Minneapolis and St. Louis Park fought all summer over what to do about freight rail along the route of a future Southwest light rail line. Now, as a final vote nears, residents along Minneapolis' scenic Kenilworth Corridor say their basic safety questions remain unanswered.
The Metropolitan Council is likely to sign off next week on a plan to run light rail trains underground in a shallow tunnel through Kenilworth. The plan would keep freight rail traffic in the Kenilworth Corridor, rather than relocating it through St. Louis Park.
After battles over green space, noise and who promised what 17 years ago, neighbors along the corridor fear the proposal packs trains, bikes and people too close together and that officials, trying to meet a schedule, haven't looked hard enough at alternatives.
"If it's not deemed safe in St. Louis Park, how can it be deemed safe in Kenilworth?" asked Sacha Walser, member of the group LRT Done Right, who lives near Kenilworth and considers herself a member of both the Minneapolis and St. Louis Park communities. LRT Done Right is a group that opposes running both freight and light rail through Kenilworth.
Walser says concerns about freight train derailment in St. Louis Park weighed heavily in dismissing the St. Louis Park option, but was often overlooked in discussions about leaving the freight in Kenilworth.
"In the Kenilworth Corridor, the freight train runs one to two feet from the regional trail used by almost a million people a year," she said. "It runs just a few feet from our toddler playground, our family beach, and from homes. So I think the same safety concerns that they have in St. Louis Park are concerns that we share in Minneapolis."
Derailment is the biggest fear, although the only derailment in the Kenilworth Corridor was in 2010 and railroad officials say the problems have been fixed.
"We currently operate at 10 miles per hour in the Kenilworth Corridor, but we operate at 10 miles per hour by our choice," said Mark Wegner, president of the Twin Cities & Western Railroad, which operates the tracks there. "We could go 25 miles per hour by track design in that corridor; we choose to go 10 because of the proximity right there with the bike trail."
There are federal safety recommendations for setbacks or clearances --- the distance between a freight rail track and neighboring homes or trails. That number is 50 feet from the center of the tracks to what's on either side of the tracks. But in the "pinch point," the narrowest part of the corridor --- which is 1,600 feet from the Midtown Greenway Trail to Cedar Lake Parkway--- where the light rail is planned to run in shallow tunnels, that number is less than 50 feet.
From the center of the freight track to the bike and pedestrian trail, the distance is 22 feet. And from the center of the track to the townhomes, the distance varies from approximately 27 feet to as much as 45 feet, according to Laura Baenen, communications manager for the Metropolitan Council's Southwest LRT project office.
The distance is less than it typically would be because the Kenilworth rail road line was sold to Hennepin County in the 1980s, and townhomes and bike trails went up later. If a railroad company owned the tracks, they would typically "want to have" 50 feet on either side, said Wegner.
"That is to account for both track maintenance and also in the case of derailment," Wegner said. "And the Kenilworth Corridor is a lot more constricted than that."
The setbacks and liability issues concern Walser and Patty Schmitz, also a member of LRT Done Right.
"The trains are really close to the townhomes. And that was initially how our group got started," Schmitz said. She says she's accepted that "if it's such a big deal to relocate the freight, then don't relocate the freight. Just move the thing that you haven't built (the light rail.)"
Both said they and other Minneapolis residents purchased their homes under the assumption that freight was leaving someday, so they always thought safety along freight rail lines would only be a temporary concern.
But Schmitz said she recognizes that safety concerns around freight trains exist everywhere, not just in Minneapolis.
"The risk of derailment is everywhere," she said. "The folks of St. Louis Park, some of them think that we want to kill their children, and honestly, we're a bunch of moms. We're concerned about safety."
Another Minneapolis safety concern stems from the freight tracks crossing the intersection of Cedar Lake Parkway and Dean Parkway, near Cedar Lake Beach, Walser said. She described the scene as "mass chaos" when the trains leave.
"What happens right now is that when the trains pass...cars back up for about a mile around Cedar Lake. And that's fine, I understand cars back up everywhere," Walser said. "But once the train departs, you've got four arteries coming together of traffic, along with the regional bike trail, along with the pedestrian trail, and there's no way to know whose turn it is to go next. So everyone's sort of fighting over who gets to go."
She's concerned that if freight remains permanently, the safety risks will get worse. She said she's worried the trains will run as often as they want and haul whatever they want. With the city's growing population, congestion will only get worse, she said.
No one was hurt in the 2010 derailment in the Kenilworth Corridor. The cause was faulty tracks "prone to sudden fracture" because they were built in the 1920s, Wegner said, and have since been replaced. He said the tracks are now inspected on a weekly basis. Aside from the 2010 incident, there have been no mainline TC&W derailments since 1991, Wegner said.
TC&W services 35 to 40 shippers, Wegner said. He said those shippers who use the rail have the final say in whether freight is rerouted through St. Louis Park. The shippers' hauls range from agricultural products, to plastics and gravel products, to ethanol.
Hauling chemicals is what concerns neighbors most, Walser said.
City and county leaders as well as interest groups have said the railroad company has too much clout in the Southwest light rail debate. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been vocal about his frustration with the railroads, accusing them of being reluctant to explore other reroute options that would be less divisive than the option that would have run the trains on two-story berms through St. Louis Park.
"It became clear that the railroads were not interested in cooperating ... the nature of railroad rights and privileges in this country are such that in the absence of their cooperation, it's incredibly difficult to compel them to embrace different designs," McLaughlin said. "And with the safety concerns at the heightened level across the country because of the freight accident in Quebec, we're out of options. That's the problem, in terms of forcing the railroads to take a different freight relocation."
Wegner said he's not sure why the railroad is being accused of complicating the project.
"I really don't know where that would be coming from, because everybody's been really straightforward," Wegner said.
During the discussion over freight along Southwest, local leaders alleged that the railroad was only looking out for its economic efficiency. Wegner disagreed, but added that people overlook the railroad's contribution to the economic health of the region. Just a day before the advisory board's vote, TC&W released a report, from a study that began in February, about the economic impact its top 20 shippers have on the region. The report found the shippers generate more than $4 billion in combined annual sales and ship more than 37 percent of those goods through the TC&W line. That's $1.5 billion in sales of products using that line. study, (link)
"Nobody notices freight unless, one: they're stopped at a crossing, or, two: there's a derailment somewhere," Wegner said. "Other than that, we're kind of the silent backbone of the economy. So since we're never thought of unless you're either stopped at a crossing or because of a derailment, the only news you hear is about derailment."
While the changing railroad industry has longer trains and fewer stops, train safety statistics get better each year, Wegner said.
As the Southwest light rail project moves closer to the plan to keep freight in Kenilworth, Walser of LRT Done Right says she hopes leaders can find "a workable solution for everybody."
"This is Minnesota. We can do this," Walser said. "I know we can."