Freight traffic delays Northstar; BNSF sees 'several days' before fix

Monday’s commuter delays rank among the most severe since the train began running in 2009 — and the problem is not going away.

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Commuters board the Northstar to Minneapolis at the Big Lake station.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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In what has become a chronic problem for the Northstar line from Big Lake to Minneapolis, heavy freight traffic pushed the commuter train off schedule and is expected to do so several days this week.

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.”

A tweet from Metro Transit warned Monday morning’s riders to “expect significant delays (60-90 minutes) due to freight traffic.” Commuters could wait for their trains or board replacement buses.

Monday’s disruptions rank among the most severe since Northstar began operating in 2009. One of the five inbound runs had to be scrapped altogether. The other four saw delays of 37, 75, 90 and 120 minutes, said Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr.

The lone northbound train also never got rolling, requiring buses to fill in, Kerr said. Early alerts indicated the delays were concentrated between Ramsey and Anoka.

Lots of competition for tracks

Kerr added that Metro Transit is engaged in “trip-by-trip communications with BNSF, [and] we are working on long-term strategies that will return Northstar rail service to its traditional reliability.”

Until January, 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.

Since then Northstar has suffered a rash of delays. The oil boom and other economic demands for freight service have fed congestion on the tracks, along with a harsh winter that has caused signals and switches to malfunction, McBeth said. Two weeks ago, disabled freight trains blocked the tracks between Big Lake and Elk River.

‘The most ridiculous thing’

Nicole Kessler was already frustrated with the delays before her patchwork trip Monday from Elk River to Minneapolis took a strange turn. She gave up on the train and boarded a replacement bus at 7:30 a.m. But the bus unexpectedly pulled into the Maple Grove rest area along Interstate 94 at a passenger’s request.

Not surprisingly, other riders seized the opportunity to get off the bus.

“That delayed us even longer,” said Kessler, who was heading to the University of Minnesota for classes. She arrived at Target Field at 9:40 a.m., two hours late and well after the arrival of the train she skipped.

“I like the train when it is working the way it should, but this is the most ridiculous thing,” she said. “It’s not reliable, and customers are frustrated with the communication between freight trains and Metro Transit. It’s not very good.”

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.

All month, Amtrak has been alerting its riders about “significant delays along the route due to freight train interference.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Monday that he’s sure the notice that expires Saturday will be immediately replaced with another one.

Some critics are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to intervene. A spokeswoman for BNSF said three weeks ago that the railway is working to improve service, adding locomotives, bringing in more crews and running east and westbound traffic on separate routes in key areas of North Dakota.

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