Commuters give Northstar passing grades

Boarding the Northstar
Passengers board a Northstar commuter rail car in Big Lake Monday, Nov. 16, 2009.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota's first commuter rail line debuted today. Metro Transit says more than 1,200 people rode the Northstar Commuter Rail this morning on the 40-mile service between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis.

Transit officials say the Northstar train trips ran as smoothly as they could have hoped.

Metro Transit staff members were on hand at each train station to help people with the ticket machines and any other questions.

As soon as Jessica Peterson boarded the 5:49 AM train from Big Lake, where she lives, she walked up and down the aisles of one of the train cars. She gushed over the train's interior, and took a sneak peek at the upper level. Peterson appreciated having Metro Transit staff there to help her on her first day.

"I'm glad there are people here directing me. I feel a lot more comfortable," said Peterson. "Today I'm just overly excited and not sure how I'm going to get to work. I'm a little overwhelmed today, but I think it's going to be good going forward."

Peterson used to drive to Elk River every day, and then took a bus to her job in downtown Minneapolis. Now she'll skip that trip to Elk River.

A few seats away, Lenore Stanton of Big Lake read a book -- something she said she doesn't do as often as she'd like.

Conductor Vincent Roberts welcomed passengers aboard the inaugural weekday trip of the Northstar commuter rail line out of downtown Minneapolis before dawn this morning. Only about two dozen people, many of them transit officials and train enthusiasts, took the ride north to Big Lake.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"I am excited, but I'm also a little nervous. I'm used to having that freedom of having my car with me," she said.

Stanton plans to commute daily on Northstar, even though her commute will take a little longer. She thinks the $14-a-day round trip fare will actually save her money by cutting down on the wear and tear on her car.

In the wintertime, Andrea Felix will look forward to a shorter drive than her usual commute. Felix lives in Becker, about 45 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis, where she has worked for 30 years. She used to drive 25 miles to Elk River to catch a bus to work.

"So this is really nice to be able to catch the train from Big Lake. It's a 13-mile commute now to the train," said Felix. "I've been waiting for this train for years. So I'm very happy today. This is a big day for me!"

Passenger Marion Lageson, left, said she thought the train fare would about double her commuting expenses, but she thought it was worth the price to get out of traffic on Interstate 94.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The trains will travel at speeds up to 79 miles per hour. Metro Transit officials say Northstar trips will take about 51 minutes from end to end, regardless of weather conditions and nearby traffic congestion.

Many of Monday's commuters parked their cars at park-and-ride lots located at each suburban station, and purchased their train tickets on platforms equipped with cameras, emergency telephones, and heated enclosed shelters.

They were greeted in downtown Minneapolis at the Target Field Station by several public officials, including Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

From the Target Field Station, people can connect with buses and the Hiawatha light rail line to get to their ultimate destinations.

Bad weather option
Northstar commuter rail passenger Greg Henderson works in the IT department at Wells Fargo in downtown Minneapolis. He said he usually takes the regular Metro Transit bus from the Blaine park and ride lot, but thinks the train will be a good option during inclement weather.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons says not everyone who boarded the train at the suburban stations was heading to Minneapolis.

"We did have three bicycles on board ... and two of those bikes actually got off before downtown, so they were traveling between stations rather than all the way to downtown," said Gibbons. "So we're learning a little bit about what customers want."

One customer asked him to dim the lights in one of the passenger cars for napping, while another customer asked for a quiet car where people aren't allowed to talk on the phone or have business meetings.

Gibbons said he wants that kind of feedback from riders so Metro Transit can try to meet those needs.

Northstar commuter train
The sun rises on a Northstar commuter rail train.
MPR Photo/Jeff Jones

There were a couple of minor glitches during the first rush hour. Doors didn't open for a minute or two on one train at the Target Field Station, and one Hiawatha train connecting to Northstar was delayed by about five minutes.

And Northstar doesn't work for every commuter in the northwestern metro. Bob Samuer of Coon Rapids said he thinks Northstar is a terrific addition to transportation choices in the area. But Samuer drives about 40,000 miles a year to work across the state in cities such as Duluth, Grand Forks, Fargo, and Brainerd.

"I'm not going to use it as a job commuter, I'll use it for other things. I do have to drive around in traffic in the Twin Cities, and I'm sure that it will relieve traffic in the Twin Cities," said Samuer. "I'm not going to use it because it's not going where I need to go, but a lot of people who can use won't be on the road and that helps all highway drivers."

Samuer said he will use Northstar to go to special events in the Twin Cities and to the airport.

Metro Transit officials expect first-day passenger numbers will reach nearly 2,500 rides. That's about 70 percent of average weekday ridership expected during Northstar's first year.

The commuter coach bus to the Big Lake station, the Northstar Link, also debuted in St. Cloud, where agencies involved with the Northstar project hope to expand rail service in the future.