The Northstar Commuter line has taken beatings both in the press and at the fare box over the past couple years largely over its dismal on-time performance.

But now there is some good news. Last year the line that runs 41 miles between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis saw a small turn around with nearly 96 percent of its runs arriving on-time, and with that a small uptick in ridership. For the year, the Northstar line provided 722,637 rides compared with 721,214 the year before, Metro Transit figures showed.

The positive momentum kept rolling through January as trains ran on schedule 98 percent of the time and ridership for the month of 2016 was up 5 percent compared to January 2014, said John Paul Zanaska, director of commuter rail for Metro Transit.

Last week when the first big snowstorm of the season hit, ridership topped 3,000 on Tuesday and Wednesday. That's 20 percent more than usual, said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb during this week's Met Council Transportation Committee meeting.

"We were able to shine during the snow and blizzard conditions," Zanaska said.

The 2015 ridership report comes after a year that saw a steep decline in passenger traffic. Ridership fell from 787,239 in 2013 to 721,214 in 2014, a drop of 66,025 rides. Metro Transit attributed the lost ridership to a rash of late trains caused by repeated mechanical issues, harsh weather conditions and track maintenance. Northstar’s 2014 performance showed that trains were on schedule only 65.7 percent of the time.

Trains were so late that agency, in an effort to retain riders, pledged refunds if trips arrived 11 or more minute late to the station. Metro Transit paid out $2,200 as part of its Service Guarantee Program. The promotion was launched to win back riders who stopped riding the train between Big Lake and Minneapolis last year after many deemed the service unreliable.

But with track work complete and more favorable weather, Northstar trains ran on schedule 96 percent of the time in 2015, meaning trains arrived at the end of the line within 5 minutes of the posted time.

Now the goal is to keep its current riders happy and draw in new ones.

"This was our year to win back the faith of our riders that we lost during the 2014 period," Zanaska said. "We proved that we can be reliable again."

Photo: Metro Transit

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