The Northstar Is Broken. How can we fix it?

The Northstar commuter rail is at a crossroads. On one side, you have MNDOT and the Met Council studying the long awaited extension to St Cloud. On the other, state legislators looking to scrap the system all together. Each of these comes at a cost, the former between $36M-$188M upfront and $25M-$39.7M per year afterwards. The latter $85M refunded to the federal DOT, along with a complete cessation of service. Clearly Northstar’s issues run deep, and will require both deep pockets and massive changes to fix, but are these the only two ways to go about doing it? Well of course not. The world is rarely that black and white, and if it were this article would be pointless. So then the question becomes: What sort of changes do I have in mind? I’ll list them from what I consider least to most complex, which is also the order I think they should be implemented in.

Add an Amtrak stop to the line

Many large metros have suburban Amtrak stops, which allows suburbanites to board the train without making the trek to downtown, preventing a possible trip in the wrong direction and providing convenience. This new station could be at Anoka or Coon Rapids – Riverside to start, moving to Coon Rapids – Foley Boulevard once that opens to provide a direct connection to Duluth. Considering Amtrak already uses the route for the Empire Builder, this should be a trivial matter, as no additional station or route capacity is needed.

An Amtrak locomotive stopped at the Edmonds, WA station.
Edmonds, WA is a suburban Amtrak station outside Seattle that also sees Sounder commuter trains. Credit: City of Edmonds

This has the added benefit of technically connecting St Cloud and St Paul to the commuter network, although between waiting for the westbound Builder to show up around 10PM and the eastbound’s rather poor timekeeping, it doesn’t make a great option and would mostly benefit Amtrak riders.

Add additional bus service

For far too long, transit agencies have catered to park-and-riders thinking they’re the driving force behind ridership, when usually that’s not the case. After all, why drive your car to take the train when you can just keep driving to your destination? Its usually more convenient to do so. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other ways to get to Northstar stations right now. Three stations have zero connecting buses, Big Lake only has the connecting bus to St Cloud, and only Target Field has less than hourly service. Not to mention coverage on the routes that do exist are rather poor. Sure the pandemic has hit ridership hard all over the place and cutbacks were necessary, but that doesn’t change the fact that no one will come back to ride transit if there’s no service to come back to. Some easy tweaks include, but are not limited to:

  • Extending the 722, 724, and 766 to the Anoka station
  • Extending/rerouting the 850 and 852 to Ramsey and Anoka
  • Branching the 10, 801, and/or 824 to Fridley
  • Extending the 831 to Coon Rapids – Riverside and/or Anoka
  • Starting a new route from Rogers to Anoka and/or Coon Rapids – Riverside

Along with these changes, frequency should be increased to at least give quick connections with Northstar trains – i.e. less than five minutes between getting off the train and onto a bus, and vice versa – and ideally have headways of half an hour or less. Bus routes to and from Albertville, St Michael, Ostego, and Monticello would also be good, but as these lie outside the metro area it’ll take longer to establish these services. As far as I know, neither Wright nor Sherburne county have a local transit authority.

Increase Frequency

Of all the problems, I think this is what’s hurting ridership the most. Two trains a day and only on weekdays does not a useful service make, and neither does aiming that service exclusively at 9-to-5 commuters, an ever shrinking demographic. What’s worse, it barely even serves commuters, more or less well. Have a meeting go late and miss the 5:30 train from Target Field? You’re likely gonna be stuck for hours figuring out an alternative, and the aforementioned lack of service means it won’t be from Metro Transit. Perhaps a mid morning inbound/late evening outbound set of trips would be a good start, along with bringing back dedicated trips to/from Twins games. After that, slowly crank things up to where they were pre-pandemic. Higher frequency tends to get a better return on investment as well, which I suspect is a big reason why the current service is doing so poorly financially too.

Build more transit-oriented development

While pushing the responsibility off to developers might seem like the easiest option of all of these, I’m not familiar enough with building codes to make that call. Besides, there’s more to it than throwing up a few 5-over-1s near Northstar stations. Getting back to my previous point about how cars tend to be the most convenient option, it also tends to be the safest option, not that cars are that safe. Suburban road design tends to be quite hostile to those not in a vehicle, with pedestrians and cyclists often having to cross wide lanes of fast moving traffic to get anywhere. Not only is this dangerous, it forces towns and cities to spread out, making both walking/cycling and transit less effective. Increasing density and pedestrian/bike infrastructure near stations is probably the only option that will not only increase the current Northstar’s ridership, but that of all the proposed additional services.

