Average on-time performance on the line, which links the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs to Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis, plummeted from a high of 97 percent in 2012 to 66 percent in 2014, Metro Transit numbers show. Average weekday ridership has also tumbled 8 percent, from 2,783 last year to 2,550 this year.
The line’s recent struggles, which have persisted despite a $1 rate reduction in 2012-13 and a coupon campaign offering free rides, stand in contrast to the success of the Twin Cities’ Green and Blue light-rail lines.
But officials at Metro Transit, which operates both the commuter and light-rail lines, point out that the Northstar line shares its rails with freight trains, while the light-rail lines run on their own tracks. Congestion and delays on the Northstar line are largely due to increased freight and oil train traffic, they say.
Brian Lamb, Metro Transit’s general manager, said Northstar will restore its on-time reliability, which should swell ridership.
He said BNSF, which owns the tracks, has made upgrades and scheduling changes that will help Northstar. In addition, he said, the line is emphasizing customer service, including station improvements and the recent addition of Wi-Fi to all trains.
“We think this investment should not be looked at on a year-to-year basis. This is a longer-term infrastructure investment,” Lamb said. “We continue to try and make the service safer and more convenient.”
Northstar cost $320 million in federal, state and local funds to build. The Minnesota Twins also contributed $2.6 million.
An urban and regional planning expert at the University of Minnesota said Northstar’s latest ambitions aren’t unrealistic.
“There are other commuter rail systems around the country that were slow to start and have eventually grown into much larger factors in their metro areas,” said Andy Guthrie, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs with a focus on urban and regional planning.
Guthrie said Northstar came online during a time of economic downturn, when there was little growth in the north metro. He cautioned against comparisons to the Blue and Green light-rail lines, which run through the densely populated urban core every 10 minutes and have dozens of stations. Northstar runs 12 trains a day, with seven stops in more sparsely populated Anoka and Sherburne counties.
“It’s a question of time,” Guthrie said.
Looking down the track
Late last week, a BNSF Railway spokeswoman acknowledged that freight volumes along the Northstar line are up, but said the railroad is working to coordinate freight and commuter traffic. “Many of the maintenance efforts this year will continue to improve reliability for all traffic on our tracks,” spokesman Amy McBeth said in a written statement.
BNSF’s maintenance work on the Northstar track has included replacement of 60,000 ties and nearly 13 miles of rail, and major mainline switch work at Coon Creek. Crews have also added new switch covers from Big Lake east through Minneapolis to prevent freezing and service interruptions. BNSF said it has also added mechanical employees who are “rapid responders” in the event of mechanical issues.
McBeth said that down the line, the railroad plans to undertake “large-capacity expansion efforts” in Minnesota that will include adding double track in areas from Minneapolis to Staples and in parts of the Twin Cities to “increase fluidity of train movement in the same corridor where Northstar operates.”
Despite the delays, development is blooming along the Northstar line, including apartment and senior living projects in Fridley, Anoka and Big Lake.
“This started in areas that had not had transit service in the past,” said Lamb. “It’s really been an introduction that the communities themselves have rallied around and seen development around. You go up and down the line and you see how the station areas’ planning and development is really starting to occur.”
Many city leaders remain bullish about the commuter rail’s potential.
“We strongly believed in Northstar then, and we believe in it now,” said Scott Hickok, Fridley’s community development director. “We do believe the development that happens in and around the station site is important to the city’s future.”
A developer is building the first phase of a 256-unit, market-rate apartment complex just steps from the train station. It’s Fridley’s first big project in its transit-oriented development district — nearly 175 acres of land ripe for new homes and businesses.
Hickok argues that it’s too early to write off the line and that more commuters are likely to start using it to get to Fridley, which imports workers each day to fill 27,000 jobs in the city, including at Medtronic. He said mass transit presents a steeper learning curve for suburbanites, who are used to relying on vehicles to commute.
“I am confident we are going to work through this,” he said. “Once folks become accustomed to doing it, they realize it’s an enjoyable way to travel and it has a lot of benefits, especially this time of year.”
In Anoka, the city has created a redevelopment area around its train station, and says developers are interested. The city also just completed a new 334-stall parking garage with a pedestrian overpass to serve the station.
Erik Thorvig, Anoka’s economic development manager called this year’s slumping ridership “a hiccup.” The city’s Northstar station has “created the potential of a new neighborhood around the Northstar station,” he said. “It allows us to attract new residents we may not have gotten otherwise.”
Still seeing benefits
Regular Northstar riders say they’ve noticed the delays this year, but that so far, the benefits still outweigh the lost time.
As darkness fell Friday, Mary Murphy sat with her “train gang” friends on the 5:30 p.m. northbound train in downtown Minneapolis. She switched from driving to taking the train from Elk River about two years ago. Traffic congestion, gas prices, “ridiculous” downtown parking costs, and wear and tear on her car all made Northstar an attractive alternative, she said.
“It’s a great way to get to work, and you make wonderful friends,” she said.
Still, delays this year forced Murphy to make some changes. She no longer schedules any evening events at home before 7 p.m. And she arrives in downtown Minneapolis at 6 a.m., giving herself a two-hour cushion before she’s due at work at 8 a.m.
Murphy said she’s heard that BNSF is working on track and scheduling fixes.
“We appreciate that,” she said. “It needs to be more.”