Drafting on the Hiawatha light rail line’s success, Northstar commuter trains began shuttling passengers today from the far northwest reaches of the metro area to downtown Minneapolis and back again.
It was a historic moment, marking a second milestone in the return of rail transit to the Twin Cities. Hiawatha’s 2003 debut came a half-century after streetcars had disappeared. Today’s launch of Northstar stretches history even further. From the 1880s through the 1920s, the Twin Cities had a flourishing system of steam-driven “commuting trains,” with as many as 15 lines at one time or another. It was probably the largest such system in the United States to eventually — and totally — disappear.
And so, Jan Lindquist and about 120 others represented a new beginning when they stepped off the 5 a.m. from Big Lake and onto the platform at Target Field Station in downtown Minneapolis this morning. Arrival time was 5:49 a.m., two minutes early. “It was a very nice ride,” she said. Northstar will save her both time and stress on her daily commute from Coon Rapids to her job at Target Corp.’s downtown headquarters, she predicted.
The 7:19 from Big Lake drew a bigger crowd. Ana Freire, a grad student at the University of Minnesota, was taking her first train trip ever. “This is a lot better than driving,” she said. The bus-train combo from St. Cloud to the U will take about two hours.
Bill Howard from Coon Rapids was another happy rider. “I lived in New York for 15 years, so I really miss trains.” He plans to take Northstar every day to his advertising job at Cornerstone Media Group downtown. “It’s also nice to have another option for getting to the airport,” he said.
Passengers chatted, sipped coffee, napped, read or plugged in their laptops to get a head start on the workday. The ride was smooth. The double-decked coaches were spotless. The trains, gleaming in their bright blue and yellow colors, make only four brief stops between Big Lake and Target Field — Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids/Riverdale and Fridley. So, time passes quickly.
Delivered on time — and $10 million under budget
Today’s opening follows a weekend of festivities along the line. The biggest took place on Friday night at Target Field Station when Northstar and Hiawatha trains engaged in a celebratory head butt of sorts. The two trains glided simultaneously into the station, horns at full blast. A band played and a light drizzle fell as several hundred guests filed from the coaches into a jam-packed reception at the new ballpark. U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar drew the loudest cheers. “Northstar is a moral issue,” he told the boisterous crowd, “because it lessens the number of times that frustrated drivers will take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Noting the size of the gathering, Oberstar recalled that when the Northstar plan was conceived in 1991 “you could have fit the supporters in a telephone booth — if you know what that is.” Today, he suggested, transit expansion is considered a no-brainer. He also reminded the crowd that the project began — and here he paused in mock horror — as an earmark.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who opposed Northstar through most of his political career, was one of the few local politicians who did not attend. Both U.S. senators, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, and an excessive parade of legislators and county commissioners streamed to the microphone. Extending the line another 40 miles to St. Cloud and establishing a transit hub at Target Field were popular themes, as were the virtues of saving energy, reducing oil dependence and cleaning the environment. In a veiled reference to Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, whom the State Senate ousted last year as transportation commissioner, several speakers applauded MnDOT’s new commissioner, Tom Sorrel, for restoring the agency’s integrity and professionalism.
Met Council Chairman Peter Bell drew perhaps the evening’s second-loudest cheer when he announced that the $317 million Northstar project was being delivered “on time and, to this point, $10 million under budget.”
Different from light rail
Commuter rail differs from light rail in significant ways. Commuter trains are larger and usually powered by diesel engines. They usually run on tracks owned by private railroads and, therefore, must share space with freight trains. They cover longer distances than light-rail trains, operate less frequently and stop at fewer stations. Service is concentrated during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Northstar begins with five locomotives (remanufactured by Motive Power Industries in Boise, Idaho) and 18 double-decked coaches (made by Bombardier in Plattsburg, N.Y.). While capable of speeds over 100 mph, the condition of the BNSF-owned rail bed limits Northstar’s speed to 79 mph. Five-car train sets operate in a push-pull configuration, with a locomotive pushing four cars to Minneapolis and pulling four cars to Big Lake, thus eliminating the need for trains to turn around. Trains make five departures from Big Lake (with one return trip) in the morning and five departures from downtown Minneapolis (with one return trip) in the evening. Three roundtrips are offered on Saturday and three on Sunday. Tickets are purchased at kiosks on station platforms. Trains are operated by Metro Transit — with BNSF engineers. Fares range from $3.25 to $7, depending on the destination. Each coach will seat about 145 passengers.
About 3,400 weekday riders are expected initially, growing to nearly 6,000 by 2030. Those numbers would increase if the line is extended to St. Cloud as originally planned.
According to Metro Transit, if you assume this morning’s riders will return home this afternoon, “first-day totals will reach 2,414 rides, 70 percent of average weekday ridership expected during the first year.”
The federal government paid half the project’s $317 million capital cost. The state paid an additional 30 percent. Anoka, Sherburne and Hennepin counties, the Met Council and the Minnesota Twins joined to finance the remaining 20 percent. Operations are expected to cost $16.8 million next year. Forty percent of that will come from metro sales tax, 20 percent from fares and 20 percent from the state.
Today’s launch is the culmination of 13 years of formal planning, engineering and construction started in 1997 by a coalition of 30 local governments and agencies, spearheaded by County Commissioners Peter McLaughlin of Hennepin and Dan Erhart of Anoka.
