Friday, April 20, 2012

Tracing the UMN's Inter-Campus streetcar line

Another short article for

View UMN intercampus streetcar line in a larger map

Many people in the Twin Cities are familiar with the University of Minnesota bus transitway connecting its Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses (the latter actually being in the suburb of Falcon Heights). Since the 1990s, its exclusive access has allowed buses to shuttle quickly between campuses—parts of it also get used by buses to the Minnesota State Fair each year.

There was also a piece of dedicated track for getting to the St. Paul campus by streetcar between 1914 and 1954. A special "Inter-Campus" route shared track with the "Como-Harriet" streetcar line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, though there were private extensions to reach each campus.

Students boarded at the traffic circle at Pleasant Street and Pillsbury Avenue on the Minneapolis campus, and the streetcar headed north on 15th Street to reach Como Avenue, which it followed until reaching Eustis Street in Saint Paul.  The line then turned north along Eustis before heading east at what is now Idaho Avenue in the small suburb of Lauderdale. From there, track was laid in an exclusive right-of-way which ran just north of Folwell Avenue to reach the campus. Streetcars ran along the south edge of the agricultural test fields before curving around the east side of campus and ending up near today's St. Paul Student Center.

The line was unique among streetcar routes in the area because had a connection with the freight rail network and was used for small deliveries to the St. Paul campus, including coal for a campus power plant. The connection was a short piece of track which ran west of Eustis (across what is now Minnesota State Highway 280) to connect with the Minnesota Transfer Railway (now the Minnesota Commercial)

The Inter-Campus line was one of the last two streetcar routes in operation in the Twin Cities, and was replaced by buses on June 18, 1954.

Some remnants of the old private right-of-way still exist, though it is deteriorating. The main pieces still visible include a retaining wall, a staircase coming down from Folwell Avenue, and a few old concrete platforms for former stops. (Unlike today's transitway where there aren't any intermediate stops, the streetcar line did make stops along the way.) Here's a slideshow of photos I took there a couple of weeks ago:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Electric charging comes to Como Park


Electric car charging stations have been getting installed fairly quietly across the country in recent years and a handful of stations have already been added in the Twin Cities—usually tucked away in parking garages. Two new installations at Como Park in Saint Paul will probably be the most visible in town because they're out in the open and have solar panels installed above. The panels are too small to directly charge cars, but should generate enough power to offset the foreseeable usage in the next few years (I should do the math again, but my best guess based on previous calculations is that each installation could generate about 1,000 to 1,500 miles worth of power for a Nissan Leaf over the course of a year).

These stations are part of the ChargePoint Network, an initiative from the charging stations' manufacturer, Coulomb Technologies. According to the Star Tribune, the two stations each cost $35,000, though Xcel Energy knocked that down by $4,200 through a rebate program. Sure makes home charging stations look cheap by comparison. I imagine the solar part (and its big metal support) is a big chunk of the cost, if not the dominant cost.

It'll be interesting to see if/how these different station locations get used. The first picture is of the station at 1155 Jessamine Avenue, just off of Lexington Parkway at McMurray Field, an area where traffic gets dominated by families carrying their school-age kids to and from soccer games (plus some other sports that also get played there—and there are also teams of people in their 20s and 30s who play there too). The second station is at the Como Park Pavilion along Como Lake. The station at the pavilion is probably going to be difficult to get at unless parking restrictions get put in place. Those are pretty desirable spots. The spots along Jessamine are probably used a lot less, and the charging pylons down there are placed such that three or four different spaces could be used by electric vehicles as they charge up.  I suppose the same might be true of the spaces at the pavilion, if you don't mind dragging the charging cord along the asphalt by a car width.  As long as your car's charge point is near the front of the vehicle, the cord seems long enough that it should work.


Each of the stations has two charging pylons, and each pylon has two ways of providing electricity.  The best option is a 30-amp, 240-volt plug using the North American SAE J1772 standard connector.  It's got a gun-style grip with a button on top that you push down to unlatch the plug.  Alternatively, there's also a NEMA 5-20R socket contained within the housing. I haven't actually seen it yet, but that's what the website says.  That's a fancy way of saying that it's a fairly standard wall socket, though it has a notch in one of the holes to allow 20-amp plugs (a plug with one of the blades turned 90 degrees).  However, that socket only allows charging at 16 amps and 120 volts.

