Commuter Rail Minneapolis

Northstar Commuter Rail Opens for Service in Minneapolis

Northstar Route Map» 40-mile line between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake brings commuter rail to Minnesota

As far as new transit openings go, Minneapolis’ new Northstar commuter line is no huge deal. With expected boardings of fewer than 4,000 riders on only six daily round-trip trains, it will reach few passengers and produce approximately zero transit-oriented development. Why, then, should this $320 million train system have been built? Does the State of Minnesota stand to gain from its implementation?

The Northstar line, run by Metro Transit, will offer quick 45-minute trips between Big Lake and a new station at the Ballpark in Minneapolis. Along the route, double-decker trains will stop at four intermediate stations, built brand new, each offering hundreds of park-and-ride spaces. For customers north of Big Lake, a coordinated bus will shuttle passengers from locations as far as St. Cloud (an extension of the rail line is planned to replace that route). Trains will terminate a few blocks northwest of the downtown core where customers will be able to switch to the immensely popular Hiawatha light rail line, which eventually heads to the Airport and the Mall of America.

Unlike most inner-city light rail or heavy rail transit systems, Northstar is designed almost entirely for morning and evening commuters heading in one direction. Five trains will leave Big Lake every morning, arriving at Minneapolis; they will then return in the evening. Just one train will make the reverse commute in the other direction. On Saturdays and Sundays, there will be a total of three round-trips a day.

Metro Transit isn’t alone in building such a one-sided commuter rail system with so few daily departures. The Nashville Music City Star, which runs 32 miles between Nashville and Lebanon, offers six round trips a day (though they admittedly go in both directions). That line was one of the cheapest in the country to build, costing only about $1.3 million a mile, compared to almost ten times that for the Northstar. It has managed to attract an average of about 900 passengers a day. Though Minneapolis’ downtown is more developed than Nashville’s, and though Metro Transit will offer a good connecting service with Hiawatha trains, experience with the Music City line suggests that Minneapolis’ ridership estimates are too high.

The best evidence for this fact comes from the State of Utah’s FrontRunner. This commuter train opened in 2008 along 38 miles between Salt Lake City and Pleasant View, and it was expected to attract between 5,800 and 9,100 daily riders. Like Minneapolis, Salt Lake City offers a direct connection with light rail at its commuter rail system’s downtown terminus. Yet FrontRunner has quickly lost ridership since its peak of 8,700 daily riders in August 2008; as of March 2009, it was carrying only about 4,000 daily trips, a huge decline. This despite the fact that FrontRunner runs 35 round-trips a day, compared to Minneapolis’ six. The latter city’s estimate of 4,000 daily riders seems quite unrealistic considering experience elsewhere.

Even if Northstar does meet its planners’ expectations, it will be no game-changer for the Twin Cities, unlike the Hiawatha line or the planned Central Corridor. The exurban, parking-oriented stations along the line’s route will never support the kind of density necessary to make transit truly successful; on the other hand, neither will such few daily trips, which make it impossible to travel during the midday or at night. 4,000 daily rides will be enough to generate a small amount of activity around the downtown station, but not much else.

The $320 million would have been better spent on promoting transit that can be used round-the-clock by people who have a choice not to use cars — something that’s made virtually impossible by the design of Northstar’s schedule and stations. With several other peak-period-only commuter lines under consideration, however, Metro Transit will likely spend more on projects such as this before it decides to pull back.

Image above: Northstar Commuter Rail route map, from Metro Transit

34 replies on “Northstar Commuter Rail Opens for Service in Minneapolis”

I hope this service is successful, if only because Minneapolis has old rail lines running all over the place, including to some potentially lucrative transit origins/destinations. It would be a great city to really grow commuter rail into more of an S-Bahn type service.

I, too, fear that this is too little to be truly successful, but I also think that it’s a good idea that’s been worn down by the Feds. The initial plan was for the line to go all the way to St. Cloud and essentially be both an intercity and commuter service – but cost-effectiveness requirements chopped off the line at Big Lake. If they extend it to the full length (hopefully at cheaper cost, since they’ve acquired all the vehicles, etc), I think it can be much more successful.

