When the COVID-19 pandemic began, ridership of the Northstar Line commuter rail service between Minneapolis and Big Lake was decimated. Since then it has averaged between 100 and 300 weekday riders, making it one of the lowest performing commuter/regional rail routes in the country. Facing an uncertain future, the Metropolitan Council will be conducting a study on Northstar.
While there’s a cost to improving Northstar, there’s also a cost to mothballing it; part of the funding received by the U.S. Department of Transportation to build Northstar would have to be returned ($85 million to be exact, according to this article). We would also continue our over-dependence on cars, roads, and auto-oriented sprawl, all of which damage our environment and contribute to climate change. Northstar could be an efficient, affordable, and convenient form of travel in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota that incentivizes compact transit-oriented development instead of suburban sprawl. That will take political will now and into the future.
History of Attempts at Improving Northstar
While opinions on how to improve Northstar are diverse, many agree that extending it to St. Cloud needs to happen. Originally Northstar was proposed to go to St. Cloud, but based on the federal government’s formula for funding transit projects the cost of building Northstar all the way to St. Cloud outweighed the benefits. This is the same logic that favored the heavily flawed Kenilworth Corridor routing over the Uptown routing for Southwest LRT.
Since the opening of Northstar in 2009, riders have been forced to transfer to the Northstar Link bus service to go between Big Lake and St. Cloud. There’s been public support for extending commuter rail service to St. Cloud, which has resulted in several attempts by politicians to make it reality. In 2016 two Republican legislators proposed extending service to St. Cloud with two daily roundtrips, but it would require reducing the number of existing trips between Minneapolis and Big Lake. In theory this would’ve allowed the St. Cloud extension to be completed at very little cost. In 2018 the same proposal resurfaced.
In 2017 former Governor Mark Dayton proposed funding a demonstration service to St. Cloud that would’ve lasted six months. However, only one roundtrip per day would’ve been offered between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, and it would’ve skipped all of the existing Northstar stations.
In 2018 and 2019 there were even proposals to extend Northstar further north of St. Cloud to Camp Ripley. In theory with service to a military base the federal government would’ve provided a large amount of funding for such an extension.
In early 2020 funding was allocated by the state to study the feasibility of a St. Cloud extension. The study was completed, but was already outdated with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing. In addition, the proposed service options for a St. Cloud extension were conservative. Four options were considered ranging from a minimum of one roundtrip per day between Minneapolis and St. Cloud to a maximum of nine one-way trips (four trips from St. Cloud to Minneapolis, five trips from Minneapolis to St. Cloud) per day. The proposed service options took into account the constraints of the existing track infrastructure owned and used by BNSF Railway, as well as potential impacts to BNSF’s operations. Track capacity upgrades were included in the study, but only enough to have the proposed service options and a 10% growth in freight train traffic by 2040.
Ridership of Northstar vs. other routes
As part of the Metropolitan Council’s study on the future of Northstar they looked at similar commuter rail lines and their ridership. They don’t go into detail on these commuter rail routes, and a few locations are inaccurate, so I’ve had to make assumptions on the commuter rail lines they’re referring to.
“Chesteton” is likely supposed to be Chesterton, Indiana, which is located just south of the South Shore Line that operates between South Bend and Chicago. Tallahassee, Florida doesn’t have commuter rail service, so it’s most likely supposed to be referring to SunRail in Orlando based on the ridership data. CT Rail’s Hartford Line goes through but currently doesn’t stop in Newington, Connecticut. Madison, Tennessee is a suburb of Nashville, so this one is referring to WeGo Star (formerly Music City Star), though there’s no station in that particular suburb.
As you can see in the above graphs, Northstar is the worst performing in terms of ridership compared to commuter rail systems in peer regions, and even before the pandemic ridership lagged behind several peer regions. Two-thirds of the listed commuter rail routes provide all-day service, which I define as at least one roundtrip each in the morning, midday, and afternoon. The commuter rail routes in Seattle (Sounder), Madison, TN (WeGo Star), Stockton, CA (Altamont Corridor Express), Albuquerque (New Mexico Rail Runner), and Portland, OR (Westside Express Service) don’t provide all-day service. Of the six regions that had 1 million or more riders in 2020, only two of those (Seattle and Stockton) were commuter rail systems that don’t provide all-day service.
