Commonalities of the Northstar and Red Line

From a physical and operational standpoint the Northstar Line and Red Line are a night and day difference, but from an implementation and performance standpoint they are actually quite similar.

The Red Line operates every 20 minutes (it used to be every 15 minutes) and had 267,000 rides in 2016 . While the Red Line hasn’t performed to expectations, a new online Cedar Grove Station was built, more stations are planned, a southern extension to Lakeville is proposed, and highway bus rapid transit proposals have not slowed down in the Twin Cities region. On one corridor, the Red Rock Corridor between St. Paul and Hastings, the preferred mode switched from commuter rail to bus rapid transit.

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A Red Line bus at the newly opened (in May 2017) online Cedar Grove Station. While the station improves travel time, there is still more to be done to make the Red Line a better service for the Twin Cities region.

The Northstar Line had 711,000 rides in 2016 , but only operates six roundtrips on weekdays and three roundtrips on weekends. A new station at Ramsey was built, a station at Coon Rapids-Foley Boulevard Park & Ride could be built as early as 2020 with the Northern Lights Express project, but commuter rail expansion plans in the region have halted.

People have called the Northstar Line a failure for not meeting ridership expectations, and have assumed commuter rail can’t work in the Twin Cities. However, outside urban studies and transit planning groups, I haven’t heard anyone call the Red Line a failure. If people are calling commuter rail a failed experiment, then what about highway bus rapid transit? To me, neither of these routes are failures, just works in progress.

Both routes weren’t implemented right. The Red Line stops at Mall of America and people are forced to transfer to the Blue Line to get to Downtown Minneapolis. An extension to Minneapolis via Highway 77, Highway 62, and I-35W with stations in Richfield and South Minneapolis would boost ridership significantly as it would serve areas with higher population density and more people who are transit dependent. Hopefully with the Orange Line coming in 2021 this will be seriously considered as both routes could share the 46th Street and Lake Street online stations as well as the stations in Downtown Minneapolis.

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A Red Line bus on 28th Avenue in Bloomington, nearing the northern terminus at Mall of America. Buses now use a quicker route on Highway 77 and Lindau Lane to reach Mall of America, but the Red Line is still more of a suburb-to-suburb express bus route than BRT.

The Northstar Line is a half finished project where people need to transfer to a bus to get to St. Cloud. The federal government won’t give the money for an extension until ridership is higher, but we can’t get higher ridership with the status quo of single digit roundtrips and forcing people to transfer to a bus. The idea of extending commuter rail to St. Cloud has been talked about numerous times in the past few years, but the proposals from politicians have not been promising. Governor Mark Dayton proposed a temporary extension that would have only a single roundtrip per day to/from St. Cloud, and State Senator Jerry Relph of St. Cloud proposed cutting one or two of the current Northstar trips to Big Lake and extending one roundtrip to/from St. Cloud so as to make the project have very little or no capital cost (in theory). Neither proposal would be successful, and the right way is to add track capacity on the current route, which is one of the busiest freight rail lines in the state, and add multiple trips throughout the day between St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

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A Northstar Line train at the northern terminus in Big Lake. In November of this year it will be nine years since service began, but still no sign of it getting to St. Cloud and truly being completed.

The Red Line and Northstar Line were dealt a bad hand, but they’re here now and its best the transit planners and policymakers turn them from lemons into lemonade.



About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.

14 thoughts on “Commonalities of the Northstar and Red Line

  1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    It’s absolutely true that the way both routes have been designed sets them up for failure. Northstar would be better constructed as a regional rail service, with a terminus in St. Cloud. The Red Line would be better constructed as a commuter bus service with a terminus in the place that all the commuters are actually going.

    But the fundamental reason why both routes are failures is because they provide a high level of transit service to places that are not especially dense or populous. The land use surrounding the stations of both lines is not conducive to successful transit. Instead, both lines are the end result of a transportation planning process that is politically biased towards commuters and coverage, but measured by ridership. The aims of these routes and the way they are evaluated are fundamentally at odds. You cannot run a service that is useful for only 20% of all trips, and serves underpopulated areas, and then turn around and expect that service to have high ridership. Not possible.

    Beyond extending the Red Line and Northstar to St. Cloud and downtown Minneapolis respectively, both could be improved by adding infill stations. That’s natural for the Red Line, as you mention, which would share Orange Line stops in south Minneapolis. But the Northstar could also serve Northeast Minneapolis and Columbia Heights with a cheap fare (and more frequent service of course). These alterations wouldn’t fix the basic problems with most of these routes, but they’d come a bit closer to providing a transit service useful to more people, and communities that are much more likely to use transit.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Definitely seems like it wouldn’t be hard to find a place for a stop in NE (Central and Broadway? Lowry?) that could add people doing downtown without much extra delay. Except it’s only 6 round trips.

      Also kind of weird how relatively close together the Coon Rapids, Anoka and Ramsey stations are, especially given the distance between the Friday and Coon Rapids stations. Oh, and the latter is way more densely populated.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I recall some very early proposals had a stop around St. Anthony Parkway. Also worth noting it goes right past an existing park and ride ramp at Foley Blvd.

    2. Eric Ecklund Post author

      In terms of adding stations on the existing Red Line route, one issue is the buses operate in a valley of asphalt. If you want to have good travel time, but still provide good accessibility to stations, that will be difficult in the auto-oriented areas of Eagan and Apple Valley. It can be done, but you need improved pedestrian infrastructure including grade-separated crossings at Cedar Avenue/Highway 77, and a shift in our culture from not wanting to walk even short distances outside to combining your commute with exercise.