The potential for through-routing on a couple of corridors between Minneapolis and St. Paul is fantastic, IMO. Either way, I remain guardedly optimistic.

Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? The Feds sank $160 million into this short line while state and local sources matched with another $160 mil. And surely we expect on-going operating subsidies of some undisclosed amount.

Yonah suggests a better way to spend $320 million

Perhaps intercity trains would be another.

We all gasped last month when Amtrak suggested it would take about $1 billion (an arguable figure) to reinstate the North Coast Hiawatha.

That would be three times the cost of the Northstar short line, passing over the same route Minneapolis-halfway-to-St Cloud, but extending all the way to Chicago and Seattle.

For the money, the Northstar may take 3,400 or so folks a day, or less than 1,250,00 a year, for trips of up to 52 miles. Meanwhile the North Coast Hiawatha would carry 350,000 passengers annually, almost 1,000 a day — with two out of three trips being more than 300 miles.

Most the billion bucks needed to restart the North Coast Hiawatha was going to fix up the tracks of the host railroad. About $300 million was to buy the six new trains needed to run across most of the continent.

Sadly, Amtrak did not, while they were at it, cost out a second run on the Empire Builder line. That would require little or no cost for track upgrades, but running in daylight where the existing schedule only stops at night, a second frequency might pick up a good many new passengers. In that case, we’d be comparing $300 million for new locomotives and cars to run a second frequency on the Empire Builder route vs $320 million to get Northstar up and carrying 3.400 riders a day.

Nor did they cost out a train that would less than halfway — Chicago-Fargo. Leaving Chicago at least 5 hours before the Empire Builder, a morning departure would cross Wisconsin and then all of Minnesota, including St Cloud, during waking hours, reaching Fargo, just across the N.D. border, around 10:30 p.m. (compared to the current 3:35 a.m. stop). Eastbound it could leave five or six hours later than the Empire Builder’s 2:15 a.m. departure and reach Chicago around 10 p..m.

By my back-of-the-envelop calculations, such a schedule through Minnesota would require only one new train, not the six needed for full Great Lake-to-Pacific Ocean service. In other words, $50 million for new cars, not $300 million. But I’m an amateur at this game, and real professions could surely spend much more money. So let’s say I’m 100% wrong and it would cost $100 million in new equipment to get a second departure Chicago-Fargo. In that case, for the cost of Northstar, Minnesota could have three (3) more trains running daily through the Twin Cities and on to Chicago.

Critics of Amtrak’s long distance trains have convinced the politicians that intercity trains are a waste of money. Funding for any new ones is next to nil. But to start a commuter line with an estimated 3,400 riders a day, the Feds have $160 million and Minnesota has another $160 million, a total of $320 million to piss away.

What is wrong with this picture?

About 160,000 people work in downtown Minneapolis, compared to about 66,000 in downtown Nashville and 65,000 in downtown Salt Lake City. Transit already has about a 60% mode share for downtown commute trips in Minneapolis. I think you are incorrect in assuming that commuter rail in Minneapolis will suffer similar ridership problems as systems in those cities, but we will see starting today how many people decide to hop on the train.

I agree that the limited service that Northstar will initially provide isnt ideal, but it is after all the Twin Cities’ first venture into commuter rail. My guess is that, as with Hiawatha LRT, ridership will exceed initial expectations and service levels will quickly be expanded.

I have no doubt that the line as is will meet (likely exceed) expectations due to mode share and rail preference in the region. The problems as I see it are the frequency (meh) and station locations. The idea to do fridley instead of foley was completely crazy — Foley had infrastructure basically ready (needs concrete platform) but they stop would have brought the CEI just over the limit… is modal trip time difference really the best way to go when we’ve got a documented rail mode preference and proven ridership (~1k daily) at a location?

I took a ride from Fridley this morning even though it is about 3x(or more) as far as my normal park and ride location. The quality of the ride is pretty nice. It takes an odd route through Minneapolis, but gets right in near downtown. A surprising amount of people walked directly from the station to downtown, too — from a short distance away there is the skyway system.

