South City, Meet MetroLink: A No-Brainer Plan for Expansion

If you haven’t noticed, the alternative transportation bug is quickly catching in the City of St. Louis — and it’s very exciting to witness! In recent weeks, we’ve seen the approval of $7 million in New Market Credits (in addition to $8 million previous NMCs) for the Loop Trolley project, the announcement of development on the Ironhorse Trestle (finally!), continued progress toward BRTs (Bus Rapid Transit) and an RFQ for a downtown-west streetcar line.

It really makes me giddy for the future direction of the region.

Yet with all this, we’re missing that vital final push to get St. Louis residents to fully accept and embrace alternative transportation models as an everyday option — a North-South rail line. Excepting a Metrolink branch dipping daintily into Shrewsbury, our south side — home to the City’s densest collection of intact neighborhoods and housing — has no fixed rail options. Below are my thoughts on how this could — and should! — be implemented to connect the South Side’s many amazing neighborhoods in a logical and cost-effective way.

Above you see my idea for a new South Side connector. I don’t imagine I’m the first to think of this exact line because, unbelievably, IT ALREADY EXISTS! This route — running along existing Union Pacific lines hits many of South St. Louis’ great neighborhoods, streets and attractions. Just a quick list of those neighborhoods it runs through or close to — Forest Park Southeast, The Hill, Shaw, Southwest Gardens, Tower Grove South, Bevo, Holly Hills, Boulevard Heights and even a corner of the Patch.
And now the public attractions — Missouri Botanical Gardens, The Hill (its restaurants make it a neighborhood AND an attraction), Little Bosnia, Tower Grove Park, Carondelet Park, River des Peres Greenway, and River City Casino (a quick shuttle ride from the end o’ the line).
Add in direct bus transfer points at the likes of Arsenal, Chippewa, Kingshighway, Morganford, Gravois, Grand and Des Peres/Germania (as well as potential highway express routes from I-55 and I-44), and you can start to see how obviously beneficial this South Side connector would be for public transportation in St. Louis.
The City must recognize that in order to successfully implement public transportation in the region, the South Side needs to buy-in. Looking at the Appendix of Metro’s 2009 “Moving Transit Forward” plan (below), we see a mass of red — fittingly, for St. Louis — located south, west and north of downtown St. Louis. Each mass is made up of dots, and if I’m reading the data correctly, each dot equals the starting point of ten home-based work trips into downtown St. Louis. Which, in turn, means each dot is ten potential regular fares on a South Side fixed rail line.
That’s a lot of dots/fares!

I’m sure many (okay…most) would still opt to drive rather than take Metrolink to Downtown, Grand Center, CWE or points West, but the numbers at least show that there is a large traveling workforce to be courted. With stops in the neighborhoods and attractions listed above, the South Side line could easily turn into a sustainable and, dare I say it, successful Metrolink branch.

– – –

So with the answer of “Why?” framed, the question then, is “How?” 

Well, thanks to St. Louis’ once-rich history as a rail hub, the region is streaked with freight lines — both operational and abandoned. Using the regional rail map from the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, we learn that the line in question is owned by Union Pacific and is called the “De Soto Subdiv. 1.” 
I couldn’t confirm whether this line is still in action or not for Union Pacific, but an inside source (read: my aunt who lives near Loughborough) insists that she hasn’t seen a train run in front of Schnucks for a few years now. This would make sense, as the Loughborough bridge recently went through a two-year rebuild, and Union Pacific’s connecting Carondelet branch was abandoned and subsequently turned over to Great Rivers Greenway to become Grant’s Trail. Union Pacific still operates the Lesperance Branch along the Riverfront.
If the De Soto Subdiv. 1 is still in use things do get a bit difficult. While it’s not the most uncommon situation for light rail and freight to share a line, for obvious reasons of safety and expedience it’s a scenario best avoided. In these instances, you usually see parallel lines for each. This would be an expensive endeavor and one that both Union Pacific and Metro may balk at. But with UP spending $25 million to redo its river line into Chester, IL and expecting to spend upwards of $3.6 billion upgrading its tracks next year, who knows — maybe now is the time to hitch on to their engine with some creative funding and project-sharing to get a parallel line in place?

If it’s not active though — well, that’s just great! The City and Bi-State Development can work out a purchase or long-range lease deal for the 9+ mile stretch of line and get to work within the year laying rails, stringing wires, optimizing grades and constructing platforms. With a right-of-way already in place, they save a load of time and money by skipping most of the grading/demolition process.

My map shows nine sure-fire stops whose location fits one or more of the following criteria:

  • taps directly into dense neighborhoods and communities.
  • adjacent to or nearby popular attractions or public spaces.
  • links to active streets with existing/future Metrobus service routes.

These stops are, from north to south: Forest Park Southeast, MoBot/The Hill, Tower Grove Park, Morganford, Gravois, Delor/Gustine, Carondelet Park at Grand, Loughborough Commons and Patch/River des Peres. Each of these stops represents a distinct piece of south St. Louis City and, for the most part, intersects with one or more main streets. [Note: In orange, I’ve also included potential ancillary stations at Northampton, Chippewa and Bates — but I doubt those would be warranted]

It’s interesting to see how perfectly this line caters to the neighborhoods and attractions which abut it. The existing freight lines have basically served as a boundary between neighborhoods in the past — and now they can be re-utilized as a seam that instead stitches them together!