The District 10 community council mentioned on Facebook that the price for charging at these stations will be $1/hour.  That sounds high at first glance, though the 30A/240V plug can put out 7.2 kilowatts, which is theoretically only 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour—not a bad price, in my opinion.  We'll have to see if that turns out to be the actual price once the stations are officially activated.  Around town, there are chargers in downtown Saint Paul which charge $3.00 per session (up to 8 hours) and some at the Mall of America that charge $2.49 per hour.  There are chargers in downtown Rochester which cost $1.50/hour, and it appears that some stations in downtown Minneapolis don't seem to have any cost.

These stations appear to require customers to have an RFID card of some type in order to pay.  ChargePoint has its own RFID cards that people can sign up for, or you can use a RFID-capable credit card from Mastercard, Visa, Discover, or American Express.  This at first seems like an odd barrier to entry, though that's a minor thing compared to actually having an electric car or plug-in hybrid in the first place.

I'd love to fiddle with these things more, but my car runs on diesel.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Free the free bikes!


Don't go to groundbreaking ceremonies. They're just there to have elected officials pat themselves on the back, and people hardly ever break actual ground anymore—most events just involve tossing around some sand or dirt that got trucked in for the occasion.

I forgot about that enough to actually go up to the groundbreaking for the Northstar station in Ramsey. I guess I expected the train to show up for it, but no such luck (well, I was late, so maybe it came and went). Still, I got a chance to take a few shots in the area, and my interest did get drawn by the nice set of bikes they have in their "bicycle library."

The bikes are free to rent, although you have to rent them during regular business hours, and they must be returned by 4:30 PM. You're also required to sign a liability waiver and show a photo ID. I don't quite know how many bikes they have available (it might just be these 7), but it's an option for getting around town if you can visit on a weekday.

Oh, and they also rent canoes and kayaks (not seen here).


Sunday, April 8, 2012

April 8, 2012 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Despite the brutalist design, I have a slight soft spot for the Riverside Plaza towers because of the half- quarter-realized utopian vision behind it. There was a Minnesota Public Radio segment on them this past week. The article page also included this 2008 video tour of the site from MinnPost, which is worth checking out if you know anything about the complex:

Minnesota news:

If you didn't read my Friday article about the current state of intercity rail projects in Minnesota, you should check it out.

The Let There Be Light Rail blog noted that fresh curbs have started appearing along the Central Corridor line at Hamline Avenue—that's basically two months sooner than when curbs appeared last year.

In something that should help alleviate lines at stations during big events, Metro Transit is allowing Northstar train tickets (round-trip passes and family passes) to be purchased online and printed out.

We've known for a while that Canadian Pacific is moving out of the Soo Line Building and into the neighboring building, but it turns out they're also going to rename One Financial Plaza to Canadian Pacific Plaza.

Nice Ride Minnesota seems to have had a good start to the bike-sharing season. They reported 2,979 rentals in the first 4 days (~100 hours), though the pace will have to keep ramping up in order to beat last year's ridership. They've dropped the old $50 preauthorization hold this year, so there shouldn't be unexpected ghost charges racking up on your credit or debit card. In a comment to Minnesota Public Radio, Nice Ride's executive director said that 2/3 of operating costs are paid for with user fees (compare that with a little less than 1/3 of operations being paid by fares for Metro Transit). I'm a little skeptical, but hopefully that means the organization can eventually reach break-even on the operational side and hopefully even fund a little expansion itself.

I recently talked about the new Northstar station beginning construction in Ramsey. A developer who had been waiting for the station to go ahead is now going to hold their own groundbreaking for "The Residence at The COR"—230 units right by the tracks.

National news:

Talgo is planning to start laying off workers from their Wisconsin plant on June 3rd.