Problem for me is (well, im actually moving to CA in 2 weeks, so not really) the connection from Northstar to the University is 20+ minutes (nearly the same time from me to get from foley) by bus. Hopefully that gets fixed in ~4 years with the buildout of central corridor. Then I’d expect even higher ridership due to network effect.

>About 160,000 people work in downtown Minneapolis, compared to about 66,000 in downtown Nashville and 65,000 in downtown Salt Lake City.

Agreed. This line may well fail to generate a lot of riders, but the market in Minneapolis is inherently much larger than in SLC or Nashville. The land use model used by planners and approved by the FTA should be a more realistic predictor of usage than what goes on in smaller cities.

This sounds a lot like Seattle’s Sounder. Basically South Sounder worked out great and North Sounder was a miserable failure (and will probably continue to be a miserable failure for a long time since Sound Transit refuses to admit its mistake). The trick seems to be:
Terminus point. the same but it feels more annoying from the Northern direction to go under all of downtown
Scheduling. north side’s scheduling had to make concessions to BNSF, so the last train out when I worked downtown was 5:30, awfully early
Speed. If people think this thing is faster than (or maybe even as fast as) the highway they’ll take it. If it’s obviously slower (like North Sounder) it’ll just seem pointless.

I agree that Sounder North has a lot of problems, but I think with a combination of opening a couple more stations and adding a couple of trips, it would be a lot better. Sounder South on the other hand is a great success, with them constantly adding runs (there are nine round trips per day now, including two reverse-peak runs, and they are expanding to twelve), and they are adding cars and extending platforms to accomodate more people in each train. The weird thing is, despite its ridership of about 8000, we have no midday trains and no weekend trains. I am pretty sure the Sounder has by far the highest ridership of any commuter rail system that operates only on weekday peak ( I heard a rumor that Sound Transit might add a midday run, which would be great. Hopefully in the future they can negotiate with BNSF to make it operate on a regular schedule all day everyday.

I think the transit ordinated development potential is not great, but there has been some around the exurban Elk River station. It is not Manhattan, but better than the absolutely dreadful development along HWY 10. Also a new veterans hospital may be built with a pedestrian connection to Northstar, baby steps.

1200 trips today inbound… I bet a few people stayed away because of how hiawatha started (sardines!). Should be interesting to hear what the ridership is in ~2 weeks. If we went off of todays number (i’d rather wait and see it stablize) its ~77% of the 2010 estimate.

Woody: no, both the billion-dollar train through nowhere and the 320 million-dollar commuter train to nowhere are part of the same picture, which is that American rail builders don’t have a clue about how to run good transit systems. They run commuter rail first instead of local light or heavy rail – often citing passenger-miles as a reason to run service that serves 4,000 daily trips instead of 50,000. They make no attempt to integrate rail and local bus systems. They run byzantine schedules instead of simple clockface schedules, of the “the train leaves at 19 and 49 minutes after the hour every hour” variety, and don’t stick to the schedules they publish.

You could go on and on about it, but the basic idea is that competent planning could get the Twin Cities rail ridership two and a half orders of magnitude higher than what the Northstar is projected to achieve. I’m not even asking for Tokyo here; I’m asking for Vancouver and Calgary.

BTW After better absorbing my coffee, I recalculate that running Fargo-Chicago would require two trains, not one, rather one each direction, so maybe $100 million for equipment.

For that they’d get a total of three trains a day (and at night) Fargo-St Cloud-St Paul-Winona-La Crosse-Milwaukee-Chicago. Still looks like a good investment to me, compared to Northstar, but wishing Minnesota much luck with the $320 million already spent.

I hope they have at least coordinated the Northstar schedules with the Hiawatha, and perhaps some bus lines too. But maybe not, given the report above of folks walking to work. Not that walking is a bad thing, and indeed, rail should make it easier to walk a bit every day.

In all fairness, there are some commuter rail lines that have spurred TOD. Northern Virginia’s VRE scarcely has greater frequencies than Northstar and neighborhoods have sprouted around it in places like Lorton and Manassas.

I hope it succeeds but it’s hard to judge not knowing the communities around the stations.