      As for the Northstar, there does need to be more stations along the existing route. That will add travel time, but if its extended to St. Cloud hopefully it could be split into local service and regional service. Local service operating a shorter distance and stopping at more stations, while regional service operates limited-stop on the whole route.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        I mean more stations in the dense areas that support transit, not the suburban areas that don’t. Northstar could add one, maybe two good stations (NE and Columbia Heights), and Red Line shouldn’t add any stations, just adopt the Mpls 35W Orange Line stations, as you and many others have suggested.

  2. Monte Castleman

    As I see it the Red Line really has three strikes against it:
    1) The area is anything but dense
    2) Since it’s a bus and not rail, you’ve left out the huge number of suburbanites that won’t ride any bus for any reason (except maybe once a year from the State Fair park and ride).
    3) Of the suburbanites that will ride buses, most of them only do so to work, and there’s not a compelling advantage to take the Red Line, which doesn’t even go downtown, vs an express bus from a park and ride lot.

    Northstar seems to be more successful, being a rail line instead of a bus, and going to downtown. To the point that it hasn’t been successful, I’d suggest that the problems isn’t that it doesn’t go to St. Cloud, but that early on it had an unsavory reputation for delays. It probably only took one or two times being yelled at by your boss to deciding to go back to driving your car in. Also I question how many people from Big Lake and Elk River work in downtown Minneapolis. I don’t know that many people that would willingly set themselves up for a brutal commute like that by car- do those people maybe work at Medtronic or someplace in the northwestern suburbs instead.

    It also opened right after the housing crash, which hindered the ability of people that work downtown to move to the area since there was now an palatable commute via a train.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      The fact that Northstar opened right after the housing crash is instructive for another reason. Northstar was premised on the idea that the areas along I-94 would be the metro’s fastest growing section in the coming years. But in reality, the rate of growth of Anoka County decreased significantly in the later part of the 00’s and has fallen even further in the 10’s. The housing trends that were driving suburban and exurban growth in the north metro have faltered significantly, and the housing crisis is almost certainly a key contributor.

      This is a point I’ve made several times in longer articles on this site; the current transit vision for the MSP region is a product of assumptions about growth that were expected to continue. But in reality, those trends were largely at their end point.

    2. Eric Ecklund Post author

      The only time Northstar was really hindered was in the winter 2013-2014 when there was the polar vortex combined with a surge of freight traffic (mostly oil trains). Northstar lost hundreds of riders, but they’ve slowly but surely come back.

      I don’t have the stats on me right now, but the Met Council has the number of riders using each Northstar station as late as 2016 so you can see how many people are using the Big Lake and Elk River stations. There was shuttle service between Fridley Station and a few northeast employment centers including Medtronic, but it appears those have been discontinued.

  3. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Suburban shuttle services to and from North Star have failed to attract riders and been discontinued. The big potential for ridership improvement is adding the station at Foley Blvd where a 1200-car bus park & ride competes with Northstar.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’m not surprised. If you still have to get on a bus to get to your destination it kind of cancels out rail bias.

      The justification I keep hearing for not have a Foley station is that the express buses are faster, but if you add a North Star station you’d attract a bunch of new riders that won’t use the express buses.

      1. Eric Ecklund Post author

        In regards to the Foley Station, I believe Northstar serving there would have the same travel time as the express buses. However, if you get enough riders using the Northstar instead of the express buses then reduce express bus service which means a little less congestion in downtown during rush hour.

        1. will

          Except that if you ride the 850 (the bus that goes from the Foley P&R to downtown) you’d notice that no one actually gets off of the bus north of Hennepin. So pretty much anyone taking the 888 would have to then transfer to the Green or Blue line when they get off the 888 and take a /different/ train x blocks south to where they work.

          This obviously makes no sense.

          Furthermore, at least during the 850 commute times that I’ve seen, the 850’s appear to be ~75% full. Also the Foley P&R appears quite full. So siphoning riders off the not-full 850’s would leave a hole in the commute schedule (you really want the 850 to run less frequently?), since it’s unclear that the P&R could really take that many more cars anyway.

          I would say that the better argument for having the 888 and 850/852A share resources is that if you miss the last 888 home, there’s no way to get from any of the 852A stops to your car, unless you happen to use the Fridley Station (that just happens by coincidence to have stops for both), and you can’t bus-in/train-out of mpls, even if you wanted to (again, unless you live in Fridley).

          I used to live in Coon Rapids, and was pretty excited about the train. Now I live in Minneapolis but still work in Coon Rapids. The 888 has been running now for almost 10 years and I’ve still never used it. They’ve done a fine job of making a train that’s not just inconvenient, but impossible to actually use.

  4. Scott

    I very much dislike both these transit lines, and question whether we need to pour millions more into them when it is clear that they are designed to fail. Low-density, car-oriented places will not generate enough riders to make these routes work well. This goes for the rest of the expensive and questionable routes that are actively moving forward like the Gold Line, Blue Line extension, Red Rock, etc.

    There are many existing bus routes in Minneapolis and St. Paul with infrequent and slow service that need to be improved first. The planned roll out of ABRT is way too slow and doesn’t encompass enough routes.

    Finally, transit service through downtown Minneapolis needs serious improvement. Buses and trains are painfully slow because of all the auto traffic and traffic lights. Things like bus-only lanes, signal priority, and even a transit tunnel need to be considered before expanding Northstar and the Red Line.

    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      The suburbs won’t support a transit improvement plan that gives priority to the urban core. I agree the ABRT plan needs to be sped up, but not at the expense of making suburban areas better served by transit.

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