The Associated Press had a story about how the train station in Williston, North Dakota has booming ridership due to the oil rush in the western part of the state. Included in the article is the assertion that ridership there exceeds that of St. Paul, which is false 2011 ridership in Williston: 29,920. In St. Paul it was 116,785. Midway station handled more passengers than all of the stops in North Dakota put together. It does appear to be true that Williston is the busiest station in the state, however. (Fargo is not helped by the fact that trains are scheduled to pass through between roughly 2 AM and 4 AM).

Norfolk Southern is planning to do track work in Michigan between Kalamazoo and Jackson later this month along tracks which had been recently downgraded to 25-mph operation—a move which embarrassed Amtrak, which had just upgraded their own section of track to 110-mph speeds along the same route, and the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is negotiating to purchase the NS-owned tracks. No word on who is paying for the repairs.

Michigan state police have been cracking down on vehicles running through activated grade crossing signals. A good idea, since it seems like Amtrak trains have been running into cars and trucks with alarming regularity lately. (Hmm. WZZM's graphics look exactly like KARE's....)

It was interesting to see Ray Lahood write about a meeting held by the Northern Flyer Alliance, a group of transportation planners from several states in the south-central and southwestern U.S. who want to make a bunch of new passenger rail connections. Sounds like a good idea, if only it can garner enough support.

The Detroit News put together a profile on the guy who wants to start a private bus company in that city. I guess I've become significantly more skeptical now that I see he's just trying to use some school buses. School buses seem to be less well-regulated than transit buses do (publicly-funded ones, anyway), so I wonder if he'll run into some entanglements with that.

The 99% Invisible podcast had a good episode about "The arsenal of exclusion", some of the various methods our society has used in order to quietly keep populations segregated.

The Reason & Rail blog put together a table of estimated Amtrak costs on a per train-mile basis, which I found interesting.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Progress on Minnesota passenger rail projects, but funding is limited

My periodic article for

A Northstar train heading south through Elk River

For the past few years, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been facilitating the Intercity Passenger Rail Forum, a monthly-scheduled meeting between policymakers at the state, city, and county levels plus various other organizations who are working on various projects to maintain existing passenger train service and add/restore other lines. Some meetings get canceled if there isn't much to discuss, though one was held on Monday this week, and I was able to sit in.

The general picture

The funding picture for passenger rail is not very bright this year. The Minnesota House and Senate have included some freight rail projects in this year's bonding bills, such as money to replace or upgrade highway/rail grade crossings, but there hasn't been any funding put forth for the Southwest LRT line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. The House had $1 million for the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 toward/into Wisconsin (though the Gateway Corridor dropped commuter rail from their study last month). The Senate bill had $5 million in it for the Minneapolis Transportation Exchange, a plan to expand the Northstar and Hiawatha stations at Target Field in order to handle additional commuter, intercity, and light-rail traffic.

For the time being, many projects will have to rely on existing funds or see if they can obtain more money from cities, counties, and the federal government rather than the state.

Northern Lights Express (Duluth)

Bob Manzoline from the Northern Lights Express project said that the Minneapolis to Duluth line is in the final stages of environmental review and plans to release their Environmental Impact Statement for public comment sometime this month. The public will be able to respond to it for about a month, the NLX project will respond to comments, and finally a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) should happen around June or July, meaning the project will be ready to proceed with final design and construction. Some design work has already happened—Most recently, the project has been doing LIDAR mapping (like radar but with lasers) along the route. The mapping project has resulted in some calls to police because it's been done with black helicopters hovering 300 feet above the tracks, and people have been wondering what's been going on.

A 6–8 month study is also planned to determine whether the train should simply run straight to the center of Hinckley or divert out to the edge of town to directly serve Grand Casino.  A direct connection to the casino would likely bump up ridership, and the study will attempt to find whether the diversion is financially justifiable.

Project officials say they'll be able to get 30% of the design complete with existing funding.

Zip Rail (Rochester)

The presentation for the Zip Rail line to Rochester was focused around a recent study that said that building the line would provide about $1 billion in economic benefit annually—If true, that would generate $784 million in new tax revenue to the state plus another $1.6 bililon in taxes to the federal government over the first 25 years of operation.  The study relied heavily on IMPLAN economic modeling software for those numbers.  More direct user benefits in terms of time savings, avoided crashes, and reduced emissions were calculated to save $725 million over 25 years.