By virtue of its industrial nature, there is ample space around this line for smart and effective Transit-Oriented Development. The Tower Grove Park stop, for instance — which I centered along Reber — has a wide swatch of open land adjacent to it, and is positioned so that it would lead directly into the park’s western entrance (Here, a case could also be made for locating the station stop along Arsenal or Southwest Ave, but I liked the symmetry — and open space — at Reber). 

At the Delor stop near Gustine, the land to the east of the line could see heavy reinvestment and serve as a new entrance to the Dutchtown South neighborhood to the east and just a bit of a walk to go get some Ted Drewes on Grand.

And then, of course, you have Loughborough Commons — a sea of concrete anchored by a Schnucks and a Lowe’s, which will serve as a park-and-ride for all those South County commuters who always balk at a city-county train but will nevertheless ride this one.

By my count, there are 14 at-grade crossings, with the most notable located at Shaw (n. of Vandeventer), McRee, Delor, Gustine and Bates. Most of these crossings, however, are along poorly-maintained industrial roads or dead-end streets. In these cases, a simple black fence divider would do the trick. For the rest of the route, the line either goes below surface streets (Arsenel, Kingshighway at Daggett, Morganford, Loughbourough) or above (Chippewa, Gravois, Kingshighway n. of Fyler). Perfect.

– – –

It really seems like the De Soto line offers the most practical and financially-sound solution to getting a line to St. Louis City’s southern tip (and beyond?!). It runs in an existing right-of-way, hits many of the great south side attractions and neighborhoods, better connects bus routes, encourages public transit among individuals and families, and would hopefully lead to some contextually-sensitive Transit-Oriented Development around the station stops.

It really is the definition of a no-brainer, and the obvious next step for the City of St. Louis and Metro St. Louis. Hopefully this plan will be the next big announcement as we further embrace alternative transportation in our region.



  1. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Yep, that's what I'm hearing too. I've never seen an Amtrak run on it, but there have definitely been times I've been stuck on Germania while a train is stopped at the plant right there on the City side of the Des Peres.

  2. I live on this line. It's in use. The Israeli chemical plant just south of the river moves trainloads full of their poisons on it, and I often see fuel cars as well. Amtrak comes by a few times a day.

  3. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Thanks for the background. It's a damn shame, really, that the City didn't strike a deal for this line a few years ago when it was rarely used. The right-of-way so perfectly matches the needs for a south side line.Who knows, maybe the City has some land banked along the riverside Lesperance line they could trade out to UP so that Metro can take on the DeSoto…Running the train along 1-55 from Jefferson just seems to be a subpar solution when thinking about "what could be" along the DeSoto line.

  4. .thanks for sharing

  5. To add to my previous point ^ , today at 2:45 PM, I snapped this photo of empty crude oil train O-GECH rolling northbound over the subject trackage. The train is crossing over Chippewa Ave. (overpass is between Gravois and Morgan Ford) and is quickly approaching Beck Ave. He will eventually cross the river, change crews, and continue on to Chicago where the Canadian Pacific Railway will take it to the oil fields to re-load. There are more northbound trains behind him also scheduled to go through here this evening. Link:

  6. I really hate to burst the author's bubble, but the UP recently upgraded the DeSoto Sub from Davis St. to Iron Mountain Jct. which is in Tower Grove. They have tripled the number of daily trains using this line, which now sees 6-10 per day. Because of expansion in oil drilling in the Bakken reserve in North Dakota, loaded crude oil trains head south through the Metro East (Dupo, Columbia,IL) on their way to St. James, La. When they return empty, they go via South City on the subject line, the DeSoto Sub/Oak Hill Branch. Additionally, UP routes empty grain trains returning to Rake, Ia., rock trains, and occasionally an empty unit steel train that runs from Shreveport, La. to Granite City Steel. To handle all this new traffic, the rails were welded together and some new rail laid on the curves. Unless Metrolink could somehow be accomodated next to the main line, I just don't see this happening, especially as the number of crude oil trains is expected to rapidly increase in the near future. -Scott N.

  7. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Thanks Peter.I just gleaned through the Cost Estimate Summary and it looks like our station stops are a bit out of sync, huh? As far as I can tell, going south from Grand, their analysis has only five stops! — Shaw, Arsenal, Meramac, Bates and Loughborough.So we share Loughborough, and I recognized Bates, Arsenal, and Meramac (near Chippewa). For Shaw, I see that as a possibility, but I feel Daggett creates better access to both Kingshighway and the entrance to MOBOT.Interesting, though, that this study tagged only five stations for the ~9 miles of track after the Grand stop. I think that vastly underestimates the interest in ridership for the southside.

  8. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    I wasn't aware of this alignment in the study, no, but I did mention that I'm certainly not the first to look at a map and recognize this route as a possibility.I'll have to look into that plan more — I hope the results leaned in favor of this route? Because, as I wrote, it seems to be the least costly an most effective — if, of course,it becomes possible to reach an Agreement with UP/Amtrak.

  9. They eventually chose Jefferson/Broadway and then along I-55 until Loughborogh.

  10. You are aware that this alignment was considered in the Northside-Southside study, right?

  11. That line is in active use by the railroad. That alone wouldn't kill it – if there's a wide enough ROW, both trains could run. The problem is that the railroads would say absolutely not, and that would be the end of the discussion.Nice thought, though, and makes a lot more sense than many of the "corridors" out there.

  12. Amtrak runs on a fixed schedule and only a few times a day. One should be able to accommodate this. I think this is a great proposal.

  13. Amtrak runs on that train line in front of schnucks

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