Driving Trip - March 18-20, 2015

Note: click on the thumbnails for a larger image

A few years ago I accompanied my wife to Minneapolis for a few days. Neither of us had been there before so I figured it would be interesting to check out the area. For her, checking out the area meant attending a conference while I got to truly explore the area. This year the music organization she is involved with once again had their annual conference in Minneapolis. This narrative documents the highlights of my travels around the area. It is not 100% about trains so it may actually appeal to a broader audience (though not likely).

Thursday March 18, 2015

Thursday was the day with the least amount of time to myself. The weather was overcast but not too chilly which made for tolerable walking weather. Given my limited time I had to make the most of it.

My first goal was to go to the University of Minnesota and try to get photos of the inside of Williams Arena. Affectionately known as "The Barn", it is one of the more unique basketball venues in the country. I am a college basketball junkie and like seeing the old built-for-basketball arenas. They have more character than today's multipurpose facilities and the fans are usually much closer to the floor. Williams Arena has a raised floor which adds to its uniqueness.

I drove by the arena and noticed a lot more activity than usual. So I fed a parking meter and walked to the facility to find out that the state high school girls tournament was going on. The price of admission was $14 and with only 30 minutes of time to spare I didn't think it was worth it so I left The Barn (at least I can say I've been to the ticket office, though I should have just spent the money). Here's a photo of the arena from when I was there in 2011.

Williams Arena

Right next to the arena is a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant which looks to have been a fire house at one time. Some neat architecture in this building. Here's a photo of the side with the markings indicating the building's history.
BW3 Minneapolis

I walked across the street to TCF Bank Stadium, home of the football Golden Gophers and the temporary home for the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings will move into their new home in 2016 (more on this later). TCF Bank Stadium looks large and small at the same time, depending on the view. Here are some photos of the stadium.
TCF Bank Stadium
East side of TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN
TCF Bank Stadium
Looking through the gate gives this view of the stadium
TCF Bank Stadium
Here's another view through the gate. Note how much lower the field is below the plaza level

With just a little time left before I had to go pick up my wife at her conference, I drove to the north end of campus where a footbridge crosses a BNSF rail line. Of course nothing was coming (just my luck), but the scene is still kind of neat with the Bunge elevator to the west and multiple tracks to the east which fan out to serve a couple other grain elevators. Looks like BNSF is in the process of removing some trackage. Note that the bridge in the foreground in the first photo is capable of supporting nine tracks!

Minneapolis, MNMinneapolis, MN

I then retreated back to the car to resume my listening of the NCAA tournament on the radio and to pick up my wife.

Friday 3/19/2015

For Friday I had about eight hours to myself. Wanting to see some mainline rail action I decided to follow the BNSF Staples Subdivision north to St. Cloud, then follow a partially active line southwest, then finally follow a CP line back east to Minneapolis. Under normal driving conditions the trip could be done in less than four hours and I generally double the time to get to how long it would take for me to travel the route.

On the way up to picked up the BNSF line just north of town I crossed an industrial track which had this crossing signal protection. I believe this is a modified wig-wag signal (minus the wig-wag).

A little farther north from here is a large BNSF yard where several lines come together. After researching the maps for today's trip and then seeing this yard and others around town, I completely underestimated the amount of rail activity still in place in Minneapolis and am amazed at how much more there was years ago. I always pictured Minneapolis rail-wise as some division point but never thought of it as a rail hub of sorts. The Minnesota Rail Map which can be found at http://www.dot.state.mn.us/ofrw/maps/MNRailMap.pdf  illustrates this very nicely. Minnesota rail-wise is kind of the inverse of Ohio in that Minnesota has more lines in the south and less in the north, while Ohio is the opposite.

A brief drive by the yard yielded nothing but photos of it in my mind. I do recall seeing a lot of power which looked to be in storage including several BNSF SD75Ms still in Santa Fe Warbonnet paint. Several oil or ethanol tank trains were in the yard awaiting crews for the next leg of their journey. The hump was busy humping cars as well.