Nobody really knows what alignment the Zip Rail line might take yet (it might follow parts of the abandoned Chicago Great Western route which goes down to Dodge Center, it might run closer to U.S. 52, or any number of other paths), so there wasn't any attempt to try and calculate changes in property values.

The project is still moving forward on its service development plan and is working toward doing an Alternatives Analysis and EIS, some of which can be accomplished with existing funds.

Saint Paul Union Depot

A fairly brief update was given for the Union Depot project in Saint Paul.  Things are progressing rapidly and the project is more than 60% complete.  Contractors will soon begin paving the parking area underneath the station's massive train deck between Kellogg Boulevard and Shepard/Warner Road.  Tracks should be installed soon (the website for Trains magazine reports that a "first spike" ceremony will be held at the end of April).

Left out of the discussion was the fact that Greyhound Lines has decided not to run their buses to the depot once it opens, opting instead to consolidate into their Minneapolis depot at the Hawthorne Transportation Center.  Greyhound still has a small depot on University Avenue near Rice Street, though it will close after May 6th when Central Corridor construction blocks access.  Along that block, LRT tracks will shift to the south side of University Avenue (rather than running in the center), which will prevent bus access to the old depot.

Jefferson Lines, which also uses the Greyhound depot in Saint Paul, is planning to operate out of Amtrak's Midway station for St. Paul customers until the Union Depot opens for service.

Bafflingly (to me, anyway), it turns out that Amtrak is going to continue to use their Midway depot for switching cars and for storage.  On most trips, an extra car gets added/removed to handle higher loads between the Twin Cities and Chicago, plus private cars are sometimes added to the train.  I'm hoping there's a good reason for the situation, though I don't know what the reason is yet.

The Union Depot is expected to fully reopen in November or December.

The Interchange

The Minneapolis Transportation Interchange, a project to expand the light- and heavy-rail platforms at Target Field, is almost ready to begin.  Operations of the Hiawatha Line were already changed at the beginning of March so that trains no longer use the tail tracks at the extreme western end of the route.  A permit to demolish the Environmental Services Building across 5th Street from the Ford Center is expected any day now.

Funding has been a bit of an issue for this project.  There either wasn't much discussion of money at the meeting, or I just didn't follow it well enough to write it down, but reports in the Star Tribune have said that there's roughly a $30 million shortfall on the project at the present time.

There was a mention that some portions of the project might be sliced off and handed to private sector interests who may be able to build on their own (some retail has been planned in the station area).

Twin Cities to Milwaukee/Chicago

There are two distinct but clearly interrelated projects in the pipeline for adding train service between the Twin Cities and Chicago: A short-term plan to add a second daily train between Minnesota and Illinois, plus a medium-term plan to implement 110-mph train service with higher daily frequencies.

An Alternatives Analysis happened last year to select a route for trains reaching up to 110 mph between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee (they'd continue to Chicago, but the study specifically looked at the shorter corridor).  Mn/DOT is proceeding on to a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement—at least once they get done responding to all of the comments they got on the AA.  They received a lot of messages from people and organizations who wanted the train to go elsewhere, such as through Eau Claire.  Nonetheless, Mn/DOT will continue working on the Minnesota side of the route.

WisDOT is not actively participating in that study at the moment but is collaborating on the second daily train.  Amtrak is going to conduct a small study with funds from Mn/DOT, WisDOT, and La Crosse County, Wisconsin to figure out how much a second train would cost.  There's also a question about where the train should terminate in the Twin Cities: Saint Paul Union Depot?  The Minneapolis Interchange?  Should it go farther to St. Cloud?  How about one of the Northstar stations in between?

There wasn't any obvious discussion about the situation at Talgo in Milwaukee.  Talgo is a Spanish train manufacturer who moved in to an old automotive plant in the city a few years ago to build trains for Amtrak's service between Milwaukee and Chicago, and who could eventually build trains for the service to Minnesota.  The Wisconsin legislature recently blocked funding to build a maintenance facility for the new trains, which means that two nearly-complete trains may be put in storage once they're done.