This doesn’t mean all-day service and an extension to St. Cloud would suddenly make Northstar the highest ridership commuter rail route, but all-day service and serving more destinations are two important parts needed for Northstar to be in a better position post-pandemic. If we don’t invest in making Northstar an all-day service then I believe it’s doomed to be one of the worst, if not the worst, performing in the country in terms of ridership.
Case Study: Metra Commuter Rail
In late May of this year I visited Chicago for a week, which provided an opportunity to use a few routes on their commuter rail system known as Metra. While it’s an extensive network and one of the busiest in the country, it has a few of the same issues as Northstar. Three of Metra’s eleven routes don’t operate all day, and the off-peak frequency of routes that do operate all day is significantly low for a metropolitan region like Chicago. Many of Metra’s stations emphasize their dependability on suburban park & riders with lots of parking but poor local transit connections and poor accessibility by foot and bike.
In the suburb of Crystal Lake there are two Metra stations that exemplify what a station area should and shouldn’t look like. Crystal Lake Station is the former with a vibrant downtown district that’s adjacent to the station. The park & ride lot isn’t prominent, and the station can be easily accessed by foot or bike. There’s also local bus connections and a bike-share station, which I will go into more detail about later.
The other station in Crystal Lake is Pingree Road, which resembles most of Northstar’s suburban stations. There’s a large park & ride lot, and destinations are spread out over a large area that’s difficult to reach by foot or bike. Pingree Road Station also doesn’t have any fixed-route bus connections.
For Northstar the stations should be like Crystal Lake Station where there’s less dependability on park & riders, not Pingree Road Station where almost the entire ridership is park & riders. While we can’t have downtown districts spring up at every Northstar station, we can focus development around these stations instead of continuing with sprawled-out areas where people are almost entirely dependent on cars.
While using Metra I had an experience showing how important it is for train stations to be accessible by foot, bike, and reliable bus service. From downtown Chicago I took Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest Line, with my destination being the Illinois Railway Museum in a town called Union. Ironically the Illinois Railway Museum is not directly accessible by train, but a dial-a-ride bus service is available from a few Metra stations. However, you can only call up to two days in advance, and on the weekend they only schedule rides for the same day. To add to the complexity they only accept exact change. The biggest drawback is the fact that you’re not guaranteed to get a ride, which is what happened to me. Since I wasn’t able to get a ride I’m not sure what the typical wait time is for getting picked up by the dial-a-ride bus.
While the bus service failed me, it was a mixed blessing at Woodstock Station to see a bike-share station. Downloading the app, adding a payment method, and getting a bike was easy, but the 10-mile bike ride was the exact opposite. The route included rural roads with very narrow shoulders, cars flying by at 45-60 miles per hour, and strong headwinds. Biking back from the museum I decided to go to Crystal Lake Station, which is 15 miles. This took me through the Village of Lakewood and the sprawled area of Crystal Lake that made me feel like I was biking through a typical Twin Cities suburb. Although it wasn’t pleasant, I’m glad I chose that route because when I was in the downtown area of Crystal Lake there was a huge improvement in terms of the built environment being walk-friendly and bike-friendly.
Bike-share stations should absolutely be an amenity included at train stations, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend their use for distances like I had done. Bikes are great for covering the last few miles at most from a train station, but further than that there needs to be reliable and convenient bus service.
Any improvements will take time to implement, so for at least the next couple of years I think the best we can hope for in terms of improvements to Northstar is restoring some or all of the pre-pandemic service and Northstar Link buses connecting with all trains to/from Big Lake. There could also be improved local bus connections such as Route 805 at Anoka Station and rerouting certain trips to serve Coon Rapids-Riverdale Station, as well as rerouting certain Route 10 trips to serve Fridley Station and connect with Northstar trains. Whether these tiny and short-term improvements would be worthwhile, however, is up for debate.
In the long-term there are many possible ways Northstar could be improved, and possible timelines for making those improvements adds more complexity. To make this simpler, I will use the backcasting method in which I describe how Northstar should look in a post-pandemic world, and in the next sections I’ll give recommendations on how to reach that goal.