Also, interesting to see this had 3 weekend round trips while MARC has 0.

What also is missed in the conversation about Northstar is that 1/3 of the cost of line is the extension of the Hiawatha LRT to the station. So yeah $320 million for one commuter line seems steep, but it also built an extension for the LRT. Most people either forgot or never realized this fact.

Woody, for $50 million, you get a 16-car, 1,300-seat Shinkansen train. For just $18 million, you get a brand new 8-car, 850-seat LIRR/Metro-North train, capable of 160 km/h. If the difference in equipment cost between EMUs and diesel-powered dinosaurs is really this big, they should start electrifying lines, now.

Running Fargo-Chicago would require one trainset if the runtime could be brought under about 9 hours. With modern EMUs, it could probably be done without much trackwork, due to the trains’ higher-than-130-km/h speeds.

Brad, unless there’s a reason to extend the LRT to the station other than the commuter line, the cost of the extension should be considered to be part of the commuter line’s expense.

I rode the reverse commute trip this morning and came back, and it was a fun ride, though not incredibly busy on the way back. I think it will have a similar impact on commuters, though everyone I work with downtown that lives in the corridor is concerned about the last train (6:15pm, hardly anytime for happy hour).

There is opportunity for TOD, because the land use in Fridley in Coon Rapids is somewhat compact, and the housing is getting older and could be replaced by apartments. 3 more stations are planned, one in Northeast Minneapolis, the Foley Park-and-Ride mentioned earlier, and Ramsey. This line always should have gone to St. Cloud, though.

The LRT extension just so happens to be in front of the Minnesota Twins new stadum, why the station isn’t completely incapsulated into the stadium (-20 F winters)? I don’t know, but it probably has something to do with our do-nothing, drag-your-ass-drag-your-feet Ayatollah of a Governor.

This is actually probably the most negative thing I’ve heard about this all day; the comments in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (newspaper comment sections seem to be the natural habitat of rail deniers) seem generally welcoming of this. Though it could be better (the St. Cloud extension would’ve been nice, and through-running the line would be nice, and of course more frequent trains; but as The Overhead Wire pointed out a few weeks ago transit agencies often lowball ridership projections – too much).

The most ironic thing about this? It goes right through the heart of the district of Michelle Bachmann – one of our biggest foes in the rail campaign.

@Alon You ask for Vancouver? The one commuter rail line in Vancouver which stretches any considerable distance is the West Coast Express which runs a total of five times at rush hour. Sure, SkyTrain and the bus system there is considerably better than the Twin Cities’ transit, but we should, perhaps, ask for full-scale commuter rail in both cities.

One problem with Northstar, and most new systems, is that by running only at rush hour they are aimed strictly at the 8-4 / 9-5 crowd. Anyone who ever has to stay later at their job can’t take the train, or wind up a very costly ($80-120) mile cab ride from home. In order to plug a deficit, the MBTA proposed cutting service after 7 p.m. in Boston and there was a ton of outcry. People basically said “having late trains, even ones running every two hours, allows me to take the train every day. If you cut those trains, I have to drive, just in case I have to stay late.” In addition, later service allows workers to stay downtown and go to dinner or do some shopping before going home, which they’d otherwise do at suburban strip malls (accessed by car). So there’s a whole market which is ignored by limiting transit to commute hours only.

Of course, Boston and other legacy commuter systems (New York, Philly, some of DC, Chicago and San Francisco) have existing trackage rights or own their track outright, so don’t have to worry about freight rail’s demands. (The Northstar Line shares track with a major BNSF transcon route which sees about 50 freight trains a day.) Of the non-legacy systems, only Miami-West Palm Beach, Utah, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Connecticut’s Shore Line East provide any sort of evening service.

In the long run, the plan is to run service from Minneapolis to Saint Cloud. While you are right to criticize the initial phase of this project, it will make much more sense if there are trains running to the proper end of the line there. It would be more of a cross between intercity rail and a commuter service, and would probably necessitate midday and evening trips (these could be run every three hours in each direction with only one train set and crew). Saint Cloud is home to 60,000 people, has a local bus system, and, possibly most importantly, has a 20,000 student state university, with most of the students undergrads, and many from the Twin Cities. The campus is about 1/2 mile from the potential station site, adjacent to downtown, and bus lines currently connect the two.

