In an effort to woo riders back to the struggling Northstar commuter line, Metro Transit will give refunds to customers when trains arrive at the station 11 or more minutes late.

The money-back guarantee announced Thursday will be in effect Jan. 1 to Jan. 31.

The one-month promotion comes after a year that saw Northstar's on-time performance plunge and customers flee what they saw as unreliable service from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis.

"Our brand promise from the beginning when we started this service in 2009 was reliability," said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb during a news briefing Thursday at Target Field Station, which ironically started late. "This is not an empty promise. We think we can deliver good on-time service in the month of January."

Metro Transit is putting itself on the line with an on-time guarantee when there are many factors beyond its control. The Northstar shares the tracks with BNSF Railway and often competes with freight trains for track space. Harsh weather and mechanical problems contributed to the frequent and lengthy delays last winter. Summer and fall brought a rash of track maintenance, which led to chronic tardiness.

Northstar's 2014 performance was a major decline from 2012, when it had a 97 percent on-time record and a yearly ridership of 700,276. In 2013 it ran on schedule 90 percent of the time and ridership jumped to a record high 787,239. This year, through October, trains were on schedule only 65.7 percent of the time, and through November ridership was 670,907, a dip of 10 percent from 2013.

Lamb said he hopes the free-ride offer will convince disaffected riders to come back, and reward those who have stuck with it.

"This has been an unusual, challenging year for Northstar, " Lamb said. "We want to thank our existing customers and invite back those who this year have said, 'I can't quite depend on Northstar the way I used to.' "

Refunds for card-carriers

Riders will have to register on the Metro Transit website to be eligible for the program. The agency will track rides by customers who use prepaid fare cards at station card readers and issue refunds at the end of the month for any trips beyond the 11-minute threshold. Customers who pay cash will not get refunds.

Metro Transit, which runs 288 weekday Northstar trips each week, will use its own funds to cover the refunds. BNSF has yet to commit any money to cover lost fares. Weekday one-way fares range from $3 to $6.

"We're evaluating their program and we'll be discussing it more with Metro Transit," said railroad spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

BNSF spent more than $1 billion in 2014 on repairs and capital improvements on its Northern Corridor, which includes the 41-mile segment on which Northstar trains run. That included replacing about 60,000 ties, replacing a major main line switch, and adding about 100 new switch covers in the area to help prevent snow and ice buildup.

With that work complete, McBeth said Northstar's on-time rate should rebound. Lamb said it has been on time or within 5 minutes of the scheduled arrival time at a 95 percent clip during December.

For now, McBeth said, BNSF is committed to fulfilling its deal with Metro Transit. "We're committed to the agreement we have to operate Northstar service and are focused on meeting that and continuing the trend in good performance."

'Might get people back'

Riders were informed of the refund program as they boarded trains Thursday afternoon at Target Field Station.

"It's great, because they were late a lot," said Diane Worms, of Clear Lake, who has been riding the Northstar for five years. "I know people who stopped taking the train … I think this might get people back."

Ben Lamphere, a one-year rider, said he appreciates the program but doesn't think the refund is necessary.

"As customers, we have to understand there are other trains on the track and you can't always meet expectations," he said. "Even though they are providing a service, people need to be more understanding."

Lamb said the program will be evaluated after January. "We'll assess what the success and customer reaction was and ridership change was," he said.