The Twin Cities has a long and rich history as a railroad center. For roughly a century it was home base to railroads as diverse as James J. Hill’s vast Great Northern and Northern Pacific systems and the Midwestern railroad known as the Soo Line. But that was then. The largest railroad based in Minnesota today is the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company (TC&W), a determined 361-mile short line based in Glencoe. Yet its biggest impact is felt in the Twin Cities, where it owns no track, but has some very big problems.
Forged in an era when railroads were reeling, and born from arguably the greatest hard-luck railroad in American history, TC&W has thrived since its founding nearly 22 years ago. Its successful rebirth with a 19th-century business model is clashing with plans for 21st-century urban development in a controversy that will dictate the outcome of the largest public works project the state has ever embarked on: the $1.2 billion-dollar Southwest Light Rail Corridor from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Small-Town Railroad, Big City Problems
TC&W is a thriving short line, regarded as one of the nation’s best-run, carrying primarily agricultural products toward the Mississippi River or the West Coast. Its quiet rural rails parallel U.S. 212 through much of the central and western portions of the state, its ragtag group of diesel engines work local grain elevators and ethanol plants, passing abandoned depots and listing telephone poles.
TC&W’s rails start in the southwest suburbs, so it operates into the Twin Cities on trackage rights granted by other rail owners; it uses the track to interchange with Mississippi River barges, the BNSF, Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific, and Canadian National railways—the carriers for all its commodities arriving or departing from the East and South. TC&W operates 38 trains per week carrying dozens of freight cars each on this route, interchanging them in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
For years the railroad used the route through what is now the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis—passing north of Lake Calhoun before traveling south of Highway 7 into Minnetonka, where its proprietary rails begin. But in the 1990s, it became clear that Hiawatha Avenue (later LRT) reconstruction was going to sever TC&W’s route between St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Rather than build a costly bridge or tunnel, the Minnesota Department of Transportation asked Hennepin County to help find a solution so TC&W could continue west. It was no problem getting the railroad through downtown Minneapolis. From there, the county considered two options. One used a Canadian Pacific-owned freight spur called the MN&S, which parallels Highway 100 to the west. The other was a little-used stretch of right of way known as the Kenilworth Corridor.
The MN&S route required modifications over land that had environmental contamination. The issue proved too complex to overcome and TC&W was instead given the Kenilworth route: TC&W would travel west of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails and then jog south on the Kenilworth line that divides Cedar Lake from Minneapolis’ Kenwood neighborhood. It connects with TC&W’s old route just north of Lake Calhoun.
Kenilworth was, for most of the 20th century, a rail corridor and freight yard belonging to the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (it gave St. Louis Park its name), but its successor, the Chicago & North Western, abandoned it, and the right of way was “banked” by Hennepin County for future transit.
When TC&W agreed to move to Kenilworth, according to Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who represents the area in question, it was with the understanding that the route was a temporary home. Dorfman offers a TC&W-authored document from 1993 or ’94 (unsigned and not on company letterhead) that states that the railroad preferred the MN&S route and estimated roughly a million dollars in expense to make it workable.
TC&W’s President Mark Wegner, who has been with the railroad since its inception in 1991, has seen the document, but doesn’t regard it as binding, either in its cost estimates or feasibility. “It was written in the context of TC&W’s original business plan,” says Wegner. “It did not have any engineering analysis, so I suspect the author was looking at a map versus surveying the actual landscape. I take this document as wishful thinking versus an actual plan.”
Ultimately, nothing was done, and TC&W remained in Kenilworth.
Meanwhile, Kenilworth had for decades been the preferred route for the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) corridor, which was affirmed recently after a years-long alternatives analysis. Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Kenilworth objected vociferously to light rail, but as its inevitability became clearer, a consensus developed between citizens and public officials: LRT would come, but the TC&W had to go. Having freight and passenger trains (an idea known to planners as “co-location”) running on separate parallel tracks through bucolic lakeside neighborhoods was unacceptable.
