The proposal for a passenger rail line between Northfield and the Twin Cities is curently up for debate and in need of public support if it is to make the leap from the drawing board to reality. Minnesota State Representative from District 20B, David Bly, has been a long and relentless proponent for the rail that would help connect Northfield and the Twin Cities.
In the 1930s there was a commuter train between Northfield and Minneapolis called the Dan Patch line. Unfortunate timing played a role in the train’s reputation as a “complete economic failure” – the project was carried out in the midst of the Great Depression. The dire state of the economy, combined with high operating costs and competition from highways contributed to the project’s infeasibility.
“They actually made a celebration of burning the trains,” Bly said, describing the period after the rail line was decommissioned.
Around 2000, a commuter rail system from Northfield to Minneapolis based on the Dan Patch Line was proposed. Although the project received some support, a similar rail system linking St. Cloud to Minneapolis received funding instead.
Meanwhile, state legislators received pressure from residents along the area of the Dan Patch Line to stop any proposal of a rail system. This pressure culminated in the Dan Patch Gag Rule, passed by the state legislature in 2002, which prohibited the “study, planning, preliminary engineering, final design, or construction [of] a commuter rail line between Northfield and Minneapolis.”
Legislation aside, there are several advantages of a passenger rail line connecting Northfield to the Twin Cities. The project could ease congestion on interstate 35, and as commuters choose the train over individual cars, the rail line could have a positive environmental impact.
“Another thing that I think becomes more and more important to people today is climate change, to deal with so many cars on the road, in comparison with a train that could be electric,” Bly said.
A campaign to use state funds to research the benefits of the rail line has experienced opposition in the legislature, however.
“Senator Dahle did get the measure passed to the senators,” Bly said “but the man who put the gag order in place in the first place is still in the House, and I am having trouble getting by it.”
Not all hope is lost, however. A new project was recently proposed called the Statewide Passenger Rail Plan. The proposed system, based on the Dan Patch Line, would connect Northfield and the Twin Cities through existing rail lines and the Amtrak system, a network of railroads that stretches across the nation.
“We would have the ability for people to get on a train in Minnesota and ride that train all the way down to Dallas and make connections to trains that can take you to San Francisco, Los Angeles, to New York City, so that you have much more flexibility,” Bly said. “The [transit] authority told me that they could manage to upgrade the rail to go 80 to 90 miles per hour.”
Proponents of the rail system have cause to be optimistic. The federal rail authority is considering moving the project up its budget, while St. Paul’s legislators have voiced their interest in seeing the rail line become a reality. Together, these developments give the project a real chance of being included in the state’s budget, which is experiencing an 800 million dollar surplus.
Supporters of Statewide Passenger Rail Plan are hoping that the 20 million dollar preliminary study for the line could use the state surplus for funding.
“The fact that [the state] is in the black instead of in the red makes it easier to talk about and argue for some money,” Bly said. “You have to have a study in order to do the work. When the study is done, the funding will be more likely to happen.”
The rail line’s campaign encourages student involvement. Those who are interested in learning more about the project are encouraged to visit mnrail.org.