A Metro Transit Northstar train passing through a rail yard as it heads toward Big Lake.

Ride Along as the Northstar Makes a Comeback

As an (almost) lifelong Minnesotan and a train enthusiast, I have had a goal to ride the Northstar Commuter Service since before it even opened 14 years ago. As a child living in the southwest metro, I found it hard to justify making a trip, and while the reasons changed, the end result stayed the same: My train ride would need to wait.

The most recent hangup was the old service schedule. With only two round trips a day — two morning southbound and two evening northbound — I would need to spend the night in Big Lake or bike back to Anoka and catch a bus in order to make it work. With the reintroduction of two more round trips per day — a northbound and southbound each in the morning and evening — this can now be accomplished in about an hour and a half.

So, on Monday, October 2, I took the day off to finally cross this goal off my list — along with a few other, less important things.

Read All About It

Thanks to Streets.mn podcast editor and host Ian R Buck for providing this transcript.

Ian Gaida: [00:00:02] Good afternoon. It is Monday, October 2nd, 2023. And it’s a glorious day. It’s super hot. I’m a little winded, as you can tell by the shaky cam. It’s quite windy as well.

[00:00:16] That’s not what makes it great. Because today, the Northstar is no longer the worst commuter rail service in the country.

[00:00:26] More on that in a second. First, we’ve got to find a way to get over there. If there was just a Go-To Card reader here, I could just walk over. I guess I’ll have to go some other way. OK, there has got to be a better way to do this. I have to bike along this, which is Fourth Street. This is basically a glorified on-ramp to 394, so people go really fast. It’s two lanes wide. There’s no parking, no shoulder. It’s not great. We need a better way to get over there.

[00:01:01] It’s very strange, just walking my bike through the building like this. But, you know, if it’s how I’m supposed to do it — I’ll do it.

[00:01:10] The Northstar rail line is a commuter rail operation, running from Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minnesota. Opened in 2009, it travels a distance of 40 miles over BNSF’s Northern Transcon and connects five other communities along the way: Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Ramsey and Elk River.

Heading east, we immediately pass the most scenic part of the route, where it crosses the Mississippi River just north of downtown, then turns north. Sit on the right side going outbound, so you can see the river and the one other possible attraction if you’re a train enthusiast: Northtown yard, which is the biggest rail yard in the state. Unfortunately, I got dinged both times and didn’t really get any good footage of the hump in action.

Originally designed to stretch all the way to St. Cloud and then some, the west end of the route, as well as a few intermediate stops, were cut in the design phase due to the way federal funding formulas worked at the time.

Currently, the Northstar Link provides a bus connection to St. Cloud. Ridership has hovered between 700,000 and 800,000 riders per year from 2010 until 2020, when COVID threw a brick in things. Likewise, service started at six round trips per weekday and three on weekends, with special service to and from Twins games, Vikings games and a few other special events. This dropped all the way down to two per day on weekdays only, giving it the honor of being the worst commuter rail service in the country. Ridership subsequently dropped to about 80,000 riders per year.

[00:02:40] With today’s restoration of service to four trains a day, one of which is a reverse commute, plus special service, we are now solidly ahead of the Altamont Corridor Express [in California]. If we’re going by individual lines, this also puts us ahead of the Metra Heritage Corridor [in Chicago] and Sounder North [in Washington state], with three and two round trips per day, respectively.

Fridley is one of two island stations on the system, although it doesn’t act like it. It’s never been a track on the west side. That will be added as part of a triple track project for the Northern Lights Express, the train between Minneapolis and Duluth. Speaking of which, here’s the future site of the Coon Rapids–Foley Station. This is a park-and-ride that was supposed to have a station attached to it in the original Northstar plan, and it will be built as part of the Northern Lights Express. Between that and Northstar, it will be the best served rail station in the state when it opens.