BNSF Railway, the largest operator of rail-miles in the Upper Midwest and northern Plains, the merged successor of the Hill Lines and Santa Fe Railway.
Canadian Pacific, operator of much of the ex-Soo Line and Milwaukee Road trackage in the Midwest.
The 2011 MNDoT-produced analysis of the TC&W reroute.
Federal Transit Administration, the federal agency that funds and regulates new public transit projects.
Traditional clickety-clack-style train track connected by joints every few dozen feet. Modern rail is welded together in far longer stretches.
The Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern, a now-Canadian Pacific-owned rail spur west of Highway 100 designated as the new route of TC&W freights through St. Louis Park.
Side tracks that allow single-track railroads to allow multi-directional train movements.
Right of Way
The narrow swaths of land railroads use for their track.
The contractual arrangement by which one railroad uses another railroad’s track for ongoing operations.
Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates freight railroad operations.
Southwest Light Rail Transit, also known as the Green Line extension, that will operate from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Enter the Reroute
In the decades after World War II, thousands of miles of thinly used branch line railroad was pulled up all over America, including in the Twin Cities. Were it 1958, there would have been several alternative routes for the TC&W to consider to Kenilworth. But in 2008, when SWLRT planning began in earnest, the options were few, and all centered on the problematic MN&S.
The goal is that TC&W head west as it does now out of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails, but rather than turning southwest into Kenilworth, it would continue past Highway 100 to join the MN&S, heading south through St. Louis Park to rejoin its current route near Louisiana Avenue and Highway 7.
Problem is, the MN&S, which in 1993 looked to TC&W like a long-term solution for a modest amount of additional spending, is now perceived as unworkable by the railroad. The cost of remaking it to fit TC&W’s operations has ballooned from an optimistic $1 million to $70 million or more, and the railroad and others say it presents engineering challenges that may not be solvable within the budgets of the SWLRT project.
The line also passes alongside St. Louis Park High School and very close to several dozen homes and businesses. Because MN&S was built after St. Louis Park was platted, its right of way is atypically narrow. It hosts two short freight trains (6 to ten cars) each weekday, requiring an extra engine to deal with the undulating grade.
With those issues in mind, the city of St. Louis Park joined forces with a band of residents calling themselves Safety in the Park, formed to oppose the reroute, to file a lawsuit. The result: The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is to fund half of SWLRT, ordered the region in 2011 to resolve the TC&W reroute as part of the preliminary engineering process.
TC&W enjoyed a long and amiable relationship with its rail landlord, Hennepin County, and the railroad says it expected its concerns to be addressed not long after it delineated them in response to a 2011 Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) of the reroute, but two years later, no progress has been made and TC&W has become the loudest opponent.
It’s a story packed with political intrigue, “no comments,” and assurances of “no problem.” But nobody in the know can figure out what to do with the railroad that seems poised to become a back-breaker in what Hennepin County rail official Katie Walker calls “the largest public infrastructure project the state has ever completed. The stakes are huge.”
That is probably the only thing Hennepin County and TC&W agree on.
‘No Sweat’ or ‘No Way’?
In December, the railroad filed its most emphatic objections yet to the SWLRT reroute. Wegner says the MN&S reroute is “a design we intuitively know is bad.” It has “significant risks of derailment” at both endpoints.
In a nutshell, the MN&S, and the proposed connections to it, are engineered for the small CP freight trains that currently use it, not the 100-car trains TC&W runs. The railroad is wary of the undulating MN&S grades, curvature, and proximity to St. Louis Park High School for their potential to insert costly inefficiencies into its operations.
“We have no issue with Southwest Light Rail,” insists Wegner. “But we need to get to St. Paul with the same cost structure as today.”
St. Louis Park officials, concerned about the impacts of the reroute, concur with TC&W. “A lot of the reroute is unfeasible,” says Mayor Jeff Jacobs. He maintains that as currently drawn, the reroute will require expensive noise and vibration mitigation, and the likely removal of 30 to 40 homes. But he says a realistic plan that also functions for 100-car freights will require more expense than the $70 million or so estimated for it, plus removal of additional buildings. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [the reroute] get to $100 million or above.”