The Northstar Line’s task is to offer a transportation choice in the fast-growing Minneapolis-St. Cloud corridor, where the population is expected to exceed 850,000 by 2025. Northstar was considered a clean and efficient alternative to massive expansions of Hwys. 94 and 10. Studies found, for example, that widening Hwy. 10 would have been four times more expensive than Northstar, and that adding a dedicated busway would have been six times more expensive per passenger mile. The rail alternative was also considered a time-saver. A rush-hour drive from Elk River to downtown Minneapolis takes 70 minutes; on Northstar it takes 34.
Back in the day: 15 commuter lines
“As far as I can tell, the Twin Cities probably had the largest commuter rail network in the U.S. to totally disappear,” said Aaron Isaacs, Minnesota’s foremost railroad historian. During the peak of local railroading in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 15 commuter lines spread outward from the two downtowns, most of them from St. Paul’s Union Depot or Minneapolis’ Great Northern and Milwaukee Road stations. By the mid 1880s, three competing railroads offered trains over three different routes every hour between the two downtowns, Isaacs said, 74 trains in all.
Commuter trains also ran on a dozen suburban routes:
• From downtown St. Paul to White Bear Lake, Lake Elmo, Stillwater, St. Paul Park, South St. Paul, Inver Grove, North St. Paul, St. Anthony Park, New Brighton, Inver Grove and Taylors Falls.
• From downtown Minneapolis to Mendota, Wayzata, Hutchinson, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Excelsior, Edina, Savage, Lakeville and Northfield.
At one point, four companies competed for passengers between both downtowns and Lake Minnetonka. Special trains to the State Fair and Fourth of July celebrations were also offered.
By the 1890s, electrified interurban streetcars began displacing the steam-powered commuter trains. Still the trains lasted through World War I and into the late 1920s before the Great Depression spelled their demise. A few stragglers lingered into the 1940s, Isaacs said, notably the gas-electric powered Dan Patch trains between Minneapolis and Northfield and the Luce Line trains between Minneapolis, Wayzata and Hutchinson. But by 1948, commuter trains were all gone.
A national revival
Despite decline in many cities, commuter trains remained an important option in New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia through the postwar years, largely because their downtowns continued to employ large numbers of potential riders in concentrated areas. But in most cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, suburban growth spurred a diffusion of jobs away from downtowns, and Interstate highways invited an almost total reliance on the auto for getting to work.
Only since the 1980s have commuter railroads begun a modest comeback. Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New Jersey developed popular systems during that decade. Then, as a new century approached, road congestion, high fuel costs and environmental concerns began to drive a greater interest in rail alternatives to the point that, now, more than 70 cities are in some stage of planning and developing rail projects, including commuter rail.
Northstar brings the nation’s number of commuter railroads to 22. Some are huge. New York’s three commuter railroads carry 936,000 riders on an average weekday. Chicago’s Metra trains average more than 300,000 riders per weekday. Other lines are much smaller. Startups in Salt Lake City, Nashville, Albuquerque and Portland each average fewer than 5,000 riders per day.
Hurdles are many
“There’s a lot of interest, but it often takes a lot of time to get commuter rail going,” said David Goldberg, communications director for the Washington-based advocacy group Transportation For America. The biggest hurdle is finding enough money to build and operate a line. Even if funding can be found, federal and state laws and procedures make it far more difficult to build a stretch of commuter rail than to build a stretch of highway. The freight railroads pose another big obstacle. They own the tracks. Finding reasonably priced time and space to share with freight operations is difficult to negotiate. Even when deals are reached, many contracts insist on priority for freight trains, causing reliability problems for passenger schedules.
Meanwhile, the recession has caused a crisis in transit operations. Shortfalls in tax revenues set aside to operate transit systems are widespread. Minnesota, ironically, uses tax revenue from the sale of autos to help finance transit operations. The collapse of auto sales has injured the alternative to the auto.
Another problem with commuter rail is that it hasn’t drawn as much trackside development as urban rail systems. Its role has been mostly to provide choice in suburban areas overrun by cars. Los Angeles is, perhaps, the prime example. Metrolink is a 512-mile system of commuter lines that stretch from downtown Los Angeles deep into five suburban and exurban counties.
“Union Station in downtown L.A. was pretty much boarded up a few years ago. Now it’s this art deco gem that’s bustling with people,” said Goldberg.
Minneapols-St. Paul hopes to duplicate that experience on a smaller scale. St. Paul’s Union Depot expects to begin a major renovation as early as 2011. Hennepin County hopes to redevelop Target Field Station into a major transportation “interchange” for trains, buses, bikes and parking.
The public attitude on trains and cars has shifted remarkably over the last decade. In the 1990s, the budding Hiawatha projected was roundly savaged as a “boondoggle,” a “train to nowhere” and “social engineering.” But its ridership quickly exceeded levels predicted for 2020, and it helped generate several thousand housing units near its stations.
“Almost nobody thinks light rail was a mistake,” said Barb Thoman, a founder of the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities. “We’re still behind other places on transportation. But the policy is no longer to just move more cars faster on bigger and bigger patches of pavement.”
As evidence she listed not only Hiawatha, Northstar and the pending Central and Southwest light rail lines but recent street reconfigurations in Minneapolis that change the focus from moving cars to experiencing the city, whether by car, bike or on foot. Northstar is a big part of the picture, she said. “It’s almost like we’ve started to take back our cities.”
Steve Berg covers transportation, urban affairs, politics and other subjects.