At least one of the new trains had been expected to visit the Twin Cities by the end of June on a demonstration/endurance run, so it's not clear whether that will happen or not.  On Wednesday, Talgo announced that they will start laying off workers on June 3rd.  But then again, the recall election for Scott Walker is on June 5th.  Anyone have a crystal ball handy?


There wasn't any significant discussion of the Northstar Line that I recall, but there are a few things happening that I should mention anyway.

The Star Tribune recently reported that an extension to St. Cloud won't happen until the existing line reaches 4,500 daily passengers (it's only around 2,000 today).  A new station is being added in Ramsey which should bump up ridership by around 15%, but that's still a long way from what's needed to make the Northstar run the longer distance.  A 230-unit residential project will also start construction next to the station next week, and other cities are also working on transit-oriented development zones around their stations, so ridership should keep climbing modestly for a while.

Of course, the biggest complaint about Northstar is its frequency of service.  Mn/DOT said at an earlier Passenger Rail Forum meeting that they were submitting a TIGER 2012 grant request to the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking to do a grade-separation of tracks at Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids (just north of MN-610), which should help with that problem.  This project has been submitted before as an attempt to build a third main track in the area and add a station at the Foley Boulevard park-and-ride, which would increase capacity enough to run some more daily round-trips on the line.

However, TIGER grants have been very competitive.  The project failed to make the cut under the first round of TIGER grants a few years back.  I haven't been able to find a copy of what was submitted, so I don't know whether it was essentially the same as the old $99 million request or if it was smaller.  (The TIGER program for 2012 is only $500 million for the entire country, so a grant for 1/5th of that money would be unlikely.)

The new Ramsey station should open in November.

So, despite a funding stream that has been choked off quite a bit, there's a lot going on in terms of future passenger train service in the state.  It's hard to say whether it will all come to fruition, but there will definitely be a few new destinations popping up soon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April 1, 2012 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Imagery from the Google Streetview project to photograph along the Rhaetian Railway in Switzerland has now been made available. My only complaint is that it doesn't seem very easy to jump forward or backward along the line -- the route doesn't really appear when I drag the little Streetview man across a map... Still, it's pretty neat:

View Larger Map

Minnesota stuff:

A conversation over at Minnescraper brought up the fact that the first new Siemens light-rail vehicles for the Hiawatha Line will arrive by rail in Minneapolis in August with a second in September. After a few months of setup and training, the two should begin regular service in December. Two more LRVs are scheduled to arrive in December, and arrivals will ramp up after that with a few coming in each month until 2014. 59 have been ordered so far, with some going to the Hiawatha Line (Blue Line) and the others going to the Central Corridor (Green Line). 40 more can optionally be purchased—such orders would likely be pursued for the Southwest LRT (Green Line extension to Eden Prairie).

Nice Ride MN bike stations have begun to be deployed around Minneapolis and Saint Paul for the 2012 season. The bike system, which started in 2010 and expanded into western Saint Paul in 2011, is expected to expand into downtown Saint Paul in the May/June timeframe.

As mentioned in the previous edition, the Northstar station in Ramsey had a groundbreaking ceremony this past week.

National stuff:

Passenger service in the Chicago–St. Louis corridor will be disrupted in three bursts between April 16th to May 25th as tracks are upgraded for higher-speed travel. Lincoln Service riders will need to switch to buses if they travel southwest beyond Springfield, and Texas Eagle riders who wish to travel to destinations between Chicago and St. Louis will also have to take alternate bus transportation because the Eagle will be rerouted during construction periods.

It seems unlikely to me, but the Secret Service is considering halting freight and passenger rail service under the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago for a two-day NATO conference on May 20th and 21st.

The DesertXPress project to run high-speed trains from Victorville, California to Las Vegas, Nevada may soon get a $4.9 billion federal loan.

Streetsblog's Washington, D.C. edition had a rundown of several stories about the Florida East Coast Railway's announcement that they are planning to return to passenger service. The main question is, how do they plan to make back the roughly $1 billion they plan to invest? It seems likely that at least some money will come from real estate along the route, particularly FEC-owned land in downtown Miami. The Reason & Rail blog has had several articles on the subject of the FEC—One that piqued my interest discussed the level of ridership needed for the line to break even.