Railroad company not ready to give up track rights in St. Louis Park for light rail route
The freight rail company operating along a route slated for use by Southwest Light Rail Transit trains is threatening to withhold giving up its track rights along the line.
Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. officials outlined numerous objections to a planned reroute of the company’s freight rail trains in a response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.
“Under federal rules, TC&W must agree to relinquish its rights to its existing route in order for (Southwest LRT) to utilize that route as proposed,” a company position paper states. “Until an acceptable reroute design is adopted, we will not be able to do so.”
The company objects to what they term steep grades, sharp curves and insufficient clearances violate railroad engineering standards and could increase the risk of derailments and accidents. The reroute would create inefficiencies for the company and add costs for the company, such as increased maintenance due to higher wear as a result of the sharp curves and steep grades, according to the position paper.
Furthermore, the company argues the reroute would increase fuel consumption and lead to greater noise and vibration.
In a letter to Hennepin County last month, Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. President Mark Wegner said, “While the freight rail relocation recommended in the DEIS may seem as simple as removing a barn from the path of a new freeway, in reality the issue is much more complicated.”
The company’s trains can exceed 7,200 feet in length and 10,000 tons in weight, Wegner noted.
He also argued the reroute plans would violate acceptable engineering standards.
“If the freight rail line and its shippers object on the grounds that proposed changes have the potential to negatively impact the availability, safety, efficiency and cost of existing freight rail service, the federal government is likely to deny the proposed re-route,” Wegner wrote.
Changes could require the use of additional locomotives or otherwise decrease fuel efficiency, he said.
A major concern for TC&W is a grade change that trains would need to make from the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line emerging from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern line, where Twin Cities & Western trains would be rerouted.
When reached by phone, Wegner said Twin Cities & Western had hired an engineer to analyze the rail reroute plan. The analyst concluded the plan would violate standards created by The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, which Wegner described as “like the gospel of how you design a freight rail line.”
Trains currently using the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern line continue along a Canadian Pacific route into Golden Valley instead of merging onto the Burlingon Northern Santa Fe line, Wegner said. The trains currently using the Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern line are also much shorter, about 20 cars or fewer per train compared to between 80 and 123 cars per Twin Cities & Western train.
The hill that trains would have to navigate to switch tracks and the sharp curves could create pressures that could lead to a derailment, Wegner said. He compared the forces to a long chain that is being dragged in a straight line and then is suddenly shifted. The tail of the chain naturally seeks to curve toward the new location of the head of the chain instead of following the same path the head previously had followed.
Because Twin Cities & Western trains typically contain a mix of full and empty cars, Wegner said he feared the full cars would push the empty cars off the track when navigating the hill.
“The physics are such that it would be very easy for it to derail,” Wegner said.
The grade would also require significant horsepower to climb, leading to the use of more fuel and higher noise and vibration levels than the trains currently create, Wegner said.
The company’s response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement argues the document’s analysis of a alternative proposal to route freight and light rail trains alongside each other “is perfunctory and incomplete, as there has been no explanation of a substantial reason for rejecting co-location and no meaningful analysis of the costs.”
Additionally, the company’s response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement criticizes the reroute plan’s elimination of sidetracks the company uses for switching, storage and other uses and “assumes erroneously that TC&W will not continue to use the Skunk Hollow Wye to serve customers in Savage.”
St. Louis Park city leaders have long called for the elimination of the wye and switching operations in town, but Wegner said removal of the wye would eliminate a market for the company.
“That’s how we deliver grain down to Savage,” Wegner said.
He said a southerly connection could potentially be built that could solve the issue.
Relating to the sidetracks, Wegner explained the company often stores cars on the tracks when they have more deliveries during the harvest season than the marketplace can immediately handle.
“All that would disappear,” Wegner said. “What we’re saying is you have to replace those sidetracks somewhere.”
The company’s formal response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement states Twin Cities & Western supports the Southwest Light Rail Transit project “so long as it is implemented in a way that preserves our ability to provide our customers with safe and efficient service at the same costs they now pay.”
The response states the company would accept either co-location or a reroute if plans met its standards but emphasizes the current re-route proposal “would impose significant negative impacts on Twin Cities & Western Railroad” as well as “adversely affect residents of St. Louis Park.”
Both Twin Cities & Western and Canadian Pacific have raised concerns about the reroute plan previously, according to the Twin Cities & Western response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
Wegner said company officials are anxious to discuss their concerns with engineers working for the Metropolitan Council.
“We just have to come up with a way that it works for both fright rail and Southwest LRT,” Wegner said.
Asked whether he thought light rail planners had ignored his company’s concerns, Wegner said, “They have a process that quite frankly I don’t understand, but I didn’t interpret it that they weren’t being responsive.”
The Metropolitan Council recently hired preliminary engineering consultants to examine issues raised in responses to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, said Laura Baenen, communications manager for light rail projects with the Met Council.
“The purpose of preliminary engineering is to resolve design challenges and technical issues raised by the DEIS and the comments on it, including comments made by Twin Cities & Western,” Baenen said.
“Preliminary engineering will help the Met Council decide whether to build the Southwest LRT line next to existing freight rail traffic or relocate the freight rail traffic, as well as exactly where to build stations, where to locate park and rides and an operation and maintenance facility and whether to design crossings at grade or build bridges or tunnels for the LRT tracks.”
Safety in the Park, a group of St. Louis Park residents opposed to the freight rail reroute, released a statement regarding Twin Cities & Western comments.
“Overall, we are pleased that perhaps the most authoritative source for evaluating the county’s plan, the railroad, affirms what Safety in the Park has been messaging for three years,” reads the statement by Jami LaPray and Thom Miller, co-chairs of Safety in the Park. “The TC&W railroad states that the county’s plan poses ‘severe safety risks,’ generates ‘intense train noise,’ assumes ‘erroneously that TC&W will not continue to use the Skunk Hollow switching wye’ and creates ‘risks of derailments and crossing accidents.’”
The Safety in the Park statement went on to suggest the Met Council “throw out the re-route plan” and plan to either co-locate freight and light rail trains together or route the light rail trains through Uptown Minneapolis “where mass transit can truly be useful.”
The statement concludes by calling foolhardy the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on preliminary engineering for the reroute.
Contact Seth Rowe at email@example.com