Northstar in a post-pandemic world is very different from its beginnings as a commuter rail service bringing suburban commuters from the northwest metro to office jobs in downtown Minneapolis. Northstar goes all the way to Brainerd via St. Cloud and Staples with service throughout the day in both directions everyday of the week. There’s consistent frequency, so it’s more likely the schedule will work for people who live, work, and/or visit destinations along Northstar’s route.
A mix of suburban trains operating between Minneapolis and Big Lake and long-distance trains operating the entire route between Minneapolis and Brainerd caters to travel needs of people all along the corridor. While Northstar can’t serve every type of travel such as people going to their lakeside cabin, it does provide a reliable, affordable, and convenient form of transportation that lessens our dependence on roads ranging from local streets to Highway 10 and Interstate 94. In the winter when there’s snow showers and in the summer when there’s major road construction Northstar receives a noticeable uptick in riders because they would rather be on the train than dealing with those issues behind the wheel.
Each Northstar station is easily accessible by foot, bike, and car. Most Northstar stations have fixed-route bus service and/or demand-response bus service that is easy to use and reliable for accessing destinations outside walking range of the train station. There’s also bike-sharing at most stations. Several stations are surrounded by transit-oriented development where people don’t need to rely on a car for all of their transportation.
Track capacity can handle Northstar’s all-day service plus growth in BNSF’s freight train traffic and Amtrak service to cities including Duluth, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Winnipeg with multiple daily trains. Numerous railroad crossings have been grade-separated, which increases safety for both trains and road traffic, allows trains to operate at higher speeds, and eliminates road traffic disruptions from train traffic.
In addition to bus service at many Northstar stations, there’s also the light rail and bus rapid transit network of the Twin Cities region that can be accessed in Minneapolis. With more rapid transit routes in operation it’s easier to reach Northstar in more parts of the region such as the southwest suburbs via the extension of the Metro Green Line.
Extension to St. Cloud and Brainerd
From Big Lake Northstar trains would continue northwest on BNSF’s Staples Subdivision to the existing Amtrak station in Staples, and then head east to Brainerd via BNSF’s Brainerd Subdivision. An extension to Brainerd would complement Amtrak’s Empire Builder by providing additional service between the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, and Staples, as well as serving communities the Empire Builder skips including Little Falls. With a new form of travel that doesn’t require driving, access to/from communities with Northstar service would be substantially improved.
There would be 22 stations on the entire route between Minneapolis and Brainerd. Six of these stations would be flag stops in which trains only stop at the station if there’s a request to get on/off, which improves travel time while still serving small towns. Flag stops aren’t common on passenger rail routes in the U.S., but they do exist including on the Metra network in Chicago.
Two stations would be infill stations on the existing route between Minneapolis and Big Lake. In the past I’ve suggested several more infill stations including ones in downtown Elk River and Anoka Technical College, but in order to reduce costs and travel time I decided to scale it back. Destinations like the aforementioned would have improved local bus service connecting with Northstar (more on that later).
Northeast Minneapolis is one of the recommended areas for an infill station, but an exact location is up for debate. Three locations that I believe would be the most likely options for an infill station are St. Anthony, Broadway & Central, and Lowry Avenue. The St. Anthony area has several medium and high-density mixed-use developments that could boost ridership for Northstar. Bus connections on 1st Avenue and Hennepin Avenue would only be 1-2 blocks away, and depending on the exact location of the station it would be 2-4 blocks away from bus routes operating on Central Avenue including the future F Line arterial BRT.
A station at Broadway & Central would likely have quicker and easier transfers between Northstar and the F Line, but there would only be two other bus routes in the area. This area also likely has lower population density than St. Anthony. Some of the existing development within walking distance is light industrial, which would attract little if any ridership. If the area has an increase in residential and commercial development then it would improve the chances of Broadway & Central having the infill station.
The built environment around Lowry Avenue is similar to Broadway & Central. A station here would have no direct connection with the F Line, but there are connections to two local bus routes. In addition, there’s been consideration of an arterial BRT route on Lowry Avenue. However, there are potential engineering challenges for an infill station on Lowry Avenue including the tracks being on a berm, the constricted right-of-way, and multiple sets of tracks in which two busy BNSF routes merge together.
