The Hiawatha Line is a 12-mile (19-kilometer) light rail corridor in Hennepin County, Minnesota that extends from downtown Minneapolis to the southern suburb of Bloomington, connecting to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, among other destinations.
Hiawatha is operated by Metro Transit, which is also the primary operator of buses in the Twin Cities. It carried 9.4 million passengers in 2006, meaning this single light rail line carries approximately 12% of the passengers on the entire Metro Transit system. In less than two years after opening, the line had already reached (and far exceeded) its 2020 ridership goals.
In the upcoming months and years the Hiawatha Line will be extended by a few blocks to the new Minneapolis Multi-Modal Station, at the current end of the line of the Hennepin Ave/Warehouse District Station to meet up with the future Northstar Corridor and will be built right next door to the new Target Field.
It is also likely that one station will also be added in Bloomington between the Humphrey Terminal station and Bloomington central Station at American Boulevard.
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 in June 2004, but software bugs delayed introduction. As of September 2006, the bugs have been worked out and the Go-To Cards are now operational.
In basic service, trains operate every 10 minutes, though rush hour sees one train every 7½ minutes, and late-night operation 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 and 120 standing. Two vehicles may be linked together to double capacity in busier periods. If the need ever arises for three-unit 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.
Significant amounts 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 50th Street 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.
The Hiawatha Line uses 27 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, allowing stepless access for passengers dependent on wheelchairs or other mobility aids. 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 in the area. 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 more vehicles.
The noses of these vehicles are built to a different design than is standard for the Flexity Swift, 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.
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.
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 (Which means that in less than 20 years the area could have a population of 4 million similar in size to the metropolitan area of Phoenix, AZ.) 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 and Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg 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.
Groundbreaking for the line took place on January 17, 2001. Regular service began on the 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. The Hiawatha Line opened 50 years and one week after the last regular-service streetcars ran in the city.
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.
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 3, 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 19, 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.
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 unusual 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.
During the first three years of operation there have been five deaths associated with the Hiawatha Line.
Hiawatha line gets qualified backing for federal money; Federal officials are keeping an eye on Minnesota's financial contributions to light rail.(NEWS)
Apr 16, 1999; The Federal Transit Administration has put the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail transit project in good standing for federal funding,...