Northstar delays get Capitol hearing

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 8:21 PM

Legislators to look into options for coordinating trains with increased freight traffic on tracks owned by BNSF.

Delays along the Northstar Line have prompted a hearing this week at the State Capitol.

While trains made their runs from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis on time Tuesday morning, riders’ frustration hit the boiling point on Monday when one inbound run arrived at Target Field two hours late and others saw delays of 90, 75 and 37 minutes. The delays were so severe that Metro Transit warned customers to plan alternate transportation and dispatched buses to drive passengers from the stations to Minneapolis.

The delays, mostly blamed on conflicts with freight trains, have become untenable, said House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

He will participate in a legislative hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 5 of the State Office Building in St. Paul to look at how the dramatic increase in freight traffic caused by the oil boom in North Dakota is affecting railroad safety and passenger rail service.

“Given on what happened [Monday] and several times already, we will include questions for BNSF,” Hornstein said. “There is a lack of coordination and infrastructure. We are overwhelmed with the oil freight question. We are looking into it.”

A few of the delays on the Northstar Line have been weather- and mechanical-related, but most have been because rail lines were clogged with freight trains. Amtrak’s Empire Builder service through North Dakota and into Washington state also has been interrupted.

Until January when the delays began, 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.

Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said the number of rides taken on the Northstar in January was down 2 percent to 54,507 compared with January 2013. That was a decrease of 1,172 rides. The bitter cold and several days in which schools were closed also were factors in the decline, Kerr said.

A few fed-up passengers have said they are now driving to Maple Grove and catching express buses from there.

While Tuesday morning might been a smooth commute for Northstar riders, more delays are expected.

Officials for BNSF, which owns the tracks, said Monday 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.”

 

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768

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