The Northstar commuter-rail line has yet to meet ridership expectations, but it can succeed if it adds wireless Internet, revamps train schedules, and develops catchy Facebook and YouTube ad campaigns, say students at St. Cloud State University.
A class of journalism students has devoted an entire semester to thinking up public-relations campaigns for the three-year-old, 41-mile line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. They say they and faculty would take the train and its connecting bus to St. Cloud, if only the trains were more accommodating.
"We crunched the numbers and when you consider gas and parking, it's far more economical to take the train," said Lindsey Rogers, 21, a junior taking Lisa Heinrich's Public Relations Cases and Campaigns class.
Timing is a big reason they don't. "Part of the problem, for students and faculty, is that there's only one early morning train that goes west," said Rogers. "The other concern is that many of the students we surveyed didn't know the train existed."
Of the more than 500 students surveyed, one-third said they were not aware of rail transportation between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, and nearly two-thirds did not know the name of the train service. Three-fourths of the respondents said they had never ridden the train.
Northstar's ridership is down 2.2 percent overall this year in spite of free rides, reduced fares, special-event trains and a new Ramsey station. Ridership from January through October totaled 589,686. But in the three months since Aug. 1, when fares were lowered by an average of $1, ridership rose 8 percent.
Northstar officials have said the $317 million line will not realize its potential until it is extended to St. Cloud. Those same officials say that won't be considered until the line more than doubles its current ridership. The projected 4,500 rides per day needed to extend the line another 30 miles is not expected to be realized for five years, experts say.
The students interviewed also said they were anxious about riding the train. Jennifer Kaari, 22, commutes to St. Cloud State from Maple Grove every day.
"I'm intimidated," she said. "It's not just having to readjust my schedule -- which I think students would do. But I've never taken a train. For people like me, we need to make this less scary."
Jessica Joly, 26, of Blaine, said she briefly attempted to take the train and bus to St. Cloud State. The only daily westbound morning train from the Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis leaves at 6:13 a.m., arriving in Big Lake at 7:02. The only daily east-bound evening train leaves Big Lake at 5:06 p.m.
"The schedule is unreasonable," Joly said.
"The schedule makes this train very hard to sell," said fellow student Hannah Wandersee, 21, of Oak Island, in northwestern Minnesota. "And if you're a student, you have to transfer to the bus. Students are willing to do that, but it makes things complicated."
Scheduling more Northstar trains is tricky because Burlington Northern owns the track and schedules more than 100 trains over the same route each day.
Eye-opener for rail backers
Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, who chairs the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, had asked Heinrich's class to commit a semester to Northstar.
"What the students have said is an eye-opener for me," Lenzmeier said Friday. "We're constantly trying to sell Northstar externally and internally -- to the four counties involved.
"But the students will be the ones who ultimately benefit from Northstar as a commuter line. It was built for them."
Next Thursday, the students will unveil a "ride along with Northstar campaign," which involves posing alongside a cardboard replica of the train.
"We want to change the image of people who ride the train," said Paula Pena, 21, a student from St. Cloud. "It's not just for people who can't afford a car. In Europe and in larger cities here, it's attractive. People in Minnesota need to know that."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419