Metro Transit and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Weekend Light Rail Shutdown

I am what transit professionals would call a choice rider. I have a well paying job and a rather new car at home. However, I choose transit and biking to commute to work, rather than driving. Because of this preference I’ve arranged my life so that transit and biking are more convenient for many of my trips than driving.

I’m also a transit nerd. I understand why the south bound Blue Line train that leaves downtown after 8 PM loses a car at Cedar Riverside (Cedar Riverside Station is adjacent to the maintenance facility, and a car is removed for late night service because of lower demand). For that matter, I understand why a south bound Blue Line train with a destination of Cedar Riverside is actually an out of service train (Again, because Cedar Riverside is the station closest to the shops where an out of service train is going, though this has since been fixed). Transit professionals may disagree if this makes me a better or worse customer. I also follow Metro Transit on Twitter, and try to keep informed about system maintenance. Generally speaking, I’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going on with our transit system, more than the average rider for sure.

This past weekend the light rail system was partially shutdown for maintenance, between Raymond Ave and Target Field on the Green Line, and between Lake St and Target Field on the Blue Line, starting at 7 PM on Friday and ending at 3 AM Monday morning. These were all things I was aware of beforehand.

I left my office and got to the Stadium Village Station about 6:45. It being Friday, I’d forgotten about the shutdown. I looked at the digital display which said a train would arrive in 4 minutes and 6 minutes. I waited a bit, at least 4 minutes, and the display said check schedules, a familiar sight for nearly 10 years before the real time arrival system was turned on. A couple of Metro Transit police officers asked me which way I was going, I indicated west (I was on the westbound platform after all). I asked them why no trains had come, I got a one word answer, “maintenance,” and they got back into their SUV.

“CRAP!” I thought, remembering the maintenance. I actually said another word, but this is a family friendly blog. At that point I was too frustrated to deal with finding a replacement shuttle, so I grabbed a NiceRide bike from the nearby station and headed home. As I rode past the Stadium Village Station, I saw an employee in an orange vest standing on the south side of the platform and an articulated bus was at the nearby bus stop. There were however no signs anywhere indicating the platform was closed.

My ride took me past East Bank Station, where there were no signs and no staff. I directed a confused family to Coffman Union to catch a replacement bus, though I later learned that buses did not stop at Coffman and they should have walked the mile to Stadium Village Station. I hope they got where they were going eventually.

The next station I biked past was Cedar Riverside. Here again there were people waiting on the platform, no signs, and no staff. I directed a few people to Cedar Ave to catch a replacement bus, but who knows if they found the stop.

A man enters the Cedar Riverside Station with no signage or staff present

Note the prominent signage and helpful staff to direct riders at Cedar Riverside

Next I biked to Franklin Ave Station. Here there was both an employee and signs indicating the station was closed, but there were still people milling about on the platform. I stopped for a minute, hoping to ask the employee why people were still waiting at the platform. As I walked towards her, a few people walked up to the station and saw the sign, she asked if they were going toward the Mall of America, they said yes, she said one more southbound train was coming. The time was 7:35.

An uninformed employee waits for a train that may never come

I’m the kind of person that remembers that the Blue and Green lines run at 10 minute frequencies, except after 7:00 the Blue Line switches to every 15 minutes. That means that at 7:35 there should have been two trains that would have arrived after the 7 PM shutdown, but none had arrived. I thought it very unlikely that a train was yet to arrive, and I told the employee that. She grabbed her phone to contact someone about when the train would come, and I biked away. This time I went to the end of the platform, where I could see Franklin Avenue under the Franklin Ave Station, which is where the replacement buses pick up. At 7:35 PM there were no replacement buses lined up.

I got back on the trail and rode south to the Lake St Station, my final destination. As I biked up the hill leading to the Sabo Bridge, I couldn’t help but think, “Does Metro Transit realize that people rely on the service they provide? Do they realize that for many people, transit is their only option? Does anyone at Metro Transit actually use the transit system regularly?”