The second infill station would be at the Foley Boulevard Park & Ride in Coon Rapids. Assuming Northern Lights Express finally proceeds into construction then a station will be built here. While I’ve questioned the need for a station here due to the drop in park & ride usage since the pandemic began, as well as existing development within walking distance of this location not being transit-oriented, the park & ride facility already exists and would be a suitable place for local bus connections to Northtown Mall and other destinations. There’s also undeveloped land near the site that could provide opportunities for transit-oriented development.
More Tracks for More Trains
Northstar’s schedule has always been catered for northwestern suburbanites who work in downtown Minneapolis, which severely limits its usefulness for everyone else. With the pandemic shifting work and commuting habits, as well as people’s needs for travel throughout the day, Northstar has to adapt. That will require more service with trains running throughout the day, and in order to do that there needs to be more track capacity.
First I’ll summarize the existing track conditions from Minneapolis to Brainerd. Target Field Station currently has two platform tracks and a single platform, but under the Northern Lights Express project the existing platform would be extended slightly east and a third platform track added. The platform tracks merge into one and connect with BNSF’s Wayzata Subdivision just east of Target Field Station. Going east the Wayzata Subdivision has a single mainline track and a 4,800-foot siding. On the east end of the Wayzata Subdivision in Northeast Minneapolis it connects with BNSF’s Midway Subdivision. The Midway Subdivision has two mainline tracks through Northeast Minneapolis, and these extend onto the Staples Subdivision and go all the way to Gregory (just south of Little Falls). Between Gregory and Little Falls there’s a single-track segment of approximately 2.67 miles, and then double-track resumes for another 5 miles. Then for approximately 22.7 miles the Staples Subdivision is single-track with two 2.25-mile long sidings located in Randall and Lincoln. From Philbrook to Staples the Staples Subdivision is double-track. Between Staples and Brainerd the Brainerd Subdivision is single-track with sidings in Motley and Pillager, which are 1.2 miles long and 1.14 miles long respectively.
As part of improvements to Northstar, the Wayzata Subdivision would have a second mainline track between Target Field Station and the connection with the Midway Subdivision. The Midway Subdivision and Staples Subdivision would have a third mainline track between Northeast Minneapolis and Big Lake. At Fridley Station a new siding would be built to allow Northstar trains to use either side of the existing platform. North of Big Lake to Staples the existing gaps in the double mainline would be filled, and there may also be sidings in various locations such as Becker where coal trains serve the Sherco Power Plant. From Staples to Brainerd the track improvements needed are less known, but would likely involve extending existing sidings and/or building new sidings.
To see how much capacity a triple mainline railway can have, BNSF’s Chicago Subdivision is a good place to look. This route hosts Metra’s BNSF Line, which is one of the busiest in terms of frequency and ridership in the Metra network. On weekdays going eastbound to Chicago Union Station there are 44 trips (32 of these trips operate the entire route), and westbound towards Aurora there are 47 trips (34 of these trips operate the entire route). In addition to Metra there’s four daily roundtrips operated by Amtrak on the Chicago Subdivision. Mixed in with these passenger trains are frequent freight trains as the Chicago Subdivision is part of BNSF’s important Northern Transcontinental route, which also includes the Staples Subdivision.
For this Northstar improvement proposal the service would be split between suburban trains operating between Minneapolis and Big Lake, and long-distance trains operating the entire route between Minneapolis and Brainerd. In the northbound direction on weekdays there would be trains every 60 minutes (4 trips) in the morning, every 60 minutes (6 trips) during midday, every 30 minutes (6 trips) in the afternoon, and every 60 minutes (2 trips) in the evening. In the southbound direction on weekdays there would be trains every 30 minutes (6 trips) in the morning, every 60 minutes (6 trips) during midday, every 60 minutes (4 trips) in the afternoon, and every 60 minutes (2 trips) in the evening. In total there would be 18 roundtrips on weekdays, and half of these roundtrips would operate the entire route between Minneapolis and Brainerd (3 morning trips, 2 midday trips, 3 afternoon trips, and 1 evening trip)
On Saturdays and Sundays there would be 8 roundtrips (2 morning trips, 2 midday trips, 2 afternoon trips, and 2 evening trips) between Minneapolis and Big Lake, and half of these roundtrips (1 morning trip, 1 midday trip, 1 afternoon trip, and 1 evening trip) would operate the entire route between Minneapolis and Brainerd.