County officials seem rather blasé about these objections, and are quick to point to documents from both St. Louis Park and the railroad accepting the inevitability of the reroute many years ago. They don’t seem particularly vexed by the engineering problems and may regard the posturing as a kind of jockeying for position in the hierarchy of complainants.
A Rock and a Hard Place
In January, authority for SWLRT passed from Hennepin County to the Metropolitan Council, which will execute final design and build the line. Council officials refuse to comment on the TC&W reroute until a working group formed to study it completes its work later in the year. But principals within the project say Met Council officials are well-versed in its problems, if none too pleased to be dealing with them.
“There was an agreement that Hennepin County would settle this by last year,” says a source within the Met Council. Instead, says the source, the county passed the hot potato.
A spokesperson for Mark Fuhrmann, Met Council program director for rail projects, says only that the council will evaluate the two route alternatives for TC&W and offer a solution in late summer. If you’re wondering what the two alternatives are, so is the city of Minneapolis.
The co-location option is “decisively cheaper,” says Dave McKenzie, an engineer with SEH, an engineering and planning firm that conducted an analysis of the freight reroute for St. Louis Park. But that has long been the forbidden logistical fruit for the city of Minneapolis. It would place freight and LRT trains adjacent to one another in a park-like setting and likely require the removal of Cedar Lake Shores, a 57-unit townhome development along the Kenilworth right of way.
So even though Hennepin County officials and the Met Council continue to talk of “two” routes, the city of Minneapolis does not, and the city must give its municipal consent before the FTA will fund SWLRT. This appears unlikely: “Hell will freeze over before the City will agree to co-location,” says City Councilmember Lisa Goodman, who represents the Kenilworth area. “I’ve been assured there are not the votes on the City Council to approve it.” (A municipal election is scheduled for November, and the makeup of the Council could change in January.)
Which brings us back to the MN&S. There are few disinterested voices in the debate. SEH does business with all sides, but McKenzie, who authored St. Louis Park’s study, is unequivocal about the realities. “The reroute is not consistent with current mainline track engineering standards,” he says.
TC&W founded July 27
Acquires Savage Bridge over Minnesota River
Moves Minneapolis operations to Kenilworth Corridor
Minnesota Prairie Line begins operation
Railway Age Short Line of the Year
Grain shuttle-train elevators open
Acquires Sisseton Milbank Railroad (South Dakota)
(As a point of validation, the FTA specifically noted in its 2011 authorization for preliminary engineering that a flyover bridge sketched out for Canadian Pacific freights had “sharp curvature, steep grades, and insufficient clearances.” Several observers have questioned whether planning consultants and engineers had sufficient background in freight operations to analyze their feasibility.)
Route opponents complain that key documents are missing information about grades and contain other omissions or errors of engineering. They wonder if the county was trying to finesse the issue until it could turn it over to the Met Council.
“There is an engineering solution,” insists County Commissioner Dorfman. “Numerous agencies have been studying this for nearly 20 years.”
But McKenzie isn’t sure. “It’s very hard to solve because you’re so confined. An Xcel Energy substation is in the way. Other buildings may need to be removed. There are wetland and contamination issues . . . . The alignment proposed in the EAW [2011 plan] is not practical for mainline use.”
McKenzie suggests public officials are facing self-inflicted injury: “I wish the freight railroad issues had been addressed during the alternatives analysis.” The implication is that had they, the MN&S might never have been deemed viable.
Hennepin County says reroute objectors are jumping to unwarranted conclusions. “We took it to a 1 to 2 percent stage of engineering,” says Katie Walker, who led SWLRT planning for the county. “Because you’re at such an early stage of engineering, it’s tough to draw super-definitive conclusions like that.”
She does acknowledge that the county failed to advance the engineering work after the FTA order, but insists FTA instructed the Met Council, not Hennepin County, to do the analysis.