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11 miles in 67 minutes? Met Council's Green Line engineers look to shave time

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Test train
A test train headed for St. Paul gets ready to depart from the Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday morning. On recent dry runs, the trains have been taking about an hour or longer to make the 11-mile trip.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

Traffic engineers for the Metropolitan Council have exactly one month to figure out how to speed up light-rail trains along the new Green Line. 

Test trains along the route connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis have been taking an hour or longer to travel from one end to the other, exceeding initial projections of 40 minutes.

Met Council officials they're working hard to shave off those extra minutes in the weeks leading up to the June 14 launch.

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On Tuesday morning MPR News tracked nine test trains -- five leaving from St. Paul and four from Minneapolis. They clocked in at an average of 67 minutes for the 11-mile trip.

But officials working on the project say the times will improve. Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees rail projects for the Met Council, said it's too early to say whether the project needs to adjust its travel-time estimates.

"It's premature for that. We're a month away from trains moving with tens of thousands of people on it," Fuhrmann said. "And every day, we have staff out there who are observing and continuing to tweak those traffic signals to give the train more priority as it moves up and down the Green Line."

At issue is the ability for the trains and traffic signals to communicate with one another. Picture a train pulling up to an intersection. The train has a green light, but it's about to turn red. 

"As the train approaches that intersection, it has the ability to talk to the traffic signal and say, 'I'm coming up shortly. Extend the green for traffic. Extend the green for trains,'" Fuhrmann said.

That interplay is still being worked out, especially in the two downtowns and on the University of Minnesota campus. In downtown St. Paul, workers just installed Monday some of the components to the computerized system that detect the trains.

City Engineer John Maczko, who has been working with the Met Council on the project, said there's been a lot of hand-wringing over the travel times, and frankly, he doesn't get it.

"I've heard the chatter. I don't understand why people are so worked up about this point," he said. "We just put the stuff [in] and are just turning it on."

Maczko suspects some of the disappointment came right after the Met Council invited legislators to hop on the new train last week. 

"People are riding it are saying, 'Hey, it's taking too long.' It's kind of like letting you in the house before it's even finished," he said. "We'd prefer not to let you in until it's finished, but everyone wants to see it. Then people get into the new house and say, 'We don't like this, we don't like that.' Well, we told you it wasn't done yet."

Mackzo said signal timing is as much an art as it is science, and that models projecting travel times are just a place to start. Then it's up to the engineers and technicians to see how the trains move in the real world with cars and pedestrians. 

Fuhrmann, of the Met Council, said the 120 rail operators who are being trained on the new line are also up against a learning curve, which can slow their pace along the tracks.

"It's not so important what the overall travel time is from end to end. What's really important is that these new Green Line passengers have a very high quality and reliable ride."

"When you got your driver's license, there's probably more hesitation as you drove downtown for the first time or on the interstate highway," he said. "Well, same as on the Green Line. This is new territory for all of these operators."

Project officials say end-to-end travel times are not the best way to judge the project. Most of the passengers, Fuhrmann said, won't use the line to ride from one downtown to the other.

"It's not so important what the overall travel time is from end to end," he said. "What's really important is that these new Green Line passengers have a very high quality and reliable ride."

Speed, Furhmann, is not the first priority for the Green Line. The Met Council is keeping the express bus service for commuters who want to catch a ride between the downtowns, which typically takes about a half-hour.

St. Paul to Minneapolis

Train No.

Depart Union Depot

Arrive Target Field

Time to destination

202A 8:10 a.m. 9:22 a.m.

1 hr 12 min

235A 8:17 a.m. 9:30 a.m.

1 hr 13 min

250A 8:31 a.m. 9:38 a.m.

1 hr 7 min

239A 8:47 a.m. 9:57 a.m.

1 hr 10 min

247B 8:58 a.m. 10:04 a.m.

1 hr 6 min

Average time St. Paul to Minneapolis    

1 hr 9.6 min

Minneapolis to St. Paul

Depart Target Field Arrive Union Depot 231B 8:23 a.m. 9:26 a.m.

1 hr 3 min

227A 8:36 a.m. 9:40 a.m.

1 hr 4 min

241B 9:08 a.m. 10:14 a.m.

1 hr 6 min

201B 9:32 a.m. 10:36 a.m.

1 hr 4 min

Average time Minneapolis to St. Paul    

1 hr 4.25 min

MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert contributed to this report.

(Disclosure: Minnesota Public Radio and the Met Council are negotiating ways to reduce noise and vibrations from the newly built light rail line outside MPR headquarters under a contract agreed to in 2009.)