After two years of pandemic disruption, downtown nightlife is finally returning to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Especially on weekends, the lineup of concerts, major sports, Broadway shows, local theater, and packed dance clubs is starting to resemble the old days as people return to face-to-face interaction. For a fan of cities, culture, or fellowship that can only be found downtown, it’s a good sign.
But downtown nights are still missing a critical piece: late-night rail service. Transit is never as appealing as during a big downtown event, but anyone coming downtown on the train runs the risk of being stranded, as I was recently, by the early departure of the last ride out of town. The problem is that a years-long driver shortage has been worsened by the pandemic, forcing Metro Transit to leave riders waiting for a midnight train that never arrives.
Anyone who’s visited a large, thriving city knows the symbiosis between nightlife and transit. Taking the train downtown for an evening of bar hopping or music is a relief compared to worrying about parking or sobriety. In my younger years, living in New York City, I remember fondly late-night subway rides after a night out eating pizza by the slice or meeting friends in Manhattan nooks. Visiting Boston over the years, I was always struck by the fact that their last train on the Red Line T ran so early, around midnight.
Here in the Twin Cities, long hours were one of the most appealing things about the Green Line’s debut in 2014. At the time, the train offered all-night service between St. Paul and Minneapolis, and it felt like we had finally graduated to “real city” status, becoming a place where it was possible to be somewhat nocturnal. When the 2017 all-night Northern Spark art festival relied on all-night Green Line service to transport participants from event to event, it illustrated the freedom that comes along with 24-hour transit cities.
The night-owl heyday didn’t last. In 2019, Metro Transit ended Green Line service between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., mostly due to concerns about unsheltered people spending the night on the seats. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe people complained about those service cuts. These days, the last weekday trains out of either downtown depart around 11:20 p.m., and there aren’t any more until the wee hours of the morning (4:30 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. for the Blue and Green Lines, respectively).
Not enough drivers
Every few months, Metro Transit updates its Service Plan and adjusts the route schedules, tweaking the frequency and hours, and right now the light rail service remains curtailed. The problem began when COVID hit, transit ridership cratered alongside most travel.
But the limiting factor these days isn’t riders, it’s the drivers. Even though there’s demand, the agency just doesn’t have rail operators available to run trains after 11:15 p.m.
“In the latest quarterly service adjustments, we weren’t able to yet begin adding back service,” said Laura Baenen, senior communications specialist for Metro Transit. “It’s still suspended temporarily, and we still need more operators and other employees.”
Normally, Metro Transit employs about 1,400 operators, but today that number is down by around 20%. As Baenen points out, the driver shortage is something that’s been a problem at the agency for years. Even before the pandemic, the shortage led to service cuts.
The pandemic made the shortage far worse, thanks to both existing drivers being out sick and a highly competitive labor market with the lowest unemployment in state history. When ridership remained low, the labor shortfall was easier to deal with, but as ridership has recovered, service has been slow to follow.
Even so, Laura Baenen claims the agency is working hard to attract new hires, emphasizing an excellent package of benefits and salary.
“Our employees get pensions, and for a lot of businesses that’s something people overlook,” said Baenen. “There are lots of opportunities to earn overtime. [And] you don’t have to come to Metro Transit with a commercial drivers’ license. We’ll train people. You just need to have either a high school diploma or a GED, and a clean driving record.”
As part of the outreach effort, Metro Transit has been running recruiting fairs for months. There are two hiring events in the first week of May, on Saturday, May 7 and Wednesday, May 11, both at the downtown headquarters.
Late-night service should be a priority
As COVID rates have dropped and mobility patterns have returned to something resembling normal, transit is evolving. Systemwide, ridership at Metro Transit has recovered to about half its pre-COVID numbers, though those rates are very unevenly distributed. Suburban routes and commuting remain a small fraction of their prior rates, while all-day urban routes, like the core light rail, have returned at a much faster pace.
That disparity means that it’s even more important to bring back light rail service. For many folks in the Twin Cities, as downtown comes back to being a core place for social life and community camaraderie, transit serves as a lynchpin. We need to make sure that people coming out of extra-inning ballgames, concert encores, or clubs don’t have to rely on driving back to their homes at night. Metro Transit should make it a priority to bring late-night service and find workers for those routes.
Until they add drivers, that won’t be happening. Even for national spectacles like the Women’s Final Four that took place last month, the agency struggled to serve riders into the night.
“We can’t add service, and are reminding people that you need to plan accordingly,” Baenen admitted, even for big events. “If we’re able to, at the last minute, we’ll add some trains, but with the staffing situation we can’t promise anything.”