Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A train to Arden Hills? How about several

View Arden Hills simplest options in a larger map

Ramsey County and the Vikings have taken another step toward building a new stadium on the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site. I'm not in favor of building there, since I think the Metrodome site would be superior—and I'd really rather that the Vikes simply remodel the Dome. An Arden Hills stadium would probably cost around $1 billion—probably not including $100 to $200 million for upgraded road infrastructure to handle the pulse of traffic to and from each game. [Edit: The Star Tribune says $175 million for roads to the stadium itself, rising up to $240 million for a stadium plus nearby development.] That's not an insubstantial amount of money, so I thought I'd see what might be possible by using the Twin Cities rail network to offer transit service to the games.

The site does have a single-track line leading into it, owned by the Minnesota Commercial Railway. The line is pretty quiet, only seeing about two trains per day, and the track only supports speeds up to 10 mph at the moment. The main line leads south, parallel to I-35W and MN-280, for about 8 miles until reaching St. Anthony junction.

There are also a few branches off of that main line. The northernmost branch is also owned by the Minnesota Commercial, and runs westward to Fridley. Over there, it gets within about 1 mile of the BNSF line where the Empire Builder and Metro Transit's Northstar commuter trains run each day. I imagine that the line used to connect, but the most obvious connection point seems to have gotten built up. However, there appears to be open land just a block to the south, so a connection could be built there.

Farther south, the line intersects an east-west Canadian Pacific Railway line, which connects to BNSF's Northtown Yard in the west, and in the east runs over to Shoreview/Vadnais Heights, where the CP turns south and heads toward downtown St. Paul, although there is also a Canadian National line running farther east into Wisconsin. This line sees about 10 trains per day. It could host Northstar trains coming in either from the north or south, though it might require some tricky movements through CP's Shoreham intermodal yard.

The Minnesota Commercial continues southward until the vicinity of Energy Park Drive, where it reaches BNSF's two main lines between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. That's very close to Amtrak's current Midway station, and is where the Empire Builder runs each day. It's also very close to the University of Minnesota Transitway, and near where the Central Corridor will soon be running. Instead of turning to the east at the southern end, a train could instead turn west and terminate near TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which could make the line dual-use for both Gopher fans on Saturdays and Vikings fans on Sundays. However, doing that maneuver would require looping around the Union Yard, which could be a complex and expensive operation.

I even pondered the idea of doing a "tram-train" operation, like San Diego's Sprinter, where a light-rail-sized diesel multiple-unit (DMU) train could run along the Central Corridor and diverge when it hit the UMN Transitway, then do a flyover to get past the heavy rail operations at Union Yard, and then run on heavy rail tracks. Unfortunately, I think doing this would require blocking off heavy rail access whenever it was in operation, which would preclude the option of running commuter-style trains from any other directions, so it might not be a great idea. This would also require new rolling stock, which would raise the cost (particularly if it was a one-off). Most of the Northstar fleet sits idle on the weekends, so I'd much rather see that get reused.

I ran some numbers based on figures from the Minnesota State Rail Plan, and I think it would be possible to fix up all of those routes I mentioned for about $100 million. Here's the summary from my spreadsheet:

Sans capacity rightsCapacity rights onlyTotal
Arden Hills to St. Anthony junction (MNNR)$16,402,866$4,000,000$20,402,866
Fridley to Rush Lake (MNNR)$12,011,138$4,000,000$16,011,138
New Brighton to St. Paul (CP)$27,348,096$17,000,000$44,348,096
Northtown to New Brighton (CP)$11,449,238$8,500,000$19,949,238

There are a few big questions: What would capacity rights cost? (I used a really, really rough estimation). Would more grade crossings need to be upgraded with better signals? (I only included the cost of one where new track would be laid). What would be the impact of building additional stations? (I didn't really try covering that cost at all). How about improvements to BNSF's main lines where the Northstar and Empire Builder run? (I ignored it for now).

I did build in a 30% general contingency to the total costs (10% engineering plus 20% other), so hopefully that would cover the costs of most of those. Of course, I'm comparing this stuff to a range of road costs that could go up to $200 million or more, so there might be room for additional dollars. I figure I went a bit overboard with the capacity numbers, so the costs I built in should allow relatively high frequencies, such as 5 round-trips per day or more, which could carry a lot of people to a game (in comparison, the Northstar can usually only do one or two round-trips for games at the Metrodome).

While the most sensible solution would probably just be to run buses, I think my calculations show a great deal of promise for upgrading the Twin Cities rail network to improve connectivity to the Arden Hills Vikings stadium site. For the $100 to $200 million projected for highway expansion, a handful of short commuter rail lines could be constructed. These could benefit both downtowns and the Midway area during the week, as well as other stadiums in the downtowns and at the University of Minnesota on game days.


  1. It seems silly and expensive to expand and/or build a line out to the Arden Hills site for 8 to 10 days a year - especially considering two sites are available that have existing access to transit. We need to concentrate more on getting the most out of our current infrastructure as opposed to taking the unsustainable approach of creating new infrastructure that will be hardly used on non-game days.

  2. Part of the idea was that it could also be used in the opposite direction for Gopher games at TCF Bank Stadium and potentially other sports activities in the Stadium Village area, plus other events in the downtowns. If Zygi Wilf went on to develop housing on the Arden Hills site, they'd probably see the most benefit from new lines.

    Stadiums get used for a variety of things, so I figure there'd be justification for using it more than just a few times.

    Yes, it's money that could be used elsewhere, but I figure that arguments against building transit to the site also support the idea that the Arden Hills site is a poor location for a stadium anyway.

  3. A 'tram-train' as you call it, is not allowed on freight lines in North America. Although it would be the best option for those distances, it is not feasible. (The locomotives that the Northstar line uses are overkill for the job they are asked to do.) The rail lines are also in very poor condition because the freight companies see no need in keeping them up. They are just running box cars over them. The Arden Hills site is much better suited for industrial development than a stadium. In fact a stadium way out there is just ludicrous.

    A much better use of the money you are looking at would be connecting the two downtowns. That way all commuter trains could serve Mpls and StP. The best way to start that is by making an extension from the St Anthony yards to the University behind TCF. Then the current Northstar line could serve the U, the Gopher games (football, b-ball and hockey) and Vikings games should they end up playing there temporarily. It would also connect with the LRT line and the U buses. It would require less than 2 miles of tracks. If the Met Council built their own right of way (there is plenty of room), they wouldn't have to worry about capacity rights. That would end up paying for itself in just a few years, judging by the numbers you have above. (Why railroad is private is beyond me.)