I then began to follow the BNSF Staples Subdivision (ex-Great Northern) north out of town. Someone took the trouble to make a nice Wikipedia page on the line at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staples_Subdivision . Relying on the GPS, it showed several road crossings along the way which I occasionally crossed. One thing I noticed was that almost every crossing was a "silent crossing" with no train horn allowed. All crossings either had four quadrant gates or two gates with a median to prevent people driving around the gates. I found this surprising considering the volume of traffic on this line and the maximum speed allowed.

I thought I would get out of traffic congestion sooner than I did and in the process of getting out of town missed at least two inbound trains and one outbound train that had CSX power on the head end (yet again - I go out of CSX territory and sure enough the first train I see has CSX power). North of Ankola, state route 10 parallels the line very closely in most spots making this an easy line to check out. At Ramsey, I got off of Rt. 10 to check out the Northstar commuter station and was lucky enough to see this local heading back toward Minneapolis. Nice to see 4-axle power on a local!

Ramsey, MN transit center
Here's a view of the Ramsey transit center serving the Northstar commuter train
BNSF local at Ramsey, MN
BNSF local at Ramsey, MN heads toward Minneapolis

A little farther north I stopped at the Elk River Northstar commuter station to check out the platform.

Elk River, MN passenger platform
Elk River, MN Northstar rail platform looking toward Minneapolis
TCF Bank Stadium
Elk River, MN Northstar rail platform looking toward St. Cloud
This sign warns pedestrians of high speed trains. Should this instead read "higher speed trains?"

I got back on Rt. 10 and heard the defect detector go off for a location about five miles east of where I was. So I pulled off the road into a conveniently placed parking lot and saw this train. Once again, I'm in Minnesota, I expect to see BNSF power, yet instead I see NS power.

BNSF train at Elk River, MN
Here comes a NS, er, BNSF train around the curve at Elk River, MN
Train at Elk River, MN
The right of way here looks like it may have supported a center siding at one time
Train at Elk River, MN
Apparently this train warrants two buffer cars on the head end

An interesting things about this line is that it has three stretches of single track which are governed by track warrant control (TWC) verbal instructions versus CTC signals. For such a busy stretch of track I figured TWC would be a thing of the past. There are signals on these pieces of trackage but they would be ABS and only give indications for the track ahead. Maybe this is something BNSF will upgrade at some point. I'm sure Warren Buffett could afford to throw a few dollars at it.

I was approaching one of the stretches of single track and heard the dispatcher giving track warrants and it sounded as if a meet was taking place. So I found an out-of-the-way road crossing to see this train. This photo was taken just before a set of crossovers which I think was called 421 (don't hold me to that). The train on the left is the train seen earlier in Elk River and the one ahead of it has the CSX power.
Trains both directions
Interesting track arrangement at this spot. Note the nice grade uphill here as well.
BNSF eastbound
BNSF train heads toward Minneapolis. Note there are three people in the cab.

Continuing northwest I made a brief stop at Big Lake which is where the Northstar commuter line begins/ends. I was hoping to see some equipment tied up on the station track pocket but was not so lucky. The schedules for the Northstar commuter trains are stacked for rush hour movements so everything was in Minneapolis at this time. A little further north in Becker is a spur for a large XCel Energy plant. It appears this plant has a balloon track for quick unloading of coal. As an aside, the few small grain elevators I passed do not have rail service. The days of small elevators getting service appear to be over along this line.

Eventually I arrived in St. Cloud which is the first stop outside of Minneapolis for Amtrak. Unfortunately I was either very early or very late to see the next Amtrak train depending on how you looked at the schedule. Here are some photos of the depot area. It's interesting to note that there is a bay window on the trackside of the depot and curiously on the opposite side as well. Unfortunately the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Cloud_%28Amtrak_station%29 doesn't reference this oddity.

