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.)