Northstar rail ridership is higher than expected

Passenger Marion Lageson says Northstar takes the stress out of driving in bad weather and traffic, so she's never late to work.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

After more than 20 years commuting to downtown Minneapolis from Big Lake, Marion Lageson has a new routine.

Her husband drops and picks her up at the Northstar Big Lake station so she can take the train to and from work. She said Northstar takes the stress out of driving in bad weather and traffic, so she's never late.

"I commuted in a carpool for about 20 years and then rode the bus," Lageson said. "So I've been going a lot of different ways, and I would not go back to commuting any other way."

The state bonding bill included $1 million to extend Northstar commuter rail service to St. Cloud. The Legislature approved it, but the bill is on its way back to the House for further refining in the hopes it will avoid a gubernatorial veto.

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In the meantime, Northstar officials say they are pleased with ridership numbers. The rail service has now operated for two full months and more people are using it than officials projected.

Another Big Lake resident, Ashley Prentice, takes the Northstar to save money. She's a University of Minnesota student.

"The train is less stressful than driving, and definitely less costly on my pocketbook," said Prentice.

Prentice said now she saves $50 a week and finishes her homework on the train.

Metro Transit tallied an extra 174 rides than it expected for both December and January total. Metro Transit expected 92,736 rides for December and January total and it tallied 92,910 rides.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said the agency is receiving positive feedback from people about the reliability of the service. Last month, the trains were punctual 98 percent of the time. He says ridership tends to be higher on snowstorm days.

"So people I think when they're particularly further up north in the Big Lake and Elk River area, which are the two stations that have the highest boardings, when they look at their commute for the following morning and there is snow in the forecast, I think they look for an alternative to driving alone in their cars," Gibbons said.

Gibbons said Metro Transit has quickly responded to passengers' suggestions for improvements. For example, Metro Transit added mats near the car entrances to make the floors less slippery during the winter.

Metro Transit is also introducing a round-trip family pass to make the service more affordable.

To attract airport traffic and tourism to the Twin Cities, each of the stations offers 10 overnight parking spots under a six-month pilot program. Gibbons says Metro Transit will evaluate whether to make overnight parking a permanent part of Northstar's service.

Gibbons said there have been few glitches. In December, Northstar couldn't operate two trips because of a malfunction in a component of the locomotive. That was fixed under warranty at the manufacturer's expense.

"That's the only significant service interruption we've had. We've operated around 800 trips, and two of them we failed to operate," Gibbons said.

Dan Erhart, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority and an Anoka County Commissioner, said a private high school and a local community college have launched their own shuttle services to connect their students to Northstar.

"What we anticipated that we would have to do, and would want to do, and we will be doing more of that, has actually started on its own. And we are delighted to have that kind of interest and that kind of potential to this overall public transportation system," Erhart said.

The St. Cloud Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has begun to include train rides on Northstar as part of its tour packages, according to Felix Schmiesing, chair of the second phase of the project to extend service to St. Cloud a Sherburne County Commissioner.

Looking forward, Schmiesing says Northstar officials are still working hard to make that extension happen. He says the federal government appropriated $3 million for Northstar. Now that $3 million needs to be matched with $1 million that Schmiesing hopes will come from the state bonding bill.

"A lot of the bonding are based on matches where the federal money isn't there yet. In this case, the federal money is there, so that puts us in a good place," Schmiesing said. "It really gives the state the opportunity to leverage their $1 million and bring in $3 million more."

Schmiesing said projections for Northstar between St. Cloud and Minneapolis are just as strong as projections for a rail to Chicago. He said the state's rail plan shows projections upwards of 1 million trips a year.