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.

29 thoughts on “The Northstar Is Broken. How can we fix it?

  1. Cameron

    Metro Transit DID have route 852 go to Ramsey Station when it first opened. No one rode it so they eliminated the trips.

    1. John Wilson

      This is true, however, it wasn’t given a fair chance. There was only one trip per day, and only in the outbound direction. It was in the evening and appears to have been intended for people who missed the last train. There were no stops between Anoka Technical College and Ramsey Station, IIRC. I believe the ridership would have been higher with two-way service at a better frequency, stops between Anoka and Ramsey, and an extension to the Coborn’s which is just close enough to be visible from Ramsey Station but too far to be a reasonable walk.

  2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    That’s a big list. It’s important to separate out the affordable, doable ideas from those that have no chance of being implemented. The latter includes electrification and an extension to downtown St. Paul. The Green Line and Route 94 express to downtown St. Paul already provide the needed link.

    Well-designed suburban shuttle bus service feeding the trains has been tried repeatedly and attracted almost no riders. I don’t see it being viable. Upgrading to 90 mph won’t save enough time to make a noticeable difference.

    Here’s my list of what’s really possible.
    1. Build a rail station at the existing Foley Blvd. park-ride in Coon Rapids. That will permit the diversion of numerous express bus passengers to rail, actually reducing overall cost to Metro Transit.
    2. Extend to St. Cloud, including the intermediate stops at Becker and Rice.
    3. Increase the Minneapolis Junction-Fridley speed limit from 45 mph to something higher, maybe 60.
    4. Go to an all-day schedule.

    I agree that Amtrak should stop at a Northstar station, but Fridley is a better choice due to its more central location, convenient freeway access and plenty of parking capacity.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Agreed. We have to look at what might realistically happen. A station at Foley could happen. Electrifying the line to Rice is not going to happen.

      I would still look at extending it to Union Depot though, possibly with an infill station around Snelling. As other commentators have noted attempts to have connecting bus service have failed, probably a lot of the NorthStar riders will use a train but not a bus- rail bias is high in our area. The Green Line is way slower than it should be for a fast trip between downtowns, still involves an additional transfer, and has now gotten a very unsavory reputation in the suburbs due to persistent reports of antisocial / criminal activity. A lot of suburbanites that would have ridden light rail at one point will not do so now.

      1. John Wilson

        Instead of an extension to Saint Paul, I propose an alternate trip that would go to Saint Paul instead of Minneapolis. Maybe more than one trip daily if demand is proven to exist. The route I’m thinking of has been used for a special Christmas train for the kiddies at least once.

        I am guessing one reason the 860 express bus went from downtown Saint Paul to Riverdale (suspended for COVID, unfortunately) was to connect with Northstar. I have used the 860 on occasion, though not to transfer to Northstar. Ridership seemed pretty high, including a lot of students at an arts high school in downtown Saint Paul. Are there any stats on how many people used the 860 to transfer to/from Northstar, and would a one-seat ride to Saint Paul be time-competitive with a transfer to the 860?

        1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

          The 860 was never intended to connect with Northstar and I doubt if anyone ever tried to transfer between them. It stopped at the Riverdale Station because it needed a park-ride lot in Coon Rapids. I know this because I was on staff at Metro Transit at the time.

    2. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      Electrification may be a long shot, but there’s bills in the house and senate right now to study a connection between Minneapolis and St Paul.

      Well-designed suburban shuttle bus service feeding trains are an important part of most transit systems, actually.
      Even here in the Twin Cities we know park and ride isn’t a viable alternative. According to the statistics Metro Transit puts out only about 8.3% of all riders used park and ride in 2018. I guarantee if all existing bus service to LRT stations disappeared and were replaced with parking lots, they’d have comparable ridership to the Northstar.

      I know 90 won’t make a huge difference, but if it’s cheap enough it’s still worth looking into.

      Perhaps things are different for Amtrak somehow, but again freeway access and parking don’t really drive ridership. I imagine most people would feel more comfortable leaving their car at home if they’re going on a long trip. Also NLX isn’t planned to stop at Fridley so that connection is lost.

  3. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

    As much as I agree about the need for a Northeast Minneapolis stop, I’m not sold on Lowry being the only one. An Old St Anthony station where 6th St dead-ends into the tracks seems obvious to me – it’s about a mile and a half from Target Field, serves a booming neighborhood on the other side of the river, and, possibly most importantly, could pretty easily be a side platform station without expensive vertical circulation like the suburban stops have.

