Country megastar Luke Bryan sang his final number, and a minute after 11 p.m. the radio call came into the Rail Control Center: The first concert ever held at U.S. Bank Stadium was over. It was show time for Metro Transit.
Stung by harsh criticism of the long lines, slow trains and jammed cars that met capacity crowds after the stadium’s opening event Aug. 3, agency officials were out to prove themselves.
This time, as more than 8,000 fans swarmed the light-rail platforms outside the new $1 billion home of the Minnesota Vikings Aug. 19, the control center activated its new, improved response. Agency officials invited the Star Tribune into the center, in an undisclosed location where reporters are rarely allowed, to watch the action firsthand.
The Bryan show was sold out, just like the Aug. 3 soccer match that overwhelmed the agency and prompted Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck to vow that he “had every bit of confidence that Metro Transit will be better prepared for the next event.”
The agency threw everything at this one, from summer interns to state-of-the-art technology.
It stationed interns and employees from across the agency on platforms to direct fans to the right lines and ticket machines. It deployed its full fleet of rail cars. Blue and Green line trains pulled in and out of U.S. Bank Stadium Station every 2 minutes and 30 seconds.
Sixteen train operators picked up extra shifts, allowing for 27 trains to run instead of the nine or 10 on a typical Friday night. Eleven members of the maintenance crew — three more than normal — fanned out along the lines, just in case. And in a “new approach to customer service,” two Metro Transit employees were embedded inside U.S. Bank Stadium to radio updates on the concert back to the control center and cue controllers when to start rolling trains.
Metro Transit has been running special service to Twins and Vikings games since the Blue Line opened more than a decade ago. But it’s different now. Two light-rail lines are running downtown between the Twins and Vikings stadiums. Stadium event ridership is at record levels — 13,700 for the opening soccer match at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The agency is still trying to balance arrivals and departures on the Green and Blue lines that share the single set of tracks at U.S. Bank Stadium. That variable did not exist at the old Metrodome.
“That’s part of the learning curve,” said Mark Benedict, Metro Transit’s director of Rail Operations. On Aug. 3, he said, “We were surprised by the number of Green Line riders. Until you experience something, you just don’t know.”
For the Aug. 19 event, the agency parked four empty three-car trains on track extensions north of Target Field Station, ready to roll toward U.S. Bank Stadium upon command. Others were parked on sidings or in rail yards. Once deployed, they didn’t stop at other downtown stations and arrived at U.S. Bank Stadium with maximum capacity available.
That was supposed to have happened on Aug. 3, but some operators mistakenly picked up passengers at the Warehouse, Nicollet Mall and Government Center stations, leaving less room for soccer fans.
From the Rail Control Center, a room that could pass for a NASA space station, staff kept tabs on the position of each of the 27 trains to ensure they came and went from U.S. Bank Stadium every 150 seconds, as opposed to the normal eight to 10 minutes. They had to make sure trains didn’t bunch up and block intersections or crash into each other, a real possibility at the I-35W junction where Blue and Green Line trains cross each other’s tracks.
“No. 9, hold at Nicollet,” the dispatcher overseeing a downtown section of tracks told one operator. To another he said, “Block 6, you can now depart Nicollet.”
“We’re always thinking, how do we get people out of the game?” transit supervisor Marrio Leon said as he watched video footage of the U.S. Bank Stadium platform on his desk monitor while coordinating Green Line trains. “A lot of what happens has to do with what pops up.”
Plenty can. That night, service was briefly halted twice when there were reports of people lying on the tracks. Another time service stopped when a vehicle got stuck on a switching unit and had to be towed off the tracks.
“You can have something planned and something totally different can happen,” said Catrina Boucher, assistant manager of rail operations. “As long as queue lines are moving, people are less likely to complain.”
Timothy Rethlake, who took the train from the University of Minnesota to the Bryan show, agreed. After the concert, he was able to walk right onto a Green Line train just before it left the station.
“Two stops later we were at East Bank, out of the parking garage and back home to Lakeville about an hour after the concert finished,” he said. “About half the time I figured it would take.”
Train cars can carry up to 200 people, what Metro Transit calls “Crush Trains.” The goal is to fill as many trains as possible to clear platforms within 60 to 90 minutes. But that goal was widely criticized as way too long after the soccer match.
Trains do have priority at the intersection of 4th and Chicago Avenue outside U.S. Bank Stadium for 30 minutes after an event lets out. After that, trains have to wait their turns at traffic signals. The city would have to approve extending that time, something Metro Transit hopes will happen.
“We push as many trains through there as fast as we can in that time,” Benedict said. “If we could have five to six more minutes, that would buy us two to three more trains.”
Long waits on rail platforms are not unique to the Twin Cities. In Baltimore where 10,000 fans take the train to Ravens football games, the Maryland Transit Administration’s goal is to clear platforms in “an hour or so,” said Thomas Drozt, the agency’s Operations Control Center director. Pittsburgh authorities tell fans leaving downtown sporting events to “expect a significant wait.”
Providing special event service is “not an easy deal, especially when you offer new service or service to a new location,” said Scott Reed, spokesman for the Regional Transportation District in Denver, where about a third of fans take transit to Broncos football games. “People tend to try it on their own without studying up, so there is always on-the-spot learning.”
The lesson appeared to be learned in Minneapolis. At 11:41 p.m. on Aug. 19, only 40 minutes after Bryan’s show, the queue on the U.S. Bank Stadium platform dropped to zero. “An amazing clear time,” Benedict said.
The next challenge for Metro Transit’s Rail Control Center comes Sunday when the Vikings play their preseason home opener at noon. Then comes Thursday evening, when Vikings, Twins, Saints and Gopher football teams all have home games. And the State Fair continues.
“We’ll move a lot of people that day, Benedict said. “We’re up for it.”