Passenger Rail to Northfield?


Dan Patch line map
Dan Patch Line (photo Northfield Historical Society)

Although freight trains move through Northfield daily, it’s been about 45 years since the last passenger train passenger trains stopped at the Northfield Depot. Now grassroots efforts to restore passenger rail from the Twin Cities to Northfield and points south are gathering steam.

Even talking about taking the train to Northfield has been difficult.  From 1910 until operations ceased in 1942, the Dan Patch line carried passengers from Minneapolis through Saint Louis Park, Edina, Savage and south. The tracks still carry freight trains, but the prospect of returning commuter rail to the backyards of suburban residents lead Edina legislators to write the Dan Patch Commuter Rail Prohibition into legislation passed in 2002 expressly prohibiting government agencies from studying or allocating any funds for the Dan Patch line.

Speaking out about rail planning

Inter-City Regional Passenger Rail Route Options form So Central MN through Northfield to the Twin Cities Metro_1_1 (1)
Not the Dan Patch Line: Inter-city regional passenger rail route options

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to repeal this gag order, so Northfield state legislator David Bly and grassroots organizers have employed a different strategy this time around: it’s not the Dan Patch line and it’s not commuter rail, it’s intercity regional passenger rail.

At this point, grassroots action is focused on building a coalition of communities along the proposed corridor supporting increasing the priority of this project from Tier II to Tier I when MnDOT updates its rail plan (mandated every 5 years). As part of this effort, the Northfield City Council and the Economic Development Authority both approved sending letters of support to MnDOT. The 2010 Rail Plan envisions an “intrastate intercity passenger rail network” on existing freight lines connecting regional centers to “the new Minneapolis downtown terminal” and Union Depot in Saint Paul.

Encouraging MnDOT to make this a higher priority would help build passenger rail back into the planning and finding a way around legislative impediments to discussing, studying and planning for transportation alternatives is a necessary start.  Comments are accepted until January 31, 2015; here’s the link to add yours.

Planning priorities

I learned to love trains as a college student outside Philadelphia and have had the good fortune to spend time in England and Europe where intercity trains and their links to other transit make a car unnecessary. Current efforts to relocate and restore the historic Northfield Depot could dovetail with the restoration of passenger trains; plans to make the Depot a transit hub (a project worthy of its own post) in Northfield add to the mix. Reliable train service from Northfield to The Cities would have changed my career choices, expanded school options for my daughter, altered some of my longer distance travel plans and made living in Northfield much richer.  Yes indeed, I would take the trains from Northfield to the Twin Cities. But much as I love trains, I want to see passenger rail integrated into a larger picture of the regional transportation puzzle.

Northfield, not quite metro: Northfield teeters on the edge of the metro with most of the city in non-metro Rice County and a small piece in metro Dakota County (which is not under the Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction). While almost in the metro with many workers heading north, we resist being the next Lakeville in character or development pattern. How should Northfield position itself in the rail (or any other state or regional transportation) planning?

Northfield, just off the map
Northfield, just off the map

Buses: Metro Transit bus projects like the Red and Orange Lines which reach or are planned to reach southern metro suburbs have been under development, since the last Rail Plan took effect (Northfield’s Metro Express is also an important but limited service which could be part of the mix) and MnDOT documents suggest these services could siphon significant rail demand.  Reliable bus service might be less aesthetically less pleasing to me, but would have worked to expand my Northfield horizons just as well as rail. Could Metro Transit and Northfield plan together?

Commuter or intercity rail? I fully appreciate the need to circumvent powerful political opposition to the Dan Patch commuter rail line and suspect funding falls into commuter pots and intercity pots of dollars, too.  But will most Northfield riders use rail service as daily, peak hour commuters (more like the Northstar Line) or occasional travelers on intercity lines (more like Amtrak)?  Bearing in mind that Dan Patch discussions took place under the commuter rail heading (with the Dan Patch line having higher ridership projections than the Northstar Line), how does useful information from that conversation feed into the intercity debate? Or do commuters take buses and other travelers get on the train (and is this part of the discussion)?

I’d love to be able to take the train from Northfield to the Twin Cities and beyond, but I’m more interested in a discussion considering all the options for regional transit including how state and Metro Transit discussions can occur to together.

[A version of this post also appears on streets.mn]

 


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