    As far as the extra equipment for a St Cloud extension goes, I’m curious if that’s necessary no matter what, or if it was necessary for a St Cloud extension while maintaining the pre-pandemic paradigm of 30-minute service (for limited hours of the day). I’d assume the latter, and that all day 90- or 120-minute service could be done with the existing five(?) trainsets, but I don’t really know.

    1. depitts

      I’ve thought that a good NE Minneapolis stop addition would be near 14th St NE / Quincy. Lots of redevelopment in that area recently. I could see people grabbing a drink at the nearby breweries and hopping on the train for a Twins game. Lots of old industrial sites that still prime for redevelopment. The old vacant Youngblood Lumber site is over 3 acres.

    2. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      I can totally be sold on other Northeast stops

      And the study does assume pre-pandemic service levels. An extremely back-of-the-envelope calculation says 5 sets spaced evenly on the 67 mile line means they’re 13.4 miles apart, at an average of 47 mph according to Wikipedia, this gives headways just under a half hour. Granted, this means there’s literally zero spare equipment for sports events or to cover failures/maintenance, not to mention scheduling around freight trains or running partial/ express trips. Still, it seems 1-2 hour headways all day should be doable with current equipment.

  4. Kurt Franke

    A blind spot for le somehow, I’ve never understood the “extend to Saint Cloud” thing, and I live in Saint Cloud and (used to) ride the North Star Link and the North Star, as well as transit options on either end.

    It’s a ridership thing. Seems people are just unwilling to confirm to a schedule or get out of their cars. I get that an extension with a multitude of trips/times might help that out. Not convinced it would.

    1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      When the competition can offer a one seat ride from your house to your destination, its key to get as close to that standard as possible. That’s the draw of getting rid of the bus link and offering a one seat ride from downtown to downtown. Bypassing traffic and the bus transfer could also save some time, but I guess that remains to be seen.

  5. John Wilson

    My thoughts on the proposed suggestions:

    Extension to Saint Cloud would greatly increase ridership. However, a significant temporary fix would be to have Northstar Link bus service meet all trains on the weekends as well as weekdays. (Yes, I know weekend service is suspended for COVID, but I mean after restoration if it happens.) The pre-COVID weekend setup was only useful for Saint Cloud residents, not Twin Cities residents desiring to make a day trip. I am aware from looking at the old schedule that a lot of deadheading and/or sitting in Big Lake would be required, but they tolerated that for the weekday service, so why not on weekends too? The good will and public consciousness of service being available would be worth it.
    I am in full agreement about the Amtrak stop idea. However, I think it should be a highly used stop close to amenities. No current stop is ideal from this POV but Riverdale comes closest, with Anoka being second.
    Bus connections proposed above: I agree about the 766. It should cross the bridge to Anoka more often anyway, even without Northstar. An Anoka to Brooklyn Park connection would also be useful. A route to/from Rogers would require Rogers to join the Capital Levy Taxing District, and it may make more sense for Rogers to connect to Maple Grove Transit than Northstar. There really needs to be a bus connecting Riverdale Station with the nearby commercial areas, which are visible from the station but too far to be a reasonable walk, especially with packages.
    I will stay agnostic re: infill stations south of Riverdale. Foley Blvd. is an exception, that would definitely be popular. The Elk River station should be moved closer to downtown Elk River or an extra stop added. Becker should be included in any Saint Cloud extension. I don’t think Sartell and Rice are essential, though Sartell is a suburb of Saint Cloud and may actually generate local ridership to/from Saint Cloud. Rice is more of a rural town and would probably only be useful as a turnaround if there’s no other good place for one, and maybe a Park and Ride for people from NW Minnesota. Saint Joseph is a possible alternative, especially if the college is on board (literally and figuratively).
    Off-peak service on the current route could be provided once every three hours with one train. This wouldn’t be ideal, but it might be enough to get non-commuters to consider using Northstar for day trips.

    1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      I always assumed the link bus met all trains. Interesting that it didn’t and I agree that needs fixing.

      Same with Rogers not being in the tax district, I just kinda assumed that it automatically was since they’re in Hennepin County. If getting to downtown is the goal then I think a bus to Northstar makes more sense as one on I-94 is bound to get stuck in traffic, but local buses to Maple Grove certainly still make sense. The burbs need more buses in general IMO but that’s a topic for another article.

