It's been a tough run for Metro Transit's Northstar commuter train over the past month, and the bad luck continued Tuesday when two separate freight locomotives experienced mechanical issues and blocked the tracks between Big Lake and Elk River.
That forced Metro Transit to scurry to get buses to the stations and give commuters a ride to work. But that didn't occur until after the first two inbound runs were scrubbed. In all, the first four runs didn't operate Tuesday. The fifth and final trip did operate, running about 20 minutes late.
Some passengers in Big Lake who boarded the 5:01 a.m. train said they waited almost two hours to get on a bus. Ross Priest, who commutes from Big Lake to his job in downtown St. Paul, swiped his Metropass card at 6:07 a.m. Just before 7 a.m., he got off the train, got in his car and began driving to his job. But then he turned around when he learned traffic was bad, and went back to the station. He got on bus just after 7 a.m.. He wondered why it took so long to get buses to the station.
"Do we need a train bill of rights?," asked Priest, alluding to laws that limit length of time airlines can hold passengers on the tarmac when flights are delayed. "These people were stuck. My biggest question is do they have a contingency plan? I hope they come up with a back-up plan."
Metro Transit does have plans in place to deal with delays and unforeseen problems on the tracks, said spokesman John Siqveland.
On Tuesday, Metro Transit told customers at 5 a.m. via Twitter, Facebook and its webpage that the first inbound train would be delayed 30 minutes, based on information Metro Transit got from BNSF, the railway which owns the tracks. As the delay grew to an hour and the second departure was scrubbed, Metro Transit arranged for buses to pick up passengers in Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley. It called Northstar Link buses from St. Cloud to pick up passengers in Big Lake, Elk River, Ramsey.
By then, it was after 7 a.m.
Many customers were upset with the delays and a lack of information from Metro Transit. Riders like Heather Beyer thought they'd be getting text messages after Metro Transit said it would improve communication in apology letters given to riders last week.
"I signed up for Metro Transit’s rider alerts to send me text messages, I didn't’t get any texts about the cancelations," Beyer said. "I heard about the cancelations from my friends and co-workers. Everyone is getting so upset that we are starting to set up carpools because we cannot rely on the train>'
Siqveland said Metro Transit believed that BNSF would be able to move the broken-down locomotives and that Northstar service would be able to operate.
"We were expecting the trains to be able to move," Siqveland said. "When the first was canceled and we realized the second was delayed, the bus bridge service was mustered and put into effect as quickly as we could."
Priest, and others who wrote and called the Drive, asked why buses are not parked at rail stations for emergency situations.
With the Northstar route running more than 35 miles, it's by far longer than any bus route. That alone means it takes longer to get buses out to the stations. Even if Metro Transit had extra buses parked there, it would still take time to get a driver to operate them, Siqveland said.
Up until January, Northstar was one of Metro Transit's most reliable services with a 96 percent on time record. That, along with fare reductions put in place last year, helped ridership soar. But the line has suffered a rash of delays caused by mechanical failures, cold weather and rail lines clogged with freight trains.
"This winter has been a new challenge for us, one we are trying to overcome," Siqveland said. "We are working with BNSF to come up with other strategies and working to clear freight traffic."
Priest says the inconsistent service lately has led some people he knows to abandon the train.
"I think they lost a few customers," said an irritated Priest, who said he will remain a Metro Transit rider because it's way cheaper than driving to St. Paul and having to pay to park. "They have lost customers who are making the drive or were giving Metro Transit a chance to win them over."