The Drive will keep you up to speed with the latest on Twin Cities commuting.

Northstar, Amtrak delays prompt legislative hearing Thursday

Posted by: Tim Harlow Updated: February 25, 2014 - 1:05 PM

Northstar Commuter trains made their runs from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis on time Tuesday morning, a nice change of pace for thousands of riders who have endured numerous delays over the past several weeks.

Riders' frustration hit a boiling point on Monday when one inbound run arrived at Target Field two hours late and others saw delays of 90, 75 and 37 minutes. The delays were so severe that Metro Transit warned customers early Monday that they should plan alternate transportation because of heavy freight traffic. The agency also dispatched buses to its rail stations to drive passengers to Minneapolis.

The delays have become untenable, said House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis). He will participate in a legislative hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 5 of the State Office Building in St. Paul to look at how the dramatic increase in freight traffic caused by the oil boom in North Dakota is impacting railroad safety and passenger rail service.

"Given on what happened yesterday [Monday] and several times already, we will include questions for BNSF," Hornstein said. "There is a lack of coordination and infrastructure. We are overwhelmed with the oil freight question. We are looking into it."

A few of the delays on the Northstar line have been weather and mechanical related, but a majority of them have been due rail lines clogged with freight trains.

"We saw the oil freighter train pass by so we all pretty much knew why the delay," said a disgruntled Heather Beyer as she sat on a Northstar train Monday in Elk River.

Until January when the rash of delays began, Northstar was one of Metro Transit’s most reliable services with a 96 percent on-time record. That, along with fare reductions last year, helped ridership soar to a one-year record of more than 787,000.

Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said the number of rides taken on the Northstar in January was down 2 percent to 54,507 compared to January 2013. That was a decrease of 1,172 rides. The bitter cold and several days in which schools were closed also were factors in the decline, Kerr said.

A few riders fed up the unreliable service on the Northstar have said they are now driving to Maple Grove and catching express buses from there.

Amtrak, which uses the same tracks, also has been plagued by delays west of St. Paul on its Empire Builder service stretching through North Dakota and into Washington state.

While Tuesday morning might been a smooth commute for Northstar riders, more hiccups can be expected.

Officials for BNSF, which owns the tracks, said Monday afternoon that riders should “expect it will take several days to work through the freight congestion,” according to spokeswoman Amy McBeth. “In the meantime, we are rerouting traffic where possible … to help with the recovery.”

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