      Perhaps the ones between Riverdale and Fridley don’t have the density to justify themselves yet, but I do think stops in northeast would be popular. As would one in downtown Elk River. I mostly included Rice because it was in the original proposal, and could see it getting cut.

      Anything outside the pre-pandemic schedule is dependent on what improvements BNSF deems necessary, so I think it’s more important we get there first. Maybe that could be the next step though.

      1. Rand Carlson

        If we’re being completely honest here, I would much prefer that Rogers have a separate regional rail line using the Monticello sub although the bus service improvement is important until someone eventually creates the line.

        1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

          I would too honestly, but like I said that’s a topic for a future article 😉

    1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      I guess I should’ve specified “regularly scheduled buses”. I suppose even then Sherburne has some from St Cloud, but that’s still not quite what I’m looking for. County-wide bus network maybe?

  6. Eric Ecklund

    Any frequency increase beyond the pre-pandemic schedule will likely require a third main track from Northtown Yard to at least Coon Creek Junction, which I support since it would also benefit Amtrak.

    Electrification might be achievable, but with battery-electric multiple units or battery locomotives. The technology is improving and several regional rail routes in Europe are using it. If the technology could work on the Northstar route, then a lot less overhead wires would be needed, though there’s the question of if BNSF would allow it.

    The St. Cloud extension and all day service are definitely needed for Northstar to have a long term future. Have higher frequency (30-60 minutes) between Minneapolis and Ramsey, and less frequency (60-120 minutes) north to St. Cloud. It won’t suddenly make Northstar the busiest regional rail line in the Upper Midwest, but it would position Northstar for a long term future with service that’s useful to a lot more people. Also as already mentioned the development and pedestrian infrastructure around stations needs to be improved.

    For infill stations I think Broadway & Central, Foley Boulevard, Anoka Tech, and Downtown Elk River would be good additions.

    Local bus connections to stations will only work with Northstar operating all day in both directions. The local bus connections at Fridley Station didn’t work out because of the limited schedule of Northstar and the limited reach of those routes, which only went between the station and a few major employers nearby.

    1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

      The third main should hopefully get taken care of if NLX gets built. Here’s hoping

      I need to check how battery EMUs compare to standard ones and diesel locomotives/DMUs. I suspect similar performance to the latter as there’s an insurmountable physics problem here. All else equal, overhead electrification will perform better since they don’t have to carry the weight of their energy source (in this case batteries/diesel). Remember, this isn’t just to cut back on fossil fuel usage, but for better acceleration and therefore tighter schedules as well.

      Agreed, although perhaps even higher frequencies should be sought

      Those would all make great stops too!

      Seems we have a chicken and egg problem. Buses need more frequent service from trains to drive ridership, but the inverse is also true. Plenty of research on the latter, but I haven’t seen any on the former. Curious since that seems more like how things are usually implemented.

  7. Sean Bossinger

    One thing that legislatures and local government bodies hate to hear, but is absolutely true (as you can see in car-centric places like LA) is: SERVICE DRIVES DEMAND.

    If you add more service, whether it be more frequent trips, more lines and stations, more midday trips, etc., that additional service will increase demand. It’s proven out elsewhere and likely would in MN.

    1. Leland Wykoff

      How about another option the writer seemingly overlooked? Admit Northstar service was a mistake and simply close it up and end the drain on taxpayers.

      The lowridership, the constant need for substantial subsidies, and Northstar’s failure to find an audience for its service, amid shifting demand away from 9:00 to 5:00 employment, all suggest it is time to end this costly experiment.

      Sunk costs are irrelevant costs. It sounds like it is past time to pull the plug on this stinker.

      1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

        You could make this same argument about 95% of the roads in the country, yet that never seems to be an option for them. Fair’s fair

          1. Ian GaidaIan Gaida Post author

            But they don’t serve many people and require a massive subsidy, most of which is not made back by the users. You can’t argue one has knock-on economic effects but not the other. That’s just not a fair comparison.

  8. Paul Nelson

    Thank you all for this discussion. Certainly, if the Northstar were extended to Saint Cloud and Rice, etc. we would have more passengers over time. It would not be smart to close it down at this time due to the extensive costs of doing so, and the lack of alternative transport options that would also be more costly. I hope we can fix this. Just extending the line to Saint Cloud and Rice is not all that expensive when compared to what we are spending on surface transportation for the car every year. I think that has already been stated, but worth saying again.

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