Hiawatha Line

From Academic Kids

For the Amtrak (and historically Milwaukee Road) interstate train route of the same name, see Hiawatha (passenger train).
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Hiawatha light-rail vehicle #111 near Cedar-Riverside station

The Hiawatha Line is a 12 mile (19 kilometer) light rail corridor in Minneapolis, Minnesota that extends to the southern suburb of Bloomington, in Hennepin County connecting downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, among other destinations. Groundbreaking for the line took place on January 17, 2001. Regular service began on a first phase of the line on June 26, 2004, with the second phase opening later that year on December 4. Each opening was accompanied with two days of free rides on the train and area buses. The line was tested for months before opening, with regular service simulated for about a month before each phase went online. It is operated by the Metro Transit division of the Metropolitan Council, which is also the largest operator of buses in the area.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area once had an extensive network of streetcars (operated for many years by Twin City Rapid Transit, a precursor of Metro Transit), but the tracks were removed and services were eliminated in the 1950s. The Hiawatha Line opened 50 years and one week after the last regular-service streetcars ran in the city.


Service and stations

Passengers who ride the rail system are ordinarily charged the same fare as they would pay for the local Metro Transit bus system, and they are able to use their bus transfer cards to switch between the two different modes of transportation without making another payment. A new payment system using smart cards (known as Go-To Cards) was initially expected to be introduced along with the rail line, but software bugs have delayed introduction.

In basic service, trains operate every 10 minutes, though rush hour should see one train every 7½ minutes, and late-night operation will only be once every half hour. The line shuts down for about four hours each night, except for a shuttle service between the two terminals at the MSP airport. Vehicles have a capacity of 66 seated passengers plus 120 standees. Two vehicles may be linked together to double capacity in busier periods. If the need ever arises for three-vehicle trains, some stations are already designed with that capacity, and others were built to be easily expandable to handle the longer trainsets. Predicted daily ridership is 19,300 for 2005 and 24,600 for 2020.

The line is named for Hiawatha Avenue, also known as Minnesota State Highway 55, which runs parallel to the train tracks for much of its distance. To integrate the train route with the rest of the area bus system, it was also given the name Route 55. In extremely heavy travel periods and when the rail line is out of service for any reason, buses use that route number. Before the second phase had been completed, a temporary bus line known as Route 155 provided a link to some destinations south of the Fort Snelling station.

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Route map

Each of the 17 stations along the route are designed to have a unique architecture reflecting the neighborhood they stand in. This is not an entirely new idea for the region, as many of the higher-traffic bus stops around the city have distinct designs. Due to the unique makeup of Minneapolis's population, ticket-dispensing machines will present instructions in four languages: English, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong. The 17 stations are listed below. Travel time is two to three minutes between each stop.

The airport used to operate a bus shuttle between the two terminals, but the light rail line has supplanted that service. It is free to ride between those two stops.

A significant amount of effort has gone into creating artwork for the different rail stations. In the months after the line first started, a number of small audio and video playback devices were installed in the stations, to provide amusement and topics for discussion among travelers waiting for the train.

There are two stretches where tunnels are used on the line. A short tunnel parallel to Hiawatha Avenue travels under Minnehaha Parkway just north of the Minnehaha Park station. At the airport, twin tunnels (one each for the northbound and southbound trains) go underground for 1.7 miles (2.7 km) to reach the Lindbergh Terminal station, the only stop that is totally underground—70 feet (20 m) below the surface. Trains return to the surface as they near Humphrey Terminal. Some of the sections under the airport required the use of a tunnel boring machine.


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Hiawatha Line LRV, approaching th 46th Street station from the south

The Hiawatha Line uses Flexity Swift trams manufactured by Bombardier, electrically powered by overhead lines. The system is designed to output 750 volts of direct current. Trains can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour, but the “general service speed” is about 40 mph or slower (especially in the congested downtown region). They are of a 70% low-floor design, meaning that 70 percent of the floor inside is within about 14 inches (36 cm) of the ground. This is the same height as the rail platforms, so people who have disabilities don't have to step up. The feature also makes it easier for passengers with bicycles or strollers to board the train. Each vehicle weighs about 107,000 pounds (48,500 kg) when empty. The Minneapolis installation is the first use of this model in the United States.

Light-rail vehicles for the Hiawatha Line have been rolling along the line for testing and training purposes since late 2003. Vehicles have a color scheme that is primarily a combination of black, yellow, and gray. Yellow is a notable color because it was commonly used on the previous streetcar systems. Each vehicle has an A, B, and C section: The A and B sections are the large portions on each end, while the C section is a small portion that connects the two other pieces and has the vehicle's middle truck or bogie. Electricity is collected by a pantograph mounted on the B section. The first vehicle was delivered on March 19, 2003. 14 of 15 delivered vehicles were operational for the opening weekend. The initial order was eventually bumped up to a full 24 vehicles, which were operational by early 2005. An additional one to three vehicles will probably be ordered, using leftover funds from the construction budget and some money intended for a future upgrade that will extend the line a few city blocks and add several LRVs.

The noses of these vehicles are different than most other Flexity trains, containing a small scoop-shaped area. This could assist somewhat in the removal of snow, but the anticipated snow-management method is merely to run trains on a frequent basis rather than actually using snow removal equipment (this was what the earlier streetcar system usually did to keep lines clear, though they also often featured small scrapers in front of the lead wheels).

Each vehicle has a number of cameras onboard, pointing both inward and outward, to monitor passenger activity and other areas of interest for security and safety. Train stations also have cameras. Video feeds and the position of each vehicle on the line are monitored in a control room at the system's maintenance facility, located between Cedar-Riverside and Franklin Avenue stations.

