Riding the Northstar: An on-time glide with two-story views

Northstar train interior
MinnPost photo by David Hawley
The Northstar sports padded seats, in restaurant-booth configuration.

All this and a cup of coffee, too.

Early Monday morning, I rode the train — or, rather, trains both light and heavy — from the Mall of America to Big Lake and back. Then, before driving home, I went into the eerily quiet “Place for Fun in Your Life” and bought a cup of coffee to assuage guilt for using the MOA parking ramp instead of the dedicated transit ramp just a few blocks away.

But just for the record, I wanted to ride every public foot of the rail system currently operated by Metro Transit.

The main purpose, of course, was to experience the first official morning of operations for the Northstar Line, the state’s $317 million gamble on commuter rail. Did I get a true picture of what it’s like? Hardly. The Northstar trains and the line’s six stations were swarming with Metro Transit employees, all bellowing hearty good-mornings and offering advice and assistance.

And the 6:05, the only morning out-bound train from downtown’s Target Field to Big Lake, was swarming with reporters. Many of them stayed on the same train after it arrived in Big Lake and became the in-bound 7:19, the last train of the morning commute.

In addition, and for at least two reasons, I cannot offer an unbiased impression. First, as a disabled veteran, I was entitled to ride for free, and free is always better. And second, I’m a train fetishist, starting with the feeling of tranquility that creeps over me when a heavy-rail car begins its glide over smooth tracks, moving with the inexorable surety of a sailboat in a steady breeze. For me, disliking a train ride would be like asking a newspaper reporter to dislike “The Front Page.”

So with those caveats in mind, here are some of this rider’s impressions:

It’s commuter rail. There’s talk that sports fans will use the Northstar’s three in-bound and three out-bound trains on Saturdays and Sundays. Well, maybe a few, along with parking-averse shoppers and people who like to go to bed early on Saturday nights or get home on Sundays in time to see “60 Minutes.”

Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit’s affable spokesman, said up to 30 “special trains” a year will be available to serve particular events. But for the most part, the Northstar is for suburban and exurban dwellers who until now have been doing the bumper-to-bumper drive into downtown every day.

It’s been said that they will be able to save time by taking the train. But factor in the drive to the park-and-ride, platform waiting and the distance from Target Field to the office and for most riders it’s probably a wash at best in terms of time.

But if you’d rather be driven than drive, then the train’s for you. And if you’re paying big bucks for parking downtown (not to mention the cost of gas), the one-way fares that range from $3.25 to $7 could be a saving. It’s anticipated that the bulk of Northstar’s daily customers will use swipe cards like the Go-To Card, Metropass, U-Pass or Go-To College Pass. At the Target Field station, pass-reader pillars have been set up with specific fares for each station on the out-bound route so that commuters can swipe and dash.

The on-time factor: Delays will be rare. The Northstar is sharing the tracks with freight trains — and, in fact, Northstar train engineers and conductors are employees of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, coordinating operations through the BNSF’s communications center in Ft. Worth, Texas. With the exception of the stations at Target Field and Big Lake, the other four Northstar stops (in Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka and Elk River) are on the main line. Commuters waiting on platforms will have to stand back as freight trains rumble through in both directions and the silver Amtrak train from Seattle whizzes by in the morning.

This is the reason behind the goal of keeping loading times to less than a minute at main-line stations. And it’s also why future changes to Northstar’s schedule are going to be tricky.

But it also means that traveling on Northstar will be very dependable. If you’re taking the weekday 7:29 in from Elk River, you can expect to leave on time. Who knows: After a few months of this, Northstar commuters may start acting like the Germans I met during a trip to Munich, who expressed outrage when a train was three minutes late.

The BOMBARDIER BiLevel: That’s the trade name for the commuter cars used by Northstar. I’d never ridden on one until Monday, but I’ve been told that they’re something of a workhorse for newer commuter systems, with about 1,000 of them currently in service. Metro Transit bought 18 of them, at about $2.3 million each, and the daily schedule calls for 16 of them to be in service.

Painted gold, blue and white, they look something like a split-level trailer, with two doors on each side and inside stairwells on each end. For anyone who has ever traveled on a multilevel train — Amtrak’s western fleet or the Metra trains in Chicago, for example — the layout of the BiLevel is a distinct improvement when it comes to climbing stairs. Two people can actually pass each other on the stairs and there aren’t all that many steps to climb.

Moreover, people who have trouble with steps can board the train from a raised walkway called a “mini-high” at each station or use a lift that swings out from the car. The first floor of the car also is outfitted for wheelchair users. The typical commuter, I suspect, will probably want to sit on the top level, which has 72 of the car’s estimated 141 to 145 seats.

Most of the seats are arranged in pods of four seats, with the passengers facing each other — as in a restaurant booth. Metro Transit decided on this configuration because the trains operate in a push-pull fashion, with the locomotive pushing the four passenger cars during one run, then pulling the cars on the way back. Depending on your luck, you’re either facing forward or backward.

The seats are nicely padded — that’s a welcome difference from the LRT’s hard-as-concrete seats — and most have headrests. Some of the four-seat pods have a tiny table that’s only wide and long enough to hold two laptops side by side. Two electric devices can be plugged in to a wall outlet beneath each table — something that leads me to wonder how many arguments will ensue when four people carrying plugs converge on a single outlet.

Each car has a big bathroom, with wheelchair access. I only glanced at the stainless-steel biff, thinking: Emergency only.

The “crush load” on each car, according to the manufacturer, is 355 passengers, which translates into a worse-case situation with more than 200 people standing like vertical sardines. Unlike the LRT, the Northstar glides instead of lurching and there are fewer stops, so staying upright isn’t as big a challenge. But there are also fewer things to hold on to — just short grips on the top of each aisle seat.

And no racks for luggage or bags. The cars are roomy, airy and light, but commuters on a full train will be holding their stuff on their laps.

During my ride out and back on the 6:05 and the 7:19, I saw a few people with bikes and a few with covered coffee mugs. Eating food is banned, though I doubt if anybody will be thrown off for eating a doughnut, and signs candidly request riders to take their “trash” with them. I suspect the Northstar will have far less “hard use” by messy passengers as buses or the LRT.

And the views? Well, for the most part, there aren’t any — not at this time of the year. Most trains, both in the morning and in the evening, will travel in the dark. But on Monday, the sunrise was a mellow, reddish glow that reflected yearningly on the retreating tracks as the Northstar pulled into Big Lake shortly before 7 a.m.

And coming back, the gateway to downtown was lovely, the train skipping over the Mississippi River and Nicollet Island before slipping past the new condos on the west side of the river and gliding into Target Station. On time, of course, at 8:10 a.m., with about five minutes to spare to catch the LRT for the trip to Bloomington.

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