The Minnesota Department of Transportation, National Park Service and local officials think bicyclists could add a new dimension to the line stretching from Minneapolis to Big Lake.
The 140 riders squeezed onto the special Northstar train, their bicycles beside them. For the fledgling commuter line, bicycles represent wheels of potential fortune -- traffic that could support a line striving for growth.
Struggling after 2 1/2 years to meet expectations, Northstar is attempting to attract riders by lowering fares in August, adding trains for Twins and Vikings games and building a station in the city of Ramsey. But the Minnesota Department of Transportation, National Park Service and local officials think bicyclists could add a new dimension to the line stretching from Minneapolis to Big Lake. Many will leave the train and bike on trails near the Mississippi River, while others would complete a commute.
"We envision the day when St. Cloud State students living in the Twin Cities will bring their bicycles aboard the train every day as they commute to college," said Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.
"If bringing bicycles on the train helps to get Northstar moving, we're all for it," said Lenzmeier, who hopes the line will eventually be extended to St. Cloud as originally planned more than a decade ago.
Each Northstar car is equipped to secure only two bicycles. That's been a moot point, thus far, because the daily commuter trains have averaged about three bicycles per train, said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland, an avid bicyclist himself.
Could the regularly scheduled commuter trains handle dozens of bicycles? Siqveland said that Metro Transit must abide by Federal Railroad Authority standards that require bicycles to be secured on moving trains. Possible adjustments include altering or adding cars to each train.
"We crammed 140 people and made it happen," said David Gepner, who helped organize last month's Saturday special train filled with cyclists, who biked on trails beyond the final stop in Big Lake.
The cyclists, for the most part, stood in aisles with their bikes. Gepner asked if train seats could be removed. That was not an option he was told.
It didn't matter.
"It was tight," Gepner, 68, said. "It was an adventure. And it was successful. We weren't blocking doorways. We opened up possibilities."
Northstar can use a boost. From January through June, riders were down 4 percent, compared to the same period last year. The weekday commute numbers are similar to last year. But Northstar officials say that special events (Twins games) are down significantly, contributing to the 13,970 fewer rides during the first six months of 2012.
In Michigan, adjustments have been made to Amtrak train cars to accommodate more bicycles, said Dan Collins, MnDOT's principal planner for the Mississippi River Trail. He and Liz Walton, MnDOT's landscape design architect for bicycle and pedestrian paths and trails, think Northstar has a "great opportunity" to attract young people if the train can lure more bicyclists.
"The Mississippi River Trail is the backbone of our trail system, offering a great opportunity for fun, adventure and learning about the river -- and it runs along the Northstar line," Walton said.
"Sure, the train was built for commuters," she said. "But this is an opportunity that's too good to pass up."
The National Park Service hopes the Mississippi River Trail will ultimately become a "primary transportation facility," said Susan Overson, a landscape architect and park planner for the park service.
"We're looking at bicycles, pedestrians, light rail, canoes, boats and, yes, Northstar," she said. "If the train can get people and their bicycles to the Mississippi River Trail, we need to explore that possibility."
Metro Transit's website -- www.metrotransit.org -- offers tips for loading bicycles onto Northstar trains.
Elk River may be the first city along the Northstar route to aggressively try to lure bicycle riders to the commuter trains. When last month's bicycle-loaded Northstar train stopped in Elk River, Michael Hecker, the city's new parks and recreation director, was waiting to greet the bicyclists.
"There's a point here where the Elk River meets the Mississippi River that people driving north on 169 or west on Highway 10 never see," he said. "We have a quaint business district that you could miss completely, if you drive by.
"But people tell me they never really appreciated Elk River until they rode through on bicycles," Hecker said. "We're a train city and we're a Mississippi River Trail city. You bring a bicycle on a Northstar train and you get the best of both worlds."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419