Northstar ready to hit the rails

Northstar commuter train
A Northstar commuter rail train sits at the Target Field station in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeff Jones

Commuters from the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs and beyond begin riding the Northstar commuter rail line on Monday.

The 40-mile line runs from Big Lake to Minneapolis, with stops in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley.

Most of the service goes into the city in the morning and back out in the evening, but there is also a daily round trip for reverse commuters and weekend runs in both directions. Weekday round-trip fares range from $6.50 to $14.

The weekend was full of activities to unveil the new commuter train service, including rides available to members of the public.

On Saturday, about 700 people gathered at each of the five suburban Northstar stations to take a test run on the train.

Each station featured presentations about various transportation choices, from trains to buses to bicycling.

"Our clientele, really, is people who are headed to and from work in downtown Minneapolis," said Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for Metro Transit. "We are trying to help defeat congestion on Highway 10 and Highway 47, give people a choice about their transportation commuting in the Highway 10 corridor, which is one of the most congested in our region."

Northstar station
The Northstar station at the new Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The trains took people to the Target Field station, where the Northstar will have about 250 interconnections with the Hiawatha light rail line and other regional bus services. It will also connect with the Minneapolis skyway system.

Mark Stenglein, a Hennepin County commissioner, said the purpose of these public events is to introduce commuter rail to greater Minnesotans.

"The unique thing is we have commuter rail meeting light rail, which is going overhead right by the Target Field here in downtown Minneapolis," said Stenglein. "We're setting it up so that people can commute without a car on fixed guideway transit into downtown Minneapolis, and ultimately off to St. Paul, Eden Prairie, and up to Maple Grove."

Each of the train's four passenger cars will accommodate 140 riders. Each car is fully accessible to people with disabilities and can also accommodate bicycles.

If more people than anticipated use the service, Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb says the agency can easily expand the system.

"We can actually add more cars per train unit, and that's the next source of expansion. So each time we add an individual car, it will accommodate another couple hundred riders, and so we think that there is opportunity for us to continue to modularly expand the system. And, of course, the other way to expand the system is to add more frequency and that will come in time."

Downtown Minneapolis resident Suzie Todnem, who took a train ride from Fridley Saturday, said she won't benefit as a daily commuter because she works in Shakopee, but she's still excited about the state's first commuter rail service.

"I'm very impressed. It's really exciting," said Todnem. "I lived in Japan for a number of years, so that kind of set the bar for my expectations of public transportation and this is right up there."

Columbia Heights resident Jim Reece said he will strongly consider using Northstar on a regular basis during the weekdays.

"If it gets to the point where I do not have to use my car at my job, then I'll probably be commuting back and forth from my home to downtown Minneapolis, where I work," said Reece. "It's much more efficient and a lot less stressful."

Another Columbia Heights resident, Jan Smith, said she is excited to take the Northstar to Twins baseball games in downtown Minneapolis. She said the train trip will allow her to be more social, too.

"I loved talking to the people while we were waiting to get on the train (on Saturday) and while we were riding, because we met neighbors that we've lived next to and didn't know," said Smith. "We can't do that in a car, you can't talk to your neighbors, you can't meet people."

Smith said she has been waiting for this commuter rail service to launch for a long time.

The Northstar project, which cost $317 million, was designed and built by the Minnesota Department of Transporation. It is owned by the Met Council and managed by Metro Transit, an operating division of the Council.

Lamb says agencies involved with the Northstar project are looking into expanding the commuter rail service to St. Cloud in the future.

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