Not long after, we passed Coon Creek Junction, where the Hinckley Subdivision splits off toward Duluth, and continued our slow turn toward the northwest. The next three stations are all of a similar design: two platforms with an overhead walkway. It was also the point where some of the problems with the system started to shine through. Given that the Northstar was built as a traditional commuter rail network, the stations are heavy on parking and light on any other modes —although most stations do have bike lockers, which is fairly unique, I think. Still, even Ramsey, the only infill station built back in 2012, which prides itself on its COR neighborhood, is still quite separated from the station that is supposed to be its anchor.

[00:04:13] I think a microcosm of this is how the five-over-one apartment building across the street has the parking ramp as the closest park to the station. The worst station is Elk River, which is a full two miles from its downtown. Finally, we get to Big Lake with the inbound Link bus arriving moments after and leaving just as fast. I brought my bike along for this trip, but naturally I forgot to film my short circuit through the parking lot. Northstar runs in push pull, so this train became my inbound ride 15 minutes later. By the way, are wraps on Northstar a new thing? I don’t think I’ve seen them before. I haven’t seen any photos or video of it. Let me know.

While frequency is perhaps the biggest issue for the system, there are definitely others, like the lack of en route transit connections. Apart from downtown Minneapolis, no station has more than one connecting bus. Two don’t even have that, and none operates at more than once an hour. Despite operating on mostly the same line, there is no connection to the Empire Builder either, although rumor is that Anoka is petitioning for a stop. If it does happen, it will likely be moved to provide a connection to the Northern Lights Express as well at Coon Rapids–Foley. As mentioned, the lack of real development around the stations is also a hindrance, as well as the station spacing itself, I would say, which often exceeds 10 miles.

[00:05:32] Foley station will plug one of these gaps, and there’s really nothing between Elk River and Big Lake at the moment anyway. By the way, let’s take a moment to appreciate that fact. How many other places can you ride commuter rail in purely rural areas? Anyway, the last gap is between Fridley and downtown. There really should be a station or two in northeast Minneapolis. And, in fact, that was in the original plan. If you care to learn more about all the ways the Northstar falls short, here’s a link to an article I wrote about a year ago. All that said, seeing the next outbound train blast by just east of Ramsey does make it feel almost useful.

So, what does the future have in store for Northstar? Right now it is unclear what Metro Transit’s goal is for service restoration, although most likely it is the pre-COVID schedule. They also haven’t given a timescale for this to happen. Further in the future, the St. Cloud extension has been talked about basically since it was dropped 15 years ago. MnDOT [Minnesota Department of Transportation] conducted a study on it in 2020, but because of the pandemic, it was determined that they needed to do another one to account for the change in ridership. This, of course, isn’t to be confused with the concurrent one they’re running, where they’re examining the aftermath of COVID on transit as a whole. Other possibilities include adding the Dan Patch line down to Northfield, as well as the eastward extension to Union Depot in St. Paul.

[00:06:54] Overall, I was satisfied with my trip. The ride was decently comfortable, although you can certainly tell that the rolling stock is a bit worn out. Some dedicated bike storage would be nice, as the current option is to strap them in in front of a bench. Two bike spots are sometimes too few on a 40-foot bus. Yet each car has the same number of bike spots for five times the people. More outlets are also needed. As far as I can tell, only the seats with tables had them. Again, all of these are signs of the equipment’s age. The iPhone was only two years old when this line opened, and the only kind of multimodal trains that people understood back then were park-and-rides.

I think Metro Transit should take this opportunity to rebuild them while they still have some spares. Still, the service is quiet, fast and comfortable — about the most you can ask for with something like this. And it certainly beats driving. On a good day, I can maybe drive the route faster. Looking at the lines of traffic on Highway 10, 169 and 694 as we breezed by, I wonder if anything short of two hours is possible in rush hour traffic.

Drifting back into Target Field Station, I can’t help but marvel at seeing my city from a new angle and feel excitement about what the future has to bring. If nothing else, I know they gained at least one new rider. I briefly talked to the other guy who brought his bike on, and at the end of the ride, he described the whole thing as “pretty slick.”

Ian Gaida

About Ian Gaida

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Foamer, Maker, Outdoorsman. bsky: @trainsfan Youtube: Midwest Urbanist