have been retained.

  • Grenada Railway ended their bid to abandon and scrap their line between Grenada and Canton, Mississippi (famous for being the line where Casey Jones met his end).


Shared space at 20,000+ vehicles/day

Here's video of a shared-space treatment applied to a major street in Köniz, a suburb near Bern, Switzerland.  It was designed by Fritz Kobi, then-chief traffic engineer for the Bern, with the assistance of Ben Hamilton-Baillie.

The article where I found this video says that the street has an AADT of 22,000 vehicles per day, though I'm not sure where that's being measured or even if it's an accurate count.  If it is, it's pretty impressive

I like the idea of shared space a lot, but this seems to be at the upper limit of what's possible—at least for car throughput. Ideally, shared space increases overall throughput by encouraging more people to walk or cycle through the area.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he took the train

I mentioned it in my most recent edition of weekly rail news, but it was at the end of a two-hour program: Here's a video of what Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic said about how he felt after taking a train trip rather than flying. (You may have to click through to see it if you're using an RSS reader.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

November 5, 2011 weekly rail news

The big story:

On one hand, you imagine the California HSR Authority folks must have gone through a moment like this in one of their meetings:

On the other hand, even the $98.5 billion now proposed only represents something like 0.18% of California's state gross domestic product over the next 20-ish years:

I should make a similar image for the Northern Lights Express here in Minnesota. Its dot would be even smaller—We have a state GDP of more than $225 billion. Even if the cost of the $700 million line is amortized only over the course of four years, it would represent just 0.08% of that cash flow. Instead of being 13 pixels in diameter, the NLX's dot would be 9. Stretching it out over 20 or 30 years would make it barely visible at that scale. Actually, I should look at the cost of the entire planned statewide intercity passenger rail system.

Anyway, returning to California: Even though the current California HSR plan is only a tiny percentage of the state's cash flow, it remains a very good idea to trim the plan down. A rendering was released showing what elevated tracks would look like running through San Jose, a city which already has a grade-separated commuter rail corridor for Caltrain.

There's really no excuse for building such massive structures in the middle of a city. In case you missed it, the viaduct was matching the rooflines of buildings that rise six, seven, and eight stories tall. We're not talking about crossing a big valley or anything—it's just to get through a city center. Not only is it really tall, it's also really long—six miles, in fact. This could very easily blight the landscape, something that can be avoided by building more of it at or closer to ground level.

Fun stuff:

  • Dashloc has put together a great video of AVE trains in the Spanish desert:

  • Amtrak is adding Wi-Fi service to a dozen routes in the Northeast that carry about 60% of the railroad's passengers.

  • Jesse Ventura, ex-Governor of Minnesota and currently a TV host, says he won't fly commercial airlines in the U.S. any longer because of TSA screening procedures. However, he then began rambling on about conspiracies (a TV crew from his show Conspiracy Theory was there at his press conference), denounce the symbols of the United States, and say he was applying for dual citizenship with Mexico while almost simultaneously saying he might run for U.S. president just to do away with TSA procedures. (I generally find WCCO's Pat Kessler to be too critical, but he made some significant observations in his report.)

    But anyway, I do think there is a growing trend of people looking for alternatives that don't require going through security. Ta-Nehisi Coates was a guest on Up with Chris Hayes last week mentioned he had just taken a train trip instead of flying.

Planning, funding, and construction:

  • Minnesota Public Radio's lawsuit against the Metropolitan Council regarding noise mitigation methods along the Central Corridor line next to their building has been tossed out by a Ramsey County judge.

  • Chicago-based Walsh Construction has again been given reduced bonuses for work on the Central Corridor due to low marks from businesses along the route in Saint Paul. Three committees of business owners and residents have had complaints about construction-related issues such as pedestrian access and safety.

  • The state of North Dakota is seeking $33 million in TIGER grant funds for the Empire Builder route. Earlier this summer, Amtrak and BNSF had agreed to each pay one-third of the $100 million cost to repair and upgrade the line running through the Devils Lake and Churchs Ferry area (subject to a decades-long period of rising waters), and North Dakota has to come up with the remaining funds.

