Trains are an endangered species in my neighborhood. I’ve seen track pulled up, signs removed, and far fewer rail cars biding their time on the tracks that parallel the Mississippi River. It’s not surprising. What’s happening here has happened all over the United States.
Given the trend, it was with conflicted nostalgia that I watched a teeny tiny train arrive to unload coal the other day at the University of Minnesota. It didn’t really look like a coal train. When I think of coal trains, I think of this:
But this train was so short it didn’t need a mighty locomotive, just a switching engine with enough oomph — and no more — to push a few cars at slow speeds around the switching yards on the banks of the Mississippi.
It even had the light. The flared metal plate at the bottom looked like an old-fashioned cowcatcher, which made me wonder what the switching engines in southeast Minneapolis might encounter. Surely not cows. Abandoned student bicycles? Empty cases of student beer?
The destination for the coal, of course, is the university’s steam plant marked by the four black smokestacks in the background of the photo above. When you walk through a building on campus, you benefit from the heat produced at the steam plant with natural gas, oat hulls, and the coal delivered by this train.
Still, most of us hope that this picture of smokestacks and coal trains will soon be outdated.
The people who are creating a new picture are also on the riverfront, about a half-mile upstream. Scientists at the University’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory are engaged in all kinds of renewable energy research. They’re working on wind turbines, turning algae into biodiesel and investigating the idea of using underwater turbines to take advantage of the energy of river and marine currents.
A picture of the riverfront in the future might include these little guys: