Trains are fun. But are they a viable alternative to driving for Minnesota commuters?
I rode the Northstar commuter train from Big Lake to Minneapolis for the first time to find out.
In December, Northstar’s first full month of operation, people took 49,070 trips, according to Bob Gibbons, spokesperson for Metro Transit, which operates the line. That’s about three percent ahead of what the agency predicted, he said.
“It’s promising, but ridership patterns aren’t really going to establish themselves until sometime in the first quarter of this year,” he said. “Then we’ll have a truer sense of the demand and what needs tweaking.”
My Northstar experience began at 6:30 a.m. in St. Cloud, the Central Minnesota regional hub that was originally supposed to be Northstar’s other bookend. That changed when a federal cost-benefit analysis suggested there wouldn’t be enough riders in St. Cloud to justify bringing the line out that far, and political leaders decided half of something was better than all of nothing.
Local governments that support bringing Northstar to the St. Cloud area funded a commuter coach service called Northstar Link. It takes people from St. Cloud to the Big Lake station and back again on weekdays on a 40-minute drive that costs riders $3 each way. St. Cloud commuters can also drive to Big Lake and leave the car in the park-and-ride lot.
Northstar Link riders took an average of 94 trips per day to Big Lake during the most recent week for which data was available, said Tom Cruikshank, director of planning and marketing for St. Cloud Metro Bus, which operates the coach service. That’s up from the mid-70s per day in its first weeks of operation in November, he said.
There were nearly a dozen people on my bus, and it traveled pleasantly through the foggy pre-dawn morning until we reached the train platform in Big Lake with time to spare.
Once there, I purchased my $14 round-trip fare from an automated ticket kiosk and climbed on board.
The 50-minute journey rolled by smoothly through stops in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids, Fridley and finally the Target Field Station stop in downtown Minneapolis.
I walked to a connecting Hiawatha light rail station, which dropped me off a short walk away from the Daily Planet’s Seward neighborhood offices. Later, I took the light rail to the Metrodome and caught a crosstown express bus to downtown St. Paul for another meeting and lunch.
While it’s now possible to get anywhere in the Twin Cities you need to go from St. Cloud without a car, I can’t see hordes of regular commuters doing so. Even with the bus and train running on schedule — Northstar has a 95.5 percent on-time performance record so far, Gibbons said — it takes an hour longer to get between St. Cloud and St. Paul than driving under good traffic and weather conditions.
More frequent service and more direct connections from the Target Field Station could shave a few minutes off that total. And when conditions aren’t optimal, the train would look pretty good compared to three-plus hours of stop-and-go driving.
My return trip from St. Paul began at 3 p.m. and brought me to my St. Cloud home by 5:30 p.m. Someone who gets off work at 5 p.m. wouldn’t make it back before 7:30 p.m.
On the return trip, I talked with a group of women who live in Elk River and work in downtown Minneapolis and have begun taking the train daily. A 45-minute Northstar commute works fine for them. But if you live more than an hour away, or need to make multiple bus or light rail connections to get to work once you arrive, I’m not sure Northstar will convince you to leave the car at home.
There are no plans to change any bus routes or add any trips to the schedule this spring, Gibbons said. (On weekdays, the Northstar runs only during commuting hours. Fewer trips are scheduled on weekends – see schedule here.)
“We’d have to go back … and negotiate and pay (BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks) for more easements to expand service, and it’s too early to even begin that conversation,” he said.
Metro Transit will be making some tweaks this spring. Special event trains will make 35-40 trips to the Twin Cities and back to bring people to Minnesota Twins home games during the week, and staff are working on a family pass that would make the trip more affordable, he said.
A scheduled rate increase will boost the maximum one-way fare from $7 to $8 by mid-November, Gibbons said.
Political advocates for expanding Northstar to St. Cloud are expected to try again at the Legislature this spring, but much will depend on how many people are riding the bus in the first quarter of the year, Cruikshank said.
“That’s the $150 million question. Can we demonstrate the ridership that would justify the investment?”