  • Steven Dornfield gives Metro Transit's Arterial Transit Corridor Study some coverage at MinnPost. Alex of Getting Around Minneapolis gives us graphs!

  • Skyway 24 over Sixth Street reopened in downtown Saint Paul. The Pioneer Press gave the most in-depth coverage, comparing the skyway reopening to the opening of the San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, among other oddities. (Well, their building is across the street from it, so I suppose they can justify being a bit over-the-top about it).

  • Some more TOD is planned at the Hiawatha Line's Lake Street station, including a three-season farmer's market space.

  • Canadian National has opened a new Chicago-area connection from its ex-Illinois Central line to the former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, which CN acquired in 2009.  The junction is in Matteson, Illinois and now reportedly has 4-way connections.

  • I was unaware of it until this week, but the Union Pacific railroad bridge across the Minnesota River in Carver is being demolished. It had gotten damaged over the years by floods, logs, and ice dams, and service over the bridge ended in 2007 after a nearby trestle collapsed.


  • Amtrak passengers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania had to break through locked doors on Wednesday because no Amtrak staff were available to open them. There were some construction workers on-site, but they didn't have keys for either the building's front door or the door leading to the platform. The workers let the passengers in through a side entrance, but a padlocked bar across the door to the platform ended up being broken before Amtrak staff arrived.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 29, 2011 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:
  • A photo from the Minneapolis Bike Love forum of installation of a new bike/ped bridge in Uptown over the Midtown Greenway, the former Milwaukee Road corridor through Minneapolis. (The building on the left is Mozaic.)

  •  The Rick Mercer Report gives us the state of Canadian high-speed rail, which sounds pretty familiar (via @ttpolitic):

Construction, planning, and funding news:
  • The Met Council has put out word that they're looking for businesses to provide engineering services for the Southwest LRT line.

  • Walsh Construction reportedly has until November 30th to reopen four lanes of traffic on the 3-mile stretch of University Avenue between Emerald Street and Hamline Avenue in Saint Paul. Crews are working at a pretty furious pace at the moment, but if they need to have it all back to 4 lanes, they definitely aren't going to make it (traffic finally shifted to the south side under the Minnesota Commercial Railway bridge between Cleveland/Transfer and Prior a few days ago, and there's no way they can redo the north side in only about a week—however, there aren't any driveways along that stretch either.). They have also had to rip up some intersections in downtown Saint Paul where tracks had been improperly embedded in black concrete (I had been wondering why the intersections had been inconsistent).

  • The Red Rock Corridor got a bit of coverage from the Star Tribune, mostly related to TOD planning in cities such as Newport.

  • In the Northeast, Amtrak is going to suspend operation overnight from Saturday, November 5th to Sunday the 6th in order to replace two bridges along the NEC.

  • The Surface Transportation Board has given their approval for the 190-mile DesertXpress line from Victorville, California to Las Vegas.

  • The U.S. Army has acquired some Virginia Railway Express cars which they intend to use for a service to carry military students from Fort Lee to Fort A.P. hill on. The military believes the train is safer than transferring students on buses (they need to have more than a dozen to carry all of the participants). Trains will run about three times per month.

  • Caterpillar/Progress Rail/EMD have rolled out the first new locomotive built at their Muncie, Indiana facility which they just started working on about 10 months ago (partly explained by the fact the building formerly built locomotives for ABB).  The first SD70ACe off the line was built for the Mexican railroad Ferromex.

    ...and, of course, any mention of Muncie is not complete without a clip from The Hudsucker Proxy:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New tracks, fresh pavement

New tracks, fresh pavement by Mulad
New tracks, fresh pavement, a photo by Mulad on Flickr.
University Avenue as seen on Wednesday evening from the temporary bus stop at Cromwell (the east-side frontage road for MN-280).  The top layer of asphalt has been put down on the south side along with the final striping configuration.  I'm expecting that the north side will get its top layer soon, meaning that this segment of track is getting very close to done (at least at ground level -- installation of catenary infrastructure should begin in the spring if I understand correctly).