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It was Alissa Ostroot's second day commuting to her new job. But as the Big Lake resident sent text messages, sipped a large Caribou and listened to Taylor Swift while riding downtown to work, she couldn't have appeared more relaxed.
No, she wasn't driving.
"This is a lot less stressful," Ostroot, 23, said during her 41-mile commute aboard a morning Northstar train this week. "And this costs me about half as much as driving and parking would."
But the $317 million commuter rail line from Big Lake to the Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis might appear more of a bargain to taxpayers if there weren't so many empty seats.
More than half a million people have ridden Northstar since November, the line's first nine months of existence after more than a decade of political maneuvering to launch the operation. But ridership remains slightly below projections -- by about 3 percent -- even though the train has been a huge hit with Twins fans.
Remember that April 15 Twins game against the Red Sox that attracted so many Northstar riders -- 2,118 -- that two buses had to be sent to the Fridley station for fans who couldn't get on the train? That number of passengers is nearly 10 times the average number of riders who board the last of five weekday morning train from Big Lake to Target Field.
The average weekday ridership in July was 2,530. Yet, on Saturdays in July, with a limited schedule that caters to leisurely passengers, not commuters, Northstar attracted an average of 2,373 riders.
"Must have been Twins games," said Bob Gibbons, a spokesman for Metro Transit, which operates Northstar.
The Twins played three Saturday home games in July. When the team's schedule doesn't correlate with Northstar's, the train's wide aisles, built to accommodate standing room, remain clear.
From St. Cloud to St. Paul
The train that leaves Big Lake at 7:21 a.m. and arrives downtown at 8:10 a.m., is the second-most popular Northstar morning run, attracting an average of 220 to 240 passengers, said conductor Vincent Roberts, who knows some of his passengers by name.
Though the number isn't that high, those passengers swear by Northstar. They board with books, backpacks, even bicycles. Some work. Some sleep. Some stare. Some come from beyond St. Cloud and travel, through connections, to beyond St. Paul. None seem eager to return to driving to work.
"Driving down Highway 10 is so stressful," said Jenni Swenson, 47, dean of science, technology and engineering at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. "I love taking the train."
Kendra Randel, 35, a product manager from Monticello, kept her laptop in her bag as she read from a book she downloaded onto a smaller computer device. Maggie Kiernan, 56, a paralegal from Big Lake, says she occasionally sleeps on the train. Eric Beyer, 39, a data-base administrator from Anoka, used his commute to send e-mails.
Antonia Koch, 29, a geographer from Germany, left her mother's home in St. Cloud on Wednesday, took a bus to the Northstar station in Big Lake, took the train downtown and then boarded the light rail to Mall of America, before heading to the airport and home.
"This couldn't be more comfortable," she said between pages of her book, "Daughter of Fortune." She looked at her book title and said with a smile, "I feel lucky to be on this train. It's easy."
Eric Hanse, 30, a scientist from Big Lake, did a crossword puzzle. Kevin Burnham, 16, of Big Lake, did his charter school homework. Kellie Dillner, 31, of Andover, noted that, unlike the bus, the Northstar train cars have bathrooms.
Linda Van Den Boom, 45, of Andover, a managing editor for a human resources consultant, attacked misspellings and punctuation gaffes the old fashioned way -- red pen in hand.
"I have worked on the train, but not very often," said Lori Benson, 34, a paralegal from Monticello. Instead, she listened to Aerosmith.
"I can sleep to anything," she said.
Leonard Schlict, 50, a former truck driver from St. Cloud, was riding Northstar for the third time. He leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and smiled.
"After getting beat up driving big rigs all over God's creation, this is kind of nice," he said.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419