Area light rail history

Over the years since the last trolley ran in 1954, many people have pushed for the reintroduction of rail transport in the Twin Cities. The primary reason is that traffic congestion has grown considerably since the last trolley ran in 1954: a 2003 report by the Texas Transportation Institute indicated that the area was the 17th most congested area in the country, with the second fastest congestion growth. Congestion is also one of the most prominent complaints of area residents. The area's population is expected to grow by about one million residents by 2020, adding to the population of nearly three million as of the 2000 census. While the Hiawatha Line isn't expected to make a significant dent in the region overall, proponents hope that the line's popularity will ensure future expansion will happen (in the first full month of service, ridership exceeded projections by 99.8%, although transit officials were wary about drawing too many conclusions so early on in the line's life).

No new rail projects were able to get off the ground for many years until the 1990s when several factors combined to make the idea more palatable to area politicians. Governor Jesse Ventura heavily promoted the idea of rail transport, and significant amounts of money became available from the federal government. Previous governors had advocated light rail, but had not been able to get legislation passed. Governor Tim Pawlenty had campaigned on a promise to fight the expansion of light rail, but has altered his opinions since taking office. He also initially opposed the proposed Northstar Corridor commuter rail project, which would be a rail corridor north of Minneapolis, but changed his mind about that project in January 2004 when a scaled-back version was shown to have good potential.

For many, the Hiawatha Avenue corridor was not the top choice for a new project. Popular other options included connecting Minneapolis with western suburbs, though probably the most-desired option has been the Central Corridor connecting the Twin Cities themselves (Minneapolis and St. Paul) with a route down the middle of Interstate 94 or University Avenue. However, much of the land had already been acquired by the state in the 1960s in preparation for a sunken radial expressway into downtown that was never built. In addition to the available land, the desire to connect to the airport and at least reach the vicinity of the Mall of America proved to be the bigger draw for decisionmakers.

The idea of running a rail line down Hiawatha Avenue had already been around for at least a decade by the time the decision was made to go forward. In 1985, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) had produced an environmental impact statement that concluded that light rail was the best alternative for the corridor. In 1996, the document was examined again as Mn/DOT looked at the possibility of adding a busway (bus rapid transit) along the road, but money for light rail became available soon after, leading to the current layout.

Busways are still being examined for many future projects, and it appears likely that at least one will be built. The most likely candidate for the area's second light-rail line is the Central Corridor, although a busway is still being considered as an option.

Funding and delays

The line's cost is expected to total $715 million, with $424 million coming from the federal government. This is considerably higher than initial budgets predicted—the figure was about $400 million in 1997. Opponents to the rail line state that it has gone far over-budget, but supporters of the line state that extensions of the route and other alterations, plus the impact of inflation, are the real reasons for the increased cost. Initial designs cut out the last stop in downtown, and the southern end of the line didn't quite connect to the Mall of America. The Warehouse District stop was added early, but another cost increase came from approximately $40 million to enhance the line (while construction was in progress) to bring the line directly into the Mall of America's transit hub. It is coming a year or two later than what was initially hoped for (a lot of literature pointed to 2003 as the opening year), but the mall connection was a significant contribution to the extra time requirements.

In March 2004, the labor union representing Metro Transit bus workers went on strike. This delayed the opening of the line from the anticipated start date of April 3rd, although there was some indication that the opening would have been delayed anyway. Apparently, some of the delay had to do with slow delivery of trainsets from Bombardier. Certain aspects of the design had been tried before, but the cars were the first to combine the factors of conforming to American standards (as opposed to European), having low floors, and being built at the company's Mexico plant. Some problems also cropped up during testing of the vehicles, but Bombardier has said that the issues are not out of the ordinary.

When the buses began rolling again on April 19th, the line's opening was rolled back to June 26th. Testing of the track and vehicles continued during the bus strike, as much of the work was performed by Bombardier employees rather than Metro Transit workers. Train operators who had already gone through the training process were given refresher courses when the strike ended.

Signal problems

Delays of a different sort have afflicted cars and trucks running along Hiawatha Avenue and cross streets. The rail vehicles stop for traffic signals in downtown Minneapolis, but use signal preemption along much of the route, allowing the train to speed through by lowering gate arms at railroad crossings and turning traffic lights red. Synchronization of the different signals has been very problematic, reportedly causing some people to be stuck waiting at intersections for ten to fifteen minutes when the train was in its testing phase. Engineers from Metro Transit, the city of Minneapolis, and Mn/DOT have worked to get their respective systems communicating with each other, but delays are still common in the area.

Around the time of the line's opening, the Minneapolis City Council requested additional assistance from the Federal Highway Administration to resolve the issue, and the agency promised to send experienced engineers when they become available. However, it appears that improvements would require significant changes to the signal layout.

Delay issues are partially due to an usual problem—the train horns. Residents along the rail corridor had complained that the horns were too loud, so transit officials decided to reduce the volume. However, this forced a reduction in service speed, as the quieter sound couldn't be heard at as great a distance. Some sections that were going to be limited to 55 mph were instead limited to 45 mph. Crossing gates and signals along the line are set to go off when the train is at a certain distance from the intersection, so the slower speed meant that the trains would trigger the gates prematurely.

In February 2005, the signals were upgraded at a cost of between $300,000 and $400,000 to improve traffic flow (the money came from leftover contingency funds in the system's construction budget). Changes involved moving the crossing trigger points closer to intersections, reprogramming the gates themselves to operate more quickly, altering the timings used when trains are at stations next to gated crossings, and altering the behavior of pedestrian crosswalks along the corridor. This is all expected to improve wait times on nearby roadways by 20 to 40 seconds.

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