Amtrak (GN) depot at St. Cloud, MN
Amtrak (ex-Great Northern) depot at St. Cloud, MN
Depot at St. Cloud, MN
Another view of the depot in St. Cloud, MN. It will be several hours before Amtrak arrives.
BNSF line looking toward Minneapolis
Looking southeast toward the former diamond location between two lines in St. Cloud, MN

At this point is where I took a left turn and began to follow the Northern Lines Railway southwest out of St. Cloud. This branch line snakes its way through St. Cloud then fans out into a yard where I found this train switching cars.
NLR at St. Cloud
Here's the Northern Line Railway switching cars in the yard at St. Cloud, MN
NLR at St. Cloud, MN
A closer look at the power which provided some great sound effects throttling up
NLR at St. Cloud
Looks like NLR 1411 has been through a rebuild or two over its lifetime

A nice depot is on the property of the yard. I had plans to drive on the lot to get a quick grab shot but a group of local residents was outside talking (apparently oblivious to them that it was raining) so I decided not to arouse suspicion and kept driving.

A little further south I found this old railroad building which is now being used by the St. Cloud Amateur Radio Club WSV. The club's tower is just out of view to the left.


The line splits just west of the yard with a 2-3 mile stub heading straight west. Here's a look at the line with a switcher drilling cars at the end of the line in the distance. I found the date of 1939 on the rail to be interesting as I don't recall seeing much rail rolled around the time of  World War II.

Rail at St. Cloud
Close up of the rail showing 112 lb weight which is typical of a branch line
Rail at St. Cloud, MN
The 1939 date was one I haven't seen very often on rails
NLR at St. Cloud
In the distance a NLR train switches a customer at the end of the line

Instead of catching up with the NLR train switching I decided to follow the other line to the southwest. The line looked to be in decent shape probably good for 20 mph. There are only a couple customers on the line but they all seem to have potential to generate a lot of cars, mostly in aggregates and grain. The last customer is a quarry just east of Rockville. Here the line transitions from clear to overgrown with grass but is still in place. The rail map shows it abandoned but I think railbanked is a better term. A few miles east in Cold Spring the line ends and becomes a multi-use path for pedestrians and bikes in the summer and snowmobilers in the winter. This ends in Roscoe.

Needing to make up some time I diverged from the abandoned RofW and made it to Paynesville where I picked up the CP (ex-SOO) line which would take me back to Minneapolis. The line I was following earlier used to cross about a mile west of here. Here's the scene at this location.

Paynesville, MN
CP line at Paynesville, MN looking east. Locomotives are occupied but stopped.
Paynesville, MN
Looking west at Paynesville, MN. The signals have LED lights and look to be new.

Contrary to the two lines I was just following, this one does not closely parallel any particular road so a lot of zig-zag driving was required. I stopped at this location a little east of Paynesville. The line's sweeping curve would make for a great photo if a train was present.

East of Paynesville, MN

Without the radio frequency for this line I was basically flying blind so I had to rely on signal indications and frequent road crossing checks to see if anything was coming. I was fortunate enough to see the following westbound pulling hard up hill just west of Eden Valley. Interesting that this dirt road had flasher/crossing gate protection.

west of Eden Valley, MN
CP westbound pulling hard up the grade west of Eden Valley, MN.
west of Eden Valley, MN
CP westbound west of Eden Valley, MN with UP unit trailing.

Continuing east the line becomes more hilly and boasted some decent grades for territory I figured had gentle grades at best. Another observation was that the signals further east were older than those when I first picked up the line in Paynesville. Apparently the signal forces haven't gotten this far east in updating the signals. A little further east in Kimball I passed by a small rail yard full of hopper cars but I did not see any signs of what the facility was for. The satellite maps don't offer much of a clue, either. My guess is that this is a car repair/cleaning facility but that's probably far off. Here's a photo of the grain elevators in Kimball. Unlike the BNSF line, the CP line has a few smaller elevators with rail spurs.

Kimball, MN

And this bridge was just east of Kimball.

East of Kimball, MN

The signals were indicating that something was coming west but again without the correct frequency I had no clue where anything was. Just east of Maple Lake I saw the train coming and was able to SAFELY stop the car and take a photo through the windshield. Not a bad grab shot if I do say so myself!

