The Northstar Link Is Actually Pretty Good!

If ever you find yourself in St. Cloud at the crack of dawn, you will witness the most peculiar sight. People from across the urban sprawl will cross through the roads and sidewalks in pitch darkness. They will continue on this silent march all the way to St. Cloud State University. But they are not students attending a 6 a.m. class (if such a torture device even exists). Instead they sleepily stand under the twilight of dawn, in front of the Miller Center. Watching and waiting. But this is not some occult ritual you have just stumbled across. All you have to do to understand is look over to Fourth Avenue, and now Seventh Street. The Northstar Link has arrived!

From parts north (St. Cloud): The bus eventually leads to a train, which leads to downtown Minneapolis.

I am a student at the University of Minnesota. But I do not call the Twin Cities my home. I hail from the St. Cloud area—but I despise, as all Minnesotans do, the trek down Interstate 94. It is an hour-long gauntlet of angry drivers, constant turns and horrid conditions in winter. I have been making this perilous drive for years now, and I am ecstatic to report that there is another way to Minneapolis!

The first time I witnessed this amazing movement of people so early in the morning was on my way back to the Twin Cities from my Fourth of July extended weekend. I stood in front of the Miller Center, silently praying that I had interpreted the schedule correctly, looking anxiously around at the group assembled around me, until at last the North Star Link came into view.

The Metro Transit Northstar Rail serves commuters between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake. The original program was to continue all the way to St. Cloud, but much needed federal funding did not materialize. But the need for the service was still enticing enough to get a bus route to finish the job.

This is the Northstar Link.

My Ride on the Northstar Link

The Northstar Link has copious luggage capacity.

Sleek in the reflecting dawn, the bus pulled up and people much more experienced than I was at daily commuting hopped aboard. I was last on because I was needlessly carrying on my luggage. After I put in my $2 fare, the driver set me straight, remarking, “Kid, there’s storage on the side.”

Like all Metro Transit buses, the Northstar Link requires exact change or a pre-loaded Go-To Card. Anyone new to bus or train commuting would need to research that in advance or stumble, as I did, on their initial rides.

With my luggage tucked away, I entered the Northstar, which revealed itself to be an otherworldly scene, especially at 6 a.m. The walkway, glazed in blue, looked like something from Star Trek, with each crisscrossing aisle allowing for two passengers to sit comfortably in lounge chairs.

We then embarked on the journey itself. The route from St. Cloud to Big Lake is an undertaking of 28 miles that is a warzone in the winter. Once while driving back home, I witnessed an 18-wheeler’s tire explode as loud as a cannon shot and watched its rubber turn into a projectile, then had to swerve away from the beast as it scurried to the side of the road.

But it makes for a most stupendous experience taken by bus.

The Northstar felt very bougie. There were no hiccups over bumps and the bus is clean as a whistle. The seats were also so comfortable that I found myself wondering if I had gotten onto the wrong service. What did prove to be frustrating was the planner’s attempts to maximize each seat’s space by angling cup holders to strangle anything with a larger lid. This left my own canteen in a perilous position for the entire ride. (I will concede, it never fell. But it kept me on edge.)

Being chauffeured allowed me to work on my computer on the way up to the station. This was greatly helped by the outlets that are available aboard. Unfortunately, it was during this time that I experienced my biggest gripe against the service. The Northstar Link, unlike its railed cousin, lacks WiFi. This is a terrible setback for anyone who would care to stream the ride away or use this time for work, such as myself. I am privileged to have unlimited internet through a personal hotspot, but had my phone died without a charger to replenish it, I would have found myself with nothing to do other than look out the window.

Shot on a moving bus (and thus blurry), this photo nonetheless shows the plush interior of the Northstar Link.

Not that the scenery should be viewed as punitive, for indeed Minnesota is, without question, the most beautiful place on God’s green earth. (This in spite of the freeway’s attempts to ruin it.)

Scheduling Holds the Service Back

The Northstar bus schedule currently operates only four departures each direction per weekday: two in the early morning and two in the late afternoon. And only half of those departures connect with the Northstar train in Big Lake. Not that it is impossible to use; the route runs till 6 p.m. But this still is a small window of time for people working nine to five. And it is especially peculiar since a large portion of the workforce has shifted away from working in-person office jobs full time.

I believe that Northstar, both Link and Rail, shouldn’t be focusing solely on daily commuters. Although an ample number of doctors and everyday workers still use the service on its weekday route, expanding hours during Twins games and Target Center concerts would bring a lot of tired audiences safely back home.

Similarly, I believe this route could be a revenue booster for Minneapolis, as I know many times I have opted out of staying late in the city—where I likely would have spent money at restaurants or theaters or other amusements—because I would have needed to book an expensive hotel. With late-night service, people could stay in the city much longer without worrying about last-minute bookings.

This is doubly so on weekends. The Northstar Link has a ton of storage that makes moving to and from the Cities very easy. Yet, this bus service and its related train service does not run on the weekends. The Northstar Link and Northstar Commuter Rail are great if you’re commuting to and from work in Minneapolis—and if you work a standard 9-to-5 schedule. But a non-commuter would need to plan for an entire weekday in Minneapolis to use these transportation modes effectively.

Final Thoughts

Transit is slowly, but surely, climbing back from its pandemic levels. I think now is a good time to look around and ask ourselves what we want transit to do for us. The Northstar Link allows people to get outside of their comfort zones. It allows for exploration of new places and to see new people. This is what public transit should look like: a way to go wherever you want to go in a cheap, efficient manner.

The author prepares to board the commuter bus in St. Cloud, very early on a weekday morning.

If you live in St. Cloud and ever have reason to travel to the Twin Cities, or vice versa, at least try this service. If nothing I have written persuades you, at least chew on this final thought: If you take the Northstar, you won’t have to worry about parking.

All photos by Bryce Riesner; photo at top courtesy