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Continued: Northstar commuter line hits the (rail) road

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 16, 2009 - 3:56 PM

It took nearly 13 years, $317 million and a few political derailments, but the Northstar commuter rail line made its initial run this morning, moving full speed ahead out of Big Lake at 5 a.m.

Avoiding congestion along Hwy. 10 in Sherburne and Anoka Counties, the sparkling blue, gold and white cars with red trim left Big Lake for the new Target Field station in Minneapolis, with 45-second stops along the way in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley.

But unlike the test rides of recent weeks that often carried politicians and rail officials, this morning's train rides were the real deal -- used by commuters expected to make rail travel to and from work a daily habit.

Metro Transit reported that 1,207 paying customers rode Northstar trains this morning. On a typical day, the line is projected to have 1,700 passengers each way.

For many of the passengers this first ride was as much about commuting as it was about novelty and about being part of history.

Chuck Nyberg, 55, of Elk River bicycled 5 miles in the 26-degree temperatures for the commute to Anoka where he is an engineer. He said the ride is usually 18 miles, so the new rail line will shave miles off his commute.

Another rider, Bud Bulgrin, 70, of Brooklyn Park, is retired after a career working for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

"This is the first time I've ridden a train in 50 something years," he said. "I just wanted to be on the very first one. It will be interesting to see how this grows."

Julie Schlangen, 31, of St. Cloud looked to have the day's most complicated ride.

She was the only non-media passenger to take Northstar Link bus from St. Cloud to Big Lake for 5 a.m. train. Then she was going to ride to the Target Field in station in Minneapolis, take the light rail and then the bus to her job at the library in St. Paul.

"This is my first train trip," she said. "I want to try this to see how it works. There are a lot of changes I have to make, but this is cheaper than driving."

Eric Shafer, 30, who grew up in Fargo, and now lives in Austin, Texas, showed up for today's ride in a furry bombardier hat, flip-flops and a necklace of coyote teeth. He's been on a train riding trip since July 1, when he left Austin for a 2-week trip to California.

He's been staying with relatives and friends between train rides, and Sunday night stayed with an aunt in Delano. Today's Northstar ride would be the first leg of a trip from Minneapolis to Madison, Wis.

"I wanted to make the initial run," he said.

With aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, tables and floor outlets for laptops and the sheen of new cars making their maiden voyages, passengers on the 5 a.m. train knew they were taking a modernistic voyage into history -- as well as to work. Not all were expected to do so with their tired eyes open. But those who preferred looking out windows may have watched cars stopping in traffic while the train just glided through.

Rail officials averted one possible last-minute concern at the Fridley station a week ago. The Fridley station was the last to be added to the Northstar project. But Fridley officials said construciton had been completed and awarded the project a certificate saying the station was ready for occupancy, said Metropolitan Council spokesman Bob Gibbons.

Bus-loads of commuters were expected to arrive this morning at the Big Lake station from St. Cloud, said Carl Kuhl, executive director of the Central Minnesota rail alliance that hopes the Northstar line eventually will be extended to St. Cloud and beyond.

"People understand the importance of connecting St. Cloud and Minneapolis," Kuhl said. "The Northstar committee wants it. Vice President Biden said he'd like to see it happen. It's a matter of time."

However, relatively few passengers were on the 5 a.m. run, and many preferred to sit in the upper tier of the two-tier rail cars to get a better view.

Northstar officials had to wonder at times if this particular day might ever come. When officials first began discussing a commuter rail line from the western suburbs and exurbs to Minneapolis, they had targeted Rice, west of St. Cloud, as a beginning point.

But with mixed interest at the Capitol in St. Paul and snags in gaining federal funding, the line stalled and was eventually cut in half -- to its current 41-mile route.

Now, traveling at 79 miles per hour for much of the ride, there's no looking back.

Five trains were scheduled to leave Big Lake for Minneapolis this morning -- leaving at 5, 5:49, 6:19, 6:49 and 7:19 a.m. A morning train from Minneapolis to Big Lake was scheduled to leave Target Field at 6:05 a.m.

There were few problems reported on the early trains.

Passengers arriving in Minneapolis at 7:10 a.m. got stuck on the train for about 5 minutes because the doors didn't open.

And some were delayed several more minutes when a mechanical problem kept a light-rail train from making its connection.

Later today, five trains are scheduled from Minneapolis to Big Lake. They leave at 3:50 p.m., 4:20, 4:50, 5:20 and 6:10. A train leaves from Big Lake to Target Field at 5:03 p.m.

Northstar is negotiating with the Utah Transit Authority to purchase a sixth engine, Gibbons said.

--Paul Levy • 612-673-4419 --Staff Writer Jim Foti contributed.

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