Fewer people have ridden the Northstar Commuter Rail line so far this year, according to figures recently released by Metro Transit, but officials say they see some encouraging signs in the data.
Overall, ridership from January through October totaled 589,686. That was 13,215 fewer rides than during the first 10 months of 2011, or a drop of 2.2 percent.
But lower fares put into place on Aug. 1 in an attempt to increase ridership appear to have stemmed the decline. In the three months since fares were cut by up to $1, ridership on the 41-mile line between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis is 8 percent higher than what was forecast, said transit agency spokesman John Siqveland.
Also helping boost ridership is a new station that opened in mid-November in Ramsey. In the first two weeks of service, 1,700 Northstar rides started or ended at the $13 million facility at 7550 Sunwood Dr.
Metro Transit projected an average increase of 200 rides per weekday with the addition of the Ramsey station, but early returns have exceeded that. Service in Ramsey began Nov. 14, and more than 300 passengers boarded during each of the first two days of service, when there was no charge to ride.
Last Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 19 and 20, were the first start-of-the-week workdays for the Ramsey station, although they fell in Thanksgiving week, which is hardly typical. Still, the average of 263 rides per day on those two days beat projections.
"We probably won't be able to get an initial sense of steady average weekday ridership until probably the week before the Christmas holiday," Siqveland said, noting that last week was a short one with the Thanksgiving holiday and no train service the day after.
Metro Transit officials attribute much of this year's losses in passenger traffic to the dismal performance of the Minnesota Twins. Ridership to games at Target Field was down 16 percent from last year.
In August, the agency cut one-way fares from $7 to $6 in Big Lake, from $5.50 to $4.50 in Elk River, from $4 to $3 in Anoka and Coon Rapids, and from $3.25 to $3 in Fridley.
At $3, train riders now pay the same fare as those who ride express buses during rush hour. Those fares are to remain in effect until April.
Although weekday commuters are the rail line's primary audience, Metro Transit operates the Northstar line for special events, too. It will offer rides to the final two Vikings' home games this season. The train also will have service to the Holidazzle parades on Saturdays through Dec. 23.
Tim Harlow 612-673-7768 Twitter: @timstrib