Railroad exec objects to plan for rerouting freight trains for Southwest LRT

The following article by Pat Doyle was published in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Star Tribune:

Railroad exec objects to plan for rerouting freight trains for Southwest LRT


President of the Twin Cities & Western sees some safety hazards.

A railroad president told metro leaders Wednesday he objects to a new plan for rerouting his freight trains to make room for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line.

“Is there a way to tweak it to make it work?” asked Mark Wegner, president of Twin Cities & Western Railroad. “I don’t know the answer.”

Wegner made his comments at a meeting of mayors and county commissioners who have played a key role in decisions on the proposed Southwest Corridor, a $1.5 billion, 16-mile line from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis that would be the Twin Cities’ biggest light-rail project.

Planning for the line has been hung up by what to do with freight trains that also use the corridor, and previous ideas have pitted opponents in Minneapolis against those in St. Louis Park. The railroad’s stance is important because it carries clout in any decision by the federal government on whether to approve rerouting its freight.

Wegner said a preliminary look at the latest plan to redirect freight from the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis to St. Louis Park shows that it shares some of the elements of rejected options, citing curves and changes in elevation that he said pose safety hazards.

Some metro leaders also voiced concerns about the new plan. Hopkins City Council Member Cheryl Youakim questioned the potential for “stacking” or delay of freight trains in her community resulting from the reroute.

But the city of Minneapolis stressed that the new reroute option would improve safety over the existing freight line by reducing track crossings for motor vehicles.

Minneapolis also points out that the reroute is expected to cost less than the $160 million estimated to dig two tunnels for the light-rail line to run if freight trains are kept in the Kenilworth corridor.

St. Louis Park officials, who have opposed other freight reroute plans, counter that the light rail and freight tracks could coexist less expensively in the corridor without the tunnels.

The cost of the latest freight reroute plan is unclear. TranSystems of Kansas City, a consulting firm that devised the plan, last week estimated the cost at $105 million but Wednesday revised it to $112 million — plus the unknown expense of acquiring seven homes and seven businesses in St. Louis Park.

The advisory panel of metro leaders will wait for more details about the plan before taking action on comments in early March. The Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project, would later vote on a Southwest plan and send it to cities along the light-rail route for their consent.

Pros and cons

Wegner said a TC&W engineer took issue with elements of the plan Tuesday night but is taking a more in-depth look. Wegner acknowledged that the new plan has alleviated some changing grades and increased distances between curves. But he said it would still pose a risk of derailment for modern trains with 110 cars that stretch and bunch up in and out of curves and up and down elevations.

He also said that the new plan and previous reroute options would sometimes run TC&W loads uphill rather than downhill as they run today.

The latest plan was designed after opposition last year to a Met Council proposal that involved putting the freight trains on two-story berms in St. Louis Park. Mark Fuhrmann, in charge of transit development for the Met Council, said the agency didn’t propose the TranSystems route because it was somewhat similar to one already rejected by TC&W.

But TranSystems principal Jim Terry, who helped design the new plan, defended it as meeting national railroad safety standards. “The rail industry has curves like this,” he said Wednesday.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland said the new plan is promising and merited further study.