Another morning of Northstar headaches have passengers questioning Metro Transit

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2014 - 9:19 PM

Disabled freight trains forced four of five inbound runs to be called off. Passengers questioned Metro Transit’s planning and sharing of info.

Headaches continued for the Northstar commuter train Tuesday when disabled freight trains blocked the tracks between Big Lake and Elk River, forcing cancellations and frustrating passengers.

The first four Northstar runs did not operate Tuesday after two freight locomotives experienced mechanical problems. The fifth and final trip did operate, running about 20 minutes late.

Metro Transit officials scrambled to get buses to the stations but not until the first two inbound runs were scrubbed. Some passengers in Big Lake who boarded the 5:01 a.m. train said they waited almost two hours for a bus.

Many customers were upset by the delays and lack of information from Metro Transit.

What’s the backup plan?

Ross Priest, who commutes from Big Lake to his job in downtown St. Paul, swiped his Metropass card at 6:07 a.m. Just before 7 a.m., he got off the train and began driving to his job. He said he turned around when he learned traffic was bad and went back to the station. He got on a bus just after 7 a.m. He wondered why it took so long to get buses in place.

“Do we need a train bill of rights?” asked Priest, alluding to laws that limit how long airlines can hold passengers on the tarmac. “My biggest question is do they have a contingency plan.”

Metro Transit does have plans for delays and unforeseen problems, spokesman John Siqveland said.

At 5 a.m. Tuesday the agency told customers via Twitter, Facebook and its webpage that the first inbound train would be delayed 30 minutes, based on information from BNSF, the railway that owns the tracks.

As the delay grew to an hour and the second departure was scrubbed, Metro Transit arranged for buses to pick up passengers in Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley. It called Northstar Link buses from St. Cloud to pick up passengers in Big Lake, Elk River, Ramsey.

By then it was after 7 a.m.

‘We cannot rely on the train’

Heather Beyer thought she’d be warned by text messages, based on apology letters given out after last week’s delays.

“I signed up for Metro Transit’s rider alerts to send me text messages,” Beyer said. “I heard about the cancellations from my friends and co-workers. Everyone is getting so upset that we are starting to set up carpools because we cannot rely on the train.”

Siqveland said Metro Transit believed that BNSF would clear the broken-down locomotives sooner.

“We were expecting the trains to be able to move,” Siqveland said. “When the first was canceled and we realized the second was delayed, the bus bridge service was mustered and put into effect as quickly as we could.”

Until January, Northstar was one of Metro Transit’s most reliable services with a 96 percent on-time record. That, along with fare reductions put in place last year, helped ridership soar. But the line has suffered a rash of delays caused by mechanical failures, cold weather and rail lines clogged with freight trains.

“This winter has been a new challenge for us,” Siqveland said. “We are working with BNSF to come up with other strategies and working to clear freight traffic.”

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