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

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

The Drive: Northstar’s bug-riddled alert system irks riders

  • Article by: Tim Harlow
  • Star Tribune
  • March 9, 2014 - 7:51 PM

Riders have had lots to say about the frequent delays that have occurred on the Northstar Commuter line over the past two months. Their latest beef is about the agency’s electronic alerts, which they say are as unreliable as the trains.

Those who signed up for alerts say the messages are vague, uninformative and unresponsive to riders’ needs.

Last month, in an effort to tamp down customers’ anger, Metro Transit launched its new alert service that allows passengers to get notices by e-mail or text message. Callie Bird is one of 975 people who have signed up for the free service, a small number of users on a line that averages 2,783 boardings each weekday. She says the alerts have been coming too late to be of any help.

“After standing at a train station for 10 to 15 minutes, alerts may arrive. They may arrive 20 to 30 minutes into the ‘situation,’ or they do not alert at all,” she said. “I like that Metro has the text alert system and I am receiving such messages. However, the alerts are usually so much after the fact that I find myself shaking my head and feeling somewhat embarrassed for Metro Transit’s late alerts.”

Other riders were irked when they got multiple e-mails or texts for the same alert, and when the notice arrived at 10:30 p.m. at night, well after an alert expired.

Tierney Peters says e-mails have been “vague and uninformative.” Her wish list: messages that spell out the route, location of delay, reason, accurate delay lengths and information about a backup plan. “The ‘click here’ page should list buses expected to leave each station and where they will be dropping people off in Minneapolis.”

In an apology letter to Northstar riders last month, Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said, “If a trip becomes — or we know it will become — delayed at least 15 minutes, we’ll let you know.” That is not timely enough for Michelle Paddock, who like many riders wants information any time trains are running behind.

System still being tested

“No one wants to be outside waiting for the train,” she wrote on the agency’s Facebook page. “You need to text us when the train is going to be late even 2 min. I would rather sit in my car and be warm than under a light bulb you seem to think is going to keep us warm. I think you need to look at your options for contacting us again.”

Transit agency spokesman John Siqveland said he is sympathetic to riders’ frustration, but points out that the system still is in beta testing. It was rolled out before it was truly ready when Northstar delays became frequent.

“Messages were not getting pushed out, but we think we have that solved,” Siqveland said. To customers, “we say thanks for the feedback. We’ve had technical issues and have a long way to go. We are refining the language of messages and learning how to manage expired alerts. We know that is as irritating for them as it is for us. It’s part of the learning process.”

Until the alert system is tweaked and refined, riders are using the Facebook grapevine as a means of communicating with Metro Transit and providing status reports to one another.

“Riders will overlook barf on the floor, something sticky on the seat, a grumpy driver, an obnoxious rider, a screaming kid, standing for an hour or shelter doors stuck shut,” Bird said. “Riders will not overlook being late.”

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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