To put it bluntly, the communication of this outage was horrible. Who knows how many people were stranded at stations and missed work or other appointments. How many people, new or casual riders with other transportation options, just gave up, swearing off transit for good?

I’m not a professional expert, I just play one on this blog. I do have some ideas about ways this shutdown could have been better communicated and executed. I’m sure at least one of them isn’t possible because of behind the scenes things I’m not aware of, but I’d like to offer them, unsolicited, anyways. I love taking transit, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I also think a well functioning transit system attracts other riders, as well as providing a useful service for those who have no other travel options. I, however, think that there is always room for improvement. I don’t want this to be taken as a slam on Metro Transit, but as an attempt to help them see the weekend shutdown from another perspective.

Announce the outage on the arrival time displays

I understand that all week these displays had been used to announce to upcoming shutdown. But when the actual shutdown came, they merely said “Please check schedules.” Riders have been conditioned to rely on these displays for information, take advantage of that. At the very least, if you can’t say anything useful, don’t say to check the schedules, just turn off the displays. No shutdown information is posted on the schedule board, so if a rider followed the instruction to “check schedules,” they wouldn’t have gotten correct information.

Prominent signs at every station indicating the station is closed

This seems simple to me. I know there are Rider Alert signs at the stations, but they hold a tiny standard sized piece of paper, and are always there, and thus are easily ignored. At a minimum there needs to be prominently placed sandwich boards placed at the stations before the trains stop running, so people aren’t stuck on the platform

Staff every platform

Every platform needs at least staff person to communicate with riders about the shutdown and help to make sure they are able to find replacement buses. For platforms where the replacement bus stop is not directly adjacent to the platform, there should also be staff at the bus stop.

Wayfinding between platforms and bus stops

Even when the replacement bus stop is next to the platform, it can still be down the block or across the street. Wayfinding signage is needed to direct people. The extreme of this is the East Bank Station replacement stop, which is a 10 minute half mile walk to the Stadium Village Station. Someone unfamiliar with the area could very easily get lost without prominent signage. Additionally, some people have trouble understanding overhead maps. Directions need to be communicated in as many different ways as possible.

Keep the staff at stations informed

The one staff member I did encounter spent most of her time craning her neck to look down the tracks to look for the train that she was told was arriving, but she had no more information than that. If that train truly was arriving, she should have known at all times exactly where it was and approximately what time it would be reaching her location. A Metro Transit employee staring down the tracks looking for a train like a confused rider does not inspire confidence in the agency.

If the shutdown is at 7:00, it should be at 7:00

At the beginning of the story I mentioned that I arrived at Stadium Village Station at about 6:45, or about 15 minutes before the shutdown. Yet a train never came. I’m not entirely sure how this would work in practice, but the shutdown time should be the shutdown time. If a station is out of service at 6:45, then the shutdown is at 6:45, not 7:00. Maybe at 7:00 every train stops, unloads its passengers, and deadheads to the weekend train storage area. Maybe there is an exact time given for “last train” at each station. I’m not really sure. But at the very least, if the shutdown is scheduled for 7:00, I should be able to get on a train at 6:45.

Communicate exactly what the maintenance being done is

I misdirected some riders from the East Bank Station to Coffman Union, because I was unaware that buses weren’t crossing the Washington Ave Bridge because it was closed. If I was aware that that’s what the maintenance was for, I may have been better able to understand the detours. I’ll admit for most people this wouldn’t help, but nonetheless I still think it’s important that Metro Transit is open about the work they’re doing on our transit system.

Don’t do the shutdown

I’m sure some shutdowns are unavoidable, but could single tracking with reduced frequencies work to allow system maintenance? Considering that replacement buses are slower than trains, even with reduced frequency, trip times with single tracking and lower frequency may still be faster.

I’m sure others have suggestions based on their personal experience with Metro Transit, be sure to leave them in the comments.

About Peter Bajurny

Peter rents a single family home in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, which he shares with his wife, two cats, and a transient boarder roommate. He is a board member of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, and tweets very thoughtfully as @FISHMANPET. Opinions expressed are his own.