Dreaded ‘S-curves’ complicate freight paths for Southwest LRT


Light-rail planners have toiled over how to reroute freight traffic through St. Louis Park. This map shows various versions of possible freight relocation options. (Courtesy of the Southwest Project Office)

The colored spaghetti noodles on this map represent the many attempts light-rail planners have made to find a new freight path through St. Louis Park that is acceptable to the railroads.

Engineers with the Southwest LRT project have been busy, and they’re about to get busier. Sometime over the next two weeks, they’ll meet with a Colorado consulting firm to see if they can salvage any of the old routes and find a workable solution.

The route that Hennepin County initially envisioned in its draft environmental impact statement, seen in black, was thrown out after Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. strenuously objected to its tight curves and steep climbs. You can see how this line, as well as a slightly tweaked route (in blue), curve back and forth. It’s known as an “S-curve,” and it’s apparently bad news for trains.

Rail officials say if the train is making sharp turns to the left, then to the right, there’s a higher risk of derailment. Imagine pulling a chain on a table. The tail won’t follow the head. It’ll want to straighten out.

Metropolitan Council staff plan to ask the consultants to re-examine the following freight routes shown on the map:

  • “Brunswick central alignment” (green line), which is what light-rail planners have been mostly focused on in recent weeks. It runs near the Park Spanish Immersion School and through its playground. The current design places the trains on two-story-tall berms to satisfy the safety concerns of the railroad, but those forbidding walls of earth are worrisome to residents and parents concerned about derailment;
  • An at-grade version of Brunswick central;
  • “DEIS relocation design” (black line), which TC&W rejected;
  • “Modified MN&S” (blue line), which is similar to the DEIS but was also rejected by the railroad.

It remains to be seen whether any of these alternatives to the Brunswick central route will placate TC&W or Canadian Pacific, which essentially have veto power to block reroutes.

And it doesn’t look like the three additional routes will immediately curry favor with neighbors in St. Louis Park. That’s because they’re at grade and can disrupt traffic and pedestrian patterns, said Kevin Locke, the city’s community development director.

“We might not be fans of the berms with Brunswick Central, but at least the fact that it’s elevated means you cross over roads without blocking the roads,” he said.

Any attempts to reroute freight traffic from the Kenilworth corridor in Minneapolis will involve longer trains and more frequent trips than what currently passes through St. Louis Park today.