Diesel locomotives pulling and pushing coaches is common on America’s commuter rail systems including Northstar. For the foreseeable future that will continue to be the case as several commuter rail operators have ordered new diesel locomotives with cleaner emissions. Northstar’s existing fleet of diesel locomotives have approximately 17 years of life left in them before needing replacement. When it eventually comes time to replace these locomotives there should be consideration of other options instead of new diesel locomotives. While new diesel locomotives have cleaner emissions, they still emit diesel fumes and also have higher noise levels than electric trains.
Electrifying Northstar’s route with overhead wires would likely be cost prohibitive, and would provide little benefit. Electrification typically only makes sense on railways with a high frequency of train traffic. While there’s a high frequency of freight traffic, BNSF wouldn’t utilize a sub-fleet of electric locomotives for a short segment where their freight trains typically operate hundreds of miles.
The feasibility of utilizing battery-electric locomotives for Northstar should be studied. If proven to be feasible, diesel emissions from Northstar’s operations could be eliminated without the major expense of installing overhead wires on the entire route. Last year BNSF tested battery-electric locomotives on freight trains in California, and Union Pacific plans to order battery-electric locomotives for use in rail yards.
In September 2017 a free shuttle bus service was launched between Fridley Station and a few major employers in the area. In the morning riders could transfer from southbound trains to these buses, and in the afternoon the buses would take riders back to Fridley Station to connect with northbound trains. Funding that was allocated for the service only lasted a year, and it’s likely the service wasn’t successful to keep it going beyond that period.
With a limited number of trains pre-pandemic and especially now with only two roundtrip trains per weekday, it’s very likely little to no riders will connect between local bus routes and Northstar’s suburban stations. However, post-pandemic Northstar needs as many transit connections as possible to help make all-day service work. Not only does there need to be improvements to bus routes in the northern suburbs, but also St. Cloud’s Metro Bus for easy connections to destinations including downtown St. Cloud, St. Cloud State University, and Crossroads Center.
In addition to fixed-route buses there should also be demand-response bus service at certain stations. Demand-response such as SouthWest Transit Prime and MVTA Connect are public transit versions of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. With demand-response the last-mile issue of going to/from Northstar stations would be greatly reduced. For example Elk River’s downtown is over a mile from Northstar’s existing station in Elk River, but a demand-response service can carry multiple people from the Northstar station and drop them off at their exact destination in or near downtown Elk River.
In December 2021 I stayed in Amsterdam for a few weeks and traveled around the Netherlands by train. Not only was this easy to do because of their excellent transit network and service, but also being able to pay the fare on all public transit with the OV-chipkaart. When traveling to different cities such as Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague there was no need to figure out different fare systems. In addition, no matter what mode of public transport you’re using and the operator of the service, the OV-chipkaart is accepted.
Back in Minnesota I’ve traveled to Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Northfield, and Faribault, where I was interested in trying their transit, but their fare system is completely different from the Twin Cities and usually requires exact change. If a student traveling to St. Cloud State University from the Twin Cities used Northstar they could pay the fare with Metro Transit’s Go-To Card, but when transferring to Metro Bus they would need to either purchase a fare with exact change or have a Smart Ride Card (St. Cloud’s version of the Go-To Card). Having to figure out multiple fare systems, and the extra difficulty of needing exact change, would likely discourage people from using Northstar. Along the Northstar Line, and statewide in general, the Go-To Card should be accepted by every transit operator, which would make regional travel by transit in Minnesota simpler and easier.
Let’s Not Repeat History
To conclude this post I will give a short history lesson. The Twin Cities region once had a decent network of interurban railways operated by private companies. After World War II however, most of that network vanished, and it was all gone by the 1950s. While true that these routes lost a competitive advantage to the automobile, we must also be aware that the new roads and highways that made interurbans less competitive became reality through government investment, and those investments weren’t cheap and easy. Our investments in regional transportation since post-World War II have focused mostly on the automobile while mass transit has been largely ignored. That’s not how Minnesota should function in the years and decades ahead. The Northstar Line is an investment in a future where the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota aren’t almost entirely dependent on cars and roads. If we mothball Northstar, we will only be repeating our past mistake of ignoring mass transit and putting almost all of our investment in private transportation that encourages environmentally-damaging suburban sprawl. I hope enough people working at the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT, as well as elected officials, realize this and want Northstar to succeed in a post-pandemic world.