Shørtstår: What if the Northstar Were a Local?

Imagine you were in a region that was growing and had a transportation problem.

Shortstar Routing and Stations

Shørtstår Routing and Stations

Imagine you had a grade separated rail line into the heart of the city, connecting with other rail lines.

Imagine this line already had two stations constructed.

Imagine this line passed through some high density neighborhoods without stopping.

Imagine you already ran some service on this line.

Wouldn’t you look at this as an opportunity?

For a variety of reasons, the Northstar has not been the most successful transit line in the Twin Cities region.

While it runs through the streetcar suburbs and transit-compatible neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis, it doesn’t actually stop there. This diminishes the number of riders it might carry so that it might convey about 1000 suburbanites into downtown about 5 minutes faster. Both local residents going southbound in the morning, and suburbanites who might want to stop short of downtown get short-shifted by this configuration.  There have been efforts in other cites to convert commuter trains into more frequent, all-day, urban service. (e.g. London, Toronto – add more in the comments). With only one line, that opportunity has not yet befallen the Twin Cities.

Imagine instead that instead of no stops, an abbreviated version of the Northstar line (let’s call it the Shørtstår Line, though we can give it a color like “Silver” or “Noir”) ran frequently during the day on the same corridor but on a reduced route between say Fridley and Target Field, and had stops at

  • Fridley
  • Lowry and 7th St NE,
  • Broadway and Central, and
  • University Avenue and 3rd Ave NE
  • Target Field Station

Like any good transit service, this would be a 10 minute headway service, served by several Diesel Multiple Unit trains. From aerial photos it appears the right-of-way should be sufficient along most of the route to provide two passenger-only tracks (since that is what our region insists upon). In any case, it could share tracks with freight most of the day, as the tracks do not appear to be congested in this region, if there were some forethought about scheduling. (Bigger cities do more with less).

What kind of ridership might this line get? I don’t know – but as lines go, this looks at least as plausible as many much more expensive routes that are being considered. For the cost of a few temporary stations, renting some trains, and some negotiating with the railroads for running rights for a one year trial, the region would get a good idea of how well this might work before expensive rolling stock were purchased and new tracks laid. If it worked well (in terms of cost-effectiveness, compared with other existing and proposed lines), more permanent infrastructure could be built. If not, the trains’ leases could expire and they could go elsewhere.


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14 Responses to Shørtstår: What if the Northstar Were a Local?

  1. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig April 27, 2015 at 7:24 am #

    MARC is working on all-day service between DC and Baltimore…don’t recall offhand if it’s the Penn Line (along Amtrak’s NEC) or the Camden Line (along CSX’s mainline).

    The problem with Northstar, and trying to work both additional stations and additional service along this stretch, is that it runs along the busiest section of track in the state, not to mention through BNSF’s very busy Northtown yards. There’s also the issue of single-track on sections between the Interchange and the Minneapolis Wye. Bottom line is that implementing the “test” you suggest will be a lot more difficult than you suggest.

  2. Brian Quarstad
    bq April 27, 2015 at 7:33 am #

    I work in NE Mpls. around Lowry and University. We have numerous people who live in the Big Lake area and deal with the commute every day but don’t to take the rail because it drops them off in DT Mpls and then would have limited options and a very slow commute to get back up to N.E.. I like this idea although as Adam mentioned above, it might be really difficult to make happen. On second thought, not might, it would be, because anything that has to do with the railroads is damn near impossible.

  3. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman April 27, 2015 at 8:40 am #

    What about adding a North Minneapolis station to existing Northstar (wasn’t this proposed in some of the earliest designs?)

    • Mike Hicks April 27, 2015 at 9:30 am #

      Do you mean looping through downtown and heading up the Monticello Subdivision line? I’ve thought that corridor would be really good to add passenger service on, since rail traffic is pretty low. It could be extended all the way to Monticello, which is on the other side of the river from Big Lake.

      Of course, the “problem” with this is that a big chunk of the corridor is planned to be used for the Bottineau extension of the Blue Line.

  4. UrbanDoofus April 27, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    Perfect timing. I was just standing on the 5th ST NE bridge looking down on the trench and wondering why this thing goes right through NE without stopping. How convenient it would be for people in NE to be able to catch this into downtown.

    One of our biggest complaints about LRT is that it shares roads and signals and blah blah, which slows it down. I’ll say it, having grown up in a city with dedicated ROW rapid transit, this whole LRT(green) business is kind of a bummer, especially when you can often walk faster than it travels in several spots. But I guess we like to cater to suburbanites here, right?

  5. UrbanDoofus April 27, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    And yes, I do realize it is not as easy as slapping a platform alongside the tracks.

  6. Mike Hicks April 27, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    Like Adam said, this is a pretty busy stretch of track, and areas near yards tend to be fairly congested. Exactly how congested is hard to say since the railroads consider that proprietary data.

    In addition to the yard and the Minneapolis junction, there’s also the University Avenue (East University?) junction where the line splits in two (St. Paul Subdivision and Midway Subdivision). Canadian Pacific also has a line that connects near the rail yard.

    Adding another main track either along the whole stretch or in sections could free up any needed capacity, but it’s hard to say how much of that would be needed.

    These three station locations are good to consider, since they hit the major cross streets of Lowry, Central, Broadway, and University, all of which have local buses on them.

    Fridley is a reasonable endpoint, though I’ve always figured more frequent service to Anoka would do the best job of replacing existing express bus service — I believe buses run from there about every half hour at off-peak times.

  7. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs April 27, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    All that service would be so disruptive to freight trains that BNSF would never agree to lease the space. The only way to make this work would be to build a new railroads next to the freight rail. That would be quite expensive, but that’s what it would take. There’s no room on the existing right of way for more tracks into downtown, so some other alignment would be needed.

  8. Payton Chung April 27, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    In the USA, this would require not just new dedicated tracks, but probably also flyovers above the existing freight yards. In Canada, by contrast, a five-station pilot DMU light rail system cost $21 million:
    http://data.tc.gc.ca/archive/eng/programs/environment-utsp-otrainlightrailproject-973.htm

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 27, 2015 at 10:45 am #

      why the US Canada difference? aren’t the railroads the same companies much of the time?

      • David Levinson
        David Levinson April 27, 2015 at 11:19 am #

        The companies are different, more importantly the government is different. The Ottawa example doesn’t translate directly, since they do have less freight traffic than MPLS.

        • Nathanael April 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

          Most important is that the Ottawa line was on a low-usage freight line… owned by the government.

          You can do similar things on low-usage freight lines in the US. See “Riverline” Camden-Trenton NJ, SMART Sonoma-Marin CA, Sprinter Oceanside-Escondido CA, WES in Portland, and so on and so on.

          It’s much harder to do them on high-usage lines.

  9. Ethan Osten
    Ethan Osten April 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Besides the freight traffic, a line that terminated at Target Field wouldn’t make sense for anyone except maybe the farthest north station. When you account for the transfer penalty to the light rail, light rail travel time, and then the walk from whichever station, a local route bus would almost certainly be faster.

  10. Michael D. Setty April 30, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    I’m glad Professor Levinson seems to “get it” about DMUs, even if a frequent service over part of the Northstar route will require significant investment in exclusive passenger tracks.

    In my view, providing only peak period service as Northstar does fails to serve most travel in the corridor. My suggestion would be a little more investment to extend the corridor to St. Cloud, then take the existing level of service and spread it out into all-day two-hourly trains, with perhaps one extra peak period train in each direction. Such a mini-corridor service would be more financially viable than the current half-baked peak hour only commuter trains, capturing much longer trips and the very large student market in St. Cloud.