Around the horn


Back in my hometown, yesterday marked the first day of revenue service for the Northstar commuter rail line between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis.  This is Minneapolis’ first heavy rail commuter line, which will look for a quick expansion to the originally planned terminus of St. Cloud, MN.

Yonah Freemark offers his assessment at The Transport Politic.

The $320 million would have been better spent on promoting transit that can be used round-the-clock by people who have a choice not to use cars — something that’s made virtually impossible by the design of Northstar’s schedule and stations. With several other peak-period-only commuter lines under consideration, however, Metro Transit will likely spend more on projects such as this before it decides to pull back.

One note – that capital cost number also includes the money to extend the Hiawatha Light Rail line from the previous downtown terminus at the Warehouse District to the new terminus at the new Target Field.  When all is said and done, that will be a great transit hub for the city, and considering that the project’s cost includes this LRT extension, the numbers look more favorable.

Service can always be increased at later dates.  Given the line’s terminus at the Minnesota Twins’ new stadium, I’m sure we’ll see ballgame service in the relatively near future.  Commenters also note that Minneapolis has a much stronger downtown employment core than other cities with new, struggling commuter lines.

MinnPost‘s excellent article (as per usual) from Steve Berg also notes the history of rail in the area:

“As far as I can tell, the Twin Cities probably had the largest commuter rail network in the U.S. to totally disappear,” said Aaron Isaacs, Minnesota’s foremost railroad historian. During the peak of local railroading in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 15 commuter lines spread outward from the two downtowns, most of them from St. Paul’s Union Depot or Minneapolis’ Great Northern and Milwaukee Road stations. By the mid 1880s, three competing railroads offered trains over three different routes every hour between the two downtowns, Isaacs said, 74 trains in all.

Commuter trains also ran on a dozen suburban routes:

• From downtown St. Paul to White Bear Lake, Lake Elmo, Stillwater, St. Paul Park, South St. Paul, Inver Grove, North St. Paul, St. Anthony Park, New Brighton, Inver Grove and Taylors Falls.

• From downtown Minneapolis to Mendota, Wayzata, Hutchinson, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Excelsior, Edina, Savage, Lakeville and Northfield.

At one point, four companies competed for passengers between both downtowns and Lake Minnetonka. Special trains to the State Fair and Fourth of July celebrations were also offered.

By the 1890s, electrified interurban streetcars began displacing the steam-powered commuter trains. Still the trains lasted through World War I and into the late 1920s before the Great Depression spelled their demise. A few stragglers lingered into the 1940s, Isaacs said, notably the gas-electric powered Dan Patch trains between Minneapolis and Northfield and the Luce Line trains between Minneapolis, Wayzata and Hutchinson. But by 1948, commuter trains were all gone.

Welcome back to the fold, Minneapolis. With all that old right of way sitting around, there should be more commuter lines in your future.


The crown jewel of Denver’s ambitious FasTracks project will be a revitalized and repurposed Union Station.

Denver Union Station

Denver Union Station - Photo by Author

Recently, they’ve released the 60% design for the transit hub and redevelopment project.  A PDF of the presentation is available here.  The project will link LRT platforms and Commuter Rail platforms via a 2 block long underground tunnel that will also serve as the regional bus concourse.


General Development Plan

Transit Infrastructure

Transit Infrastructure

Transit Architecture

Transit Architecture

It’s a cool document, well worth a look to see what a city with a developing transit system (not just line-by-line on a piecemeal basis) is thinking of for a hub.

Los Angeles

Out in LA, they’ve opened up the Gold Line extension into East LA.  Jarrett Walker notes many of the line’s shortcomings, and how they’ll inevitably be blamed on the “planners.”  Why is this line not a subway?

Ah, those nasty cruel “transportation planners”!  Sorry, but the answer to “why” is not “the planners decided …” unless your main goal as a journalist is to instill feelings of ignorant helplessness in your readers. Planners and political leaders made these decisions for a reason, and that reason is the real answer to the question.

Us planners can never seem to do anything right in the minds of some, however, and Jarret put out another post talking about the nexus of planning ideals and political realities:

In the end, I completely understand the frustrations surrounding this project, and agree that it probably will not really begin to show results until it’s flows through downtown as part of the Regional Connector plan.  It may be that the political pressure to put some kind of rail transit into East Los Angeles led to a project that will turn out to be premature and inadequate.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rapid transit subway extension proposed into this same area, perhaps under Chavez, in the next few decades.

Still, understanding how difficult rail transit development is in Los Angeles, I do think MTA and their partners in city and county government deserve a few days of good feeling for having gotten something done.

Nothing’s ever easy. It’s worth remembering that. The warts of the two newly opened projects show that here.  Even Denver’s Union Station has had to scale things back, with FasTracks facing some financial problems and the Station’s plans scrapping underground Light Rail and Commuter Rail platforms in favor of cheaper alignments.

3 comments to Around the horn

  • David T

    I’m perhaps a bit late in commenting here, but I’ve just come across this blog, and I’m rather impressed. Thoughtful, well-sourced commentary!

    Anyway, I also am from the Twin Cities. In fact, I grew up in Coon Rapids, one of the cities with a new Northstar Rail Station (As an aside, there were supposed to be two stations in Coon Rapids, but one was cut because of cost; perhaps they’ll infill the second one later?), and now I live here in DC. I agree that the Twin Cities need to make their intraurban transit more robust, but the Northstar line is a very important step in the progression of transit in the region.

    The suburbs and exurbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a significantly large portion of the region’s (and for that matter, the state’s) population, and have developed and matured around an auto-centric paradigm. Politically, it is important to introduce useful, clean and efficient transit to these suburbs and exurbs, much in the same way that it was important to design the Washington Metro system around the suburban commuter in the ’70s and ’80s. This is not to say that the Northstar line is part of any sort of master-planned regional system, but I think it’s important to understand were the (perceived, if not actual) money and power is concentrated.

    Anecdotally, my parents (who still live in Coon Rapids) and their friends are *actually excited* about transit because of the new Northstar Trains. While not possible with the currently planned system, they think about someday taking a train to Downtown Minneapolis to see the Twins play or to take in a show at the Guthrie. To me, this is an amazing shift from their perspective in the ’90s, when they were still excited about the “big new I-94 into the city.”

    So this is more than I anticipated writing, but I hope that progressive critics of the system can understand what a milestone this commuter rail line is in the big picture of Twin Cities transit!

  • Alex Block

    Thanks for commenting. I, too, hope this opens doors for more people to think about transit. The Twin Cities have so many old rail corridors that re-instating commuter services should be a relatively easy investment, and might really help build a transit commuting culture.

  • […] Percent. Previously, I’ve looked at some details of transit plans elsewhere, and Denver’s FasTracks system, centering on a revamped Union […]

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