Northstar Commuter Rail Line begins daily service


Transportation in the Twin Cities region entered a new era Monday, as the Northstar Commuter Rail Line began daily service. Northstar – operated by Metro Transit – will offer five trips weekdays between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis (with one reverse trip) and three roundtrips on weekends. For schedules, fares, and station locations, visit the Northstar website.

Union labor built the six stations on the route – Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids, Fridley, downtown Minneapolis.

Members of three unions will operate and maintain Northstar. Northstar’s nine conductors will be members of the United Transportation Union. Northstar’s nine engineers will be members of either UTU or the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. And 25 members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 will maintain Northstar trains, buildings, stations, train platforms and ticket machines.

Funding for the construction and launch of the $320 million Northstar Commuter Rail Line came from federal, state and local government.

Northstar Commuter train
A Northstar train approached the Anoka station Nov. 14.

Photos by Steve Share

Celebrating a milestone
At celebrations Saturday at each of the six stations along the route, elected officials from all three levels of government highlighted the partnership that brought Northstar to Monday’s milestone.

“This project was 13 years in the making but in the end it got done on time and $10 million under budget,” said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who addressed the Anoka celebration along with other elected officials. “You can see what happens when people cross party lines and get things done.”

“You made this happen in spite of a whole lot of people saying ‘no,'” said State Senator Tarryl Clark, St. Cloud, addressing the crowd. “Help us stay together,” Clark urged, as efforts to extend Northstar to St. Cloud continue.

“This is a huge day in the history of Anoka,” said Anoka Mayor Phil Rice. He noted how Anoka was founded where the Rum River and enters the Mississippi River – at a time when river travel was the best mode of transportation. Years later, “it all boils down to transportation,” he said.

With the opening of Northstar, Rice said, “this is another reason this city will thrive.” Like other communities with Northstar stations, Anoka hopes the train traffic will spur local development activity and offer an incentive for people to live in Anoka and commute by train to Minneapolis. “We hope for great things as a result of this commuter rail station here in Anoka.”

Dan Erhart
Dan Erhart

Transportation visionary
Several speakers, including Klobuchar, credited Anoka County commissioner Dan Erhart as “the visionary to get this done.” Erhart served as chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority.

“Dan Erhart has been team leader to make this work,” said fellow Anoka County commissioner Dennis Berg. “He brought it home.”

“There were times when Northstar and the future didn’t look as bright as we hoped,” Erhart related. “We never lost site of the goal, never lost the vision.”

The Anoka celebration featured a live jazz band, refreshments and a group of Civil War re-enactors dressed in period uniforms and clothing. Following the speeches and a ribbon-cutting, about 800 people who had scored free tickets waited for a 2:45 p.m. train to downtown Minneapolis.

One of the people waiting was Richard Wheeler, Mankato, a member of Teamsters Local 320. “I hope people use it for commuting to the Twin Cities,” he said.

Wheeler came all the way to Anoka from Mankato to ride Northstar, he explained, because he is a rail fan. He and his wife have traveled by train to both the east and west coasts on Amtrak for vacations. And now, he said, when he has business in Minneapolis, he never drives downtown anymore, but goes only as far as the Mall of America and then boards the Hiawatha Light Rail Line.

Riding the rails
The brightly-painted blue and yellow Northstar train arrived at the Anoka station and the crowd boarded for the 30-minute trip into downtown Minneapolis. On board, passengers found seating on both a lower level and upper level, with some seats arranged as pairs of two facing seats, with a small table inbetween (and a plug-in for laptop computers).

Thomas Gangle
Thomas Gangle, conductor
on the Northstar

The train zipped past the Coon Rapids and Fridley stations – no stopping there Nov. 14 – past freight train yards, then slowed down as it neared downtown.

The passengers disembarked for an hour’s stay at the Target Field station in downtown Minneapolis station.

A short walk along the train platform led to an elevator up to street level, where travelers can make a connection to the Hiawatha Light Rail line, offering service to the airport and the Mall of America.

At opening festivities Saturday, a live band entertained at the Target Field Station inside a large, heated tent. Other attractions a display of historical photos of Minneapolis train stations, and information about the region’s next planned rail line: the Central Corridor Light Rail Line from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.

Northstar conductor Thomas Gangle, Ramsey, talked with a reporter at the Target Field Station before the train ran back to Anoka.

Gangle has worked for railroads for 20 years and is a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, he related. He worked as an engineer on Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains before winning the assignment to Northstar (BNSF crews will operate the Northstar trains for Metro Transit).

The Northstar crews have been making practice runs with empty trains since August, Gangle said. “Everything is new equipment.”

Gangle added: “It’s kind of fun to have people on board for a change.”

For Gangle, switching from BNSF freight trains to Northstar is a welcome personal change. “You know when you’re going to work, you know your days off.” As a freight engineer, he said, “you’re living by the phone” and could be called to work anytime.

Gangle said his new Northstar assignment working as a conductor also will be new in bringing him in constant contact with the public. “I like it,” he said. “It’s fun. You meet all kinds of different people.”

Steve Share edits the Labor Review, the official publication of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at

crowd at opening of Northstar Commuter Rail
Crowds packed the train for a special preview run Nov. 14.