East of Kimball, MN

Eventually I arrived in Buffalo (until now I didn't know there was a Buffalo, Minnesota) which has a nice depot that is likely used by MofW forces. The roll up door by the bay window definitely looks like a newer modification. Searchlight signals also still exist here.

depot at Buffalo, MN
Here's a nice looking depot at Buffalo, MN. This appears to be used by maintenance crews.
CP at Buffalo, MN
CP line looking west at Buffalo, MN. Note the searchlight signal.
CP at Buffalo, MN
CP line looking east at Buffalo, MN. The line has a nice grade uphill this direction.

Just west of this town is Varner Lake. Despite the mild mid 50's temps, several people were ice fishing. Here's one brave soul on the ice.

Ice fishing at Buffalo, MN

From this point on I more or less just followed the route via Highway 55 which parallels this part of the line fairly closely. Along this line in Hamel is a Loram rail maintenance of way building. I'm not sure if this is where they build the equipment or just a maintenance facility. The line then is mostly in residential area and grade separated at most points. At this point I was just about out of time anyway so this was a good stopping point for the trip.

Saturday March 19, 2011
On Saturday I had less time than Friday but more than Thursday to check things out. As I did last time I was here, I decided to check out the downtown Minneapolis area on my last day. But before I would do that I decided to ride the Metro Green Line to St. Paul to check out the newly reopened Union Depot. I went to the Stadium stop just outside of TCF Bank Stadium and purchased an "Event Pass" which gives you six hours of unlimited trips on the LRT and bus for $4. Here's a photo of the station on a crisp Saturday morning.
Green Line station platform at Minneapolis

The Green Line east of the station was mostly built in the middle of University Avenue. The speed limit for the road is 35 but the LRT can go 40 which makes it faster than the bus which stops more often and is at the mercy of the LRT at most intersections. There are several stops along the route but the trip from the Stadium station to St. Paul was only about 20 minutes. The line ends in front of the station. Here are some photos of the outside.

Green Line at St. Paul, MN
Green Line station at St. Paul, MN with convenient access to Union Depot.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Here's the front of the St. Paul Union Depot which was reopened in May 2014.

Inside the main room the ticket booth has been repurposed as a restaurant or some sort of assembly gathering place. Nice to see it still in place but too bad it isn't being used for its original purpose.

St. Paul, MN Union Station
Inside the main concourse at St. Paul, MN Union Depot
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Another view inside the main concourse. The natural light nicely illuminates the room.

At this point I simply wandered through the station to the track area. When I got to the waiting area for the trains I noticed that a yoga class was in session. There were two co-eds on the LRT with yoga mats and now I know where they were headed to! Here are some photos of the station.
St. Paul Union Station
Entrance to the corridor which leads to the station platforms.
St. Paul, MN Union Depot
Lots of seating available for when passengers have to wait for the next train or bus.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
This part of the station extends over the rail passenger platforms. Yoga class in the distance!

St. Paul, MN Union Station
This looks west where the tracks used to go under the station. The bus pad is to the left.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
This gives a view of where passengers board Amtrak.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Each set of green double doors represents what used to be stairs leading to a track below.

St. Paul, MN Union Station
Inside one corridor are photos and other rail items from years past.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Gate C is where Amtrak loads/unload. The yoga class is in session to the right of the gate.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Just in case you needed to reorient yourself, we're in the Central Time Zone.

St. Paul, MN Union Station
Another view of this area. Notice the people on the left playing ping pong to kill the time.
St. Paul, MN Union Station
Now we see why there are so many people in the station - Amtrak is running late!
St. Paul, MN Union Staion
This picture gives a view of the station from across the street near the river.

I then got back on the Green Line LRT for the return trip. Back in Minneapolis I repositioned closer to downtown to check out the Mississippi River area. Despite the mid 30s temperatures and brisk wind there were a lot of people out walking/running/biking. I decided to make a big loop around the area south of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam location. According to http://www.walkjogrun.net/ my route was just over two miles long. Here are some sights along the way.