People gathered for a concert at a transit-oriented development.
“The COR” A transit-oriented development near the Ramsey station. Credit: City of Ramsey
Increase speed

As one of the busiest rail routes in the state, seeing over 60 trains a day in some parts, the current right-of-way is well built. I suspect well enough where it wouldn’t take much to increase the max speed to 90 mph over the line. An FRA inspection, some tweaks here or there, and maybe a few million dollars, tops. This isn’t much faster than the current max speed sure, and it may be hard to even reach that between stations, but as the old adage goes: every ounce counts. At the very least it’ll provide wiggle room in the schedule, and it’ll be important to get back time lost spent stopping at new stations. Speaking of which, this is the end of the easy fixes. With any luck these smaller tweaks can generate enough ridership to justify larger changes such as:

New Equipment

This will be needed before any real expansion can take place. Even for one daily trip to St Cloud, MNDOT anticipates that new equipment is necessary. For the sake of the environment and to lower operating costs I’d like to see Metro Transit follow in Caltrain’s shoes and switch to overhead electrification. Electric trains are also more powerful, giving better acceleration and thus allowing tighter schedules. It’s a hard sell for a system nearly on its death bed, but if and when things are on the up and up I’d argue it’s better to do so now while the system is relatively small.

A Caltrans EMU undergoing testing on rails.
A Caltrans EMU undergoes testing at the FRA test center in Pueblo, CO. Credit: Mercury News
In-fill and other stations

The two additional stations being considered right now are the aforementioned Foley Boulevard station, which is primarily for the Northern Lights Express but the Northstar will also serve it, and St Cloud, the original end goal. However there’s two ~10 mile gaps between stations that I think could benefit from being filled first: Riverside to Fridley and Fridley to TFS. Most comparable systems, such as Metra in Chicago, have stations as close as half a mile apart or less. While gaps that small might not be needed here, I think the system can benefit from two more infill stations between Riverside and Fridley, as well as at Lowry Ave and Washington St in northeast Minneapolis. Shrinking these gaps would put a larger number of people within walking distance of a station. The former would also need bus connections, but the latter is already situated where the 32 and 17 meet.

Other station locations to consider are Becker, Rice, Sartell, St Joseph, St Paul Midway and St Paul Union Depot. The first and last are the most justifiable I believe. Becker is already on the route to St Cloud, and St Paul provides direct transfers to current and future Amtrak trains to Chicago, along with giving people a one seat ride to the other half of the metro. Whether this would stop and reverse at Target Field or go straight to SPUD from Fridley/ northeast I don’t know. It depends on how much time it would take to reverse and if possible future lines could serve that alignment better. A stop in the midway would provide convenient access to the A, B, and Green lines, along with Allianz Field, Concordia University, Macalester College, and many more places, making it an attractive destination.

Rice, Sartell, and St Joseph provide some interesting opportunities to test commuter rail in smaller cities, along with the latter being useful for St John’s students. It would probably be one or the other though, and if it’s St Joseph then the Northstar will need a different St Cloud station, as the Amtrak depot is past the junction. Of course denser, transit-oriented development would also be needed in these places, as well as improved bus service.

A map showing the location of the St. Cloud Amtrak depot.
Location of the St Cloud Amtrak depot, just past the branch into downtown towards St Joseph. Credit: Google Earth
Transition to regional rail

I’ve hinted at this in previous sections, and I’m sure some of you have been screaming at your screens over my use of the phrase “Commuter Rail”, begging me to stop. So I will. The reason I didn’t do so sooner is to avoid confusion and because unfortunately, it currently fits that definition better.

Let’s back up a step. What’s the difference between “regional” and “commuter” rail anyway? Generally, the former offers all day service, with roughly even headways throughout the day, shortening at peak hours. That is, treating heavy rail like LRT or a high frequency bus route. Commuter rail on the other hand is aimed solely at commuters, with high frequencies at peak periods and little to no service at any other time of day. With the world moving away from the 9 to 5 office job, it’s especially pertinent to move away from commuter rail and towards a regional rail system that’s useful for everyone. This has the benefit of simplifying operations as well, since trains no longer need to sit in downtown waiting for the evening rush.

With 14 to 18 stops on the line, it may be necessary to run express trains as well, skipping some or all the intermediary stops between Minneapolis/St Paul and St Cloud. This would allow for higher average speeds and easily bring trip times under an hour. With the right fare structure, this would make service faster, cheaper, and more convenient than driving; the ultimate goal if we are to defeat car culture and save the Northstar, and I guess the planet too.

Inbound and outbound Metra trains pass each other in Downers Grove, IL.
The future of the Northstar? Inbound and outbound Metra express runs pass each other while a local waits to be turned at Downers Grove, IL. The Metra BNSF line saw 97 trains per day in 2019. Credit: Alex Christmas
Shoot for the moon

I will be the first to admit this article kinda got away from me. What was supposed to be a simple list of tweaks to improve service ultimately turned into a complete rework. Even now I’m asking myself, why stop here? I haven’t even talked about the Dan Patch line, Bethel branch, or any other freight lines that could make good commuter rail corridors, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for now.

I will also admit these fixes aren’t as simple as snapping your fingers and poof, they exist. Like many transit agencies, Metro Transit has been struggling with a driver shortage and a lack of funding, both of which need to be sorted before most of these changes can be implemented. As the old saying goes, this too shall pass, and when it does I hope that the Northstar will still be around to see the other side. Perhaps it’ll even be better than before.