Minneapolis, MN
View of Minneapolis from the Great Northern rail bridge which now is a recreational path.
Minneapolis, MN
View of the Mississippi River looking north in downtown Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis, MN
View of the Mississippi River looking south in downtown Minneapolis, MN

bridge plaque
The Great Northern rail bridge has been given a worthy designation due to its construction.
Minneapolis, MN
At the west end of the bridge, the locks await their next water craft
Minneapolis, MN
This sweeping view of the bridge nicely illustrates its impressive construction

Minneapolis, MN
Many of these old factories have been converted to loft apartments.
Minneapolis, MN
This is the replacement I-35W bridge for the one which collapsed several years ago.
Minneapolis, MN
This former rail bridge is south of downtown by a half mile or so and is also now for pedestrians.

Minneapolis, MN
View looking north from this rail bridge. Note the second set of locks and dam.
Minneapolis, MN
View looking south from this rail bridge. The U. of Minnesota logo is on the bridge to the south.
Minneapolis, MN
This is just beyond the east end of the rail bridge and shows where the track used to go.

Minneapolis, MN
Most of these rail cars are loaded, probably considered "constructively placed" by the RR.
Minneapolis, MN
The tracks end a little north of the truss rail bridge but show how much rail activity there once was.
Minneapolis, MN
One track extends to the power plant on the left. The date on the rail shows 1952, 132 lb. rail.

By this time my nose, ears and other extremities were getting quite chilly so it was time to warm up with some lunch and check in with the NCAA basketball tournament games. After lunch I headed across the river to check out a few buildings I found to be interesting when I was driving around earlier. So again I fed the meter and started walking. Fortunately the sun had come out by this time. First, this old Armory building grabbed my attention.
Armory - Minneapolis, MN

Here's the county courthouse which looks quite sturdy.
Minneapolis, MN

And the old Milwaukee Road depot and train shed is now a hotel.
Minneapolis, MN

A little further down is the Mill City Museum celebrating the massive milling operations that once existed in this part of downtown.
Minneapolis, MN

Finally I reach the construction site for the Minnesota Vikings' new football stadium. This is on the site of the old Metrodome which, when we were here in 2011, was deflated and its disposition still in question. The new stadium is going to be massive, and the cranes being used to construct the building are just as impressive.
Minneapolis, MN
Multiple cranes being used to construct the new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
Minneapolis, MN
East side of the new stadium. The large truss on the right I believe will eventually support the roof.
Minneapolis, MN
This panel piece, towering over the large crane, illustrates the size of the overall structure.

Minneapolis, MN
The Metro Blue Line LRT goes right by the east side of the stadium. No need to drive!
Minneapolis, MN
Here's a better view of the large truss and how it will connect with the rest of the structure.
Minneapolis, MN
The west side of the stadium is not as far along as the east side. The LRT is just to the left.

This walk around downtown was 1.5 miles so I'm getting my exercise in! With about an hour to spare I head over to the Basilica of St. Mary which is tucked away on the southwest side of downtown. The building just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Here are some photos of the inside.
Minneapolis, MN
View from the back of the basilica. Many people were there to admire as well as to pray.
Minneapolis, MN
This view illustrates the size of the cross in the middle as well as the ornate curved ceiling.
Minneapolis, MN
Pipe organ chambers flank the altar area on each side in the front of the church.

Minneapolis, MN
Here's a view of the organ console built by Wicks. The organist looks to have a lot available.
Minneapolis, MN
View from the front looking toward the back. Note the large wood pipes on the right side. 
Minneapolis, MN
This is looking up into the dome in the front of the church under the altar.

Minneapolis, MN
Here's a view of the tabernacle area which is surrounded by statues of saints.
Minneapolis, MN
Another view of the front. Note the communion rail still in place in the front.
Minneapolis, MN
View from the front looking back. The cross makes an impression in this photo.

At this point my time was up so I picked up my wife and we began our journey home.

Questions, comments welcome!

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