So while the first phase is probably not cost effective, the overall project—with trains running from downtown to downtown at highway speeds—may be quite a bit more useful.

Yonah: one flaw with your final statement is that the Met Council (regional MPO for the Twin Cities) is in part waiting to see how Northstar ridership does before they seriously consider pursuing additional commuter rail. Most of the transit corridor focus now is on the I-35W and Cedar Ave BRT corridors (elements now under construction), the Central LRT line (construction to begin next year), the Southwest LRT line (preferred alternative recently announced, as you lamented on in a previous post), and the Bottineau corridor (under study, but with a clear frontrunner for LRT to Maple Grove).


Yes, indeed they did. And so should the Twin Cities. But we have to deal with the University of Minnesota trying to derail the Central Corridor because (choose one of the following):

a) having light rail through campus will cause vibrations affecting sensitive lab equipment which is unproven, despite their yelling (and can you think of any other universities with transit nearby? Say, in Boston, where Harvard has the Red Line through campus, as does MIT, which also has a freight line literally through campus, and Northeastern and BU have light rail through their campuses)


b) the University stands to lose parking revenue and is worried that fewer people will drive to campus and pay for parking. Which is apparently a bad thing. I’m convinced this is the real reason they are against it and the vibration thing is just for show, because whining about parking revenues wouldn’t look very good.

I agree. Money in Minneapolis should go towards urban transit first. But, in addition to a lot of naysayers trying their best to reject federal funding (see above), the political power in the state resides in the suburbs and in Jim Oberstar, who is more concerned with rail to Duluth. That’s not a bad thing, but doesn’t benefit as many as, say, a light rail line with a projected ridership of 40k daily.

Ari, the University of Minnesota has every reason to worry about vibrations. All the other comparison to other cities around the world with rail next to sensitive equipment are not wholly valid because those buildings were constructed with rail in mind, and in most cases, already in place.

I personally don’t know anything about electromagnetic interference, Ari.

However, the Central Corridor has not been developed in a six year vacuum. It’s the University’s own god damn fault for choosing a Washington Avenue alignment in the first place. They figured by having rail that follows the current bus route 16 and the Campus Connector that they could get rid of a lot of the buses on the surface of Washington Avenue.

The University could have endorsed any number of northerly alignments the skirt the edge of campus and serve the Dinkytown business district, crossing the river on the Northern Pacific No. 9 bridge, the Stone Arch Bridge, the Hennepin Avenue bridge, or more recently, I-35W. Not all those crossings would have connected the two campuses, but running rail across a bridge built in the 1960’s for cars and not rail is asinine, and we have the University, Met Council, and the C.E.I. to thank for that.

I don’t see where the university is coming from. Are the main drags – University and Washington – “No Trucks” zones ? If trucks are permitted is there a weight limit ? If there are labs with delicate instruments along University or Washington then the administrators may have been negligent.

That’s a pretty good sized campus (see map below). I wonder about its growth pattern over the years and how much reserve space it has. Also, how strong is the Washington Ave. bridge ? I tried to pull up the reports from MinnDOT and the bridge wasn’t in the PDFs. I also checked the Hennepin Co. web site to no avail.

Map of the Twin Cities Campus, Univ. of Minn.
Central Corridor Project page
Washington Ave. Bridge
Minn.DOT Reports

13 years, and nearly $320 Million for a peak service commutter rail system. The process to build these projects needs to be fixed. This should not be accepted. I hope this system was designed for all day service in the future.

“Brad, unless there’s a reason to extend the LRT to the station other than the commuter line, the cost of the extension should be considered to be part of the commuter line’s expense.”

There was. There’s a huge asterisking stadium right there. It also extends the LRT terminus closer to a bunch more businesses on the north side of the tracks. Actually, extending the LRT line even further north would be very reasonable,perhaps to the Metro Transit HQ, where it would meet the 5, 19, and 22 buses, two of which are high-frequency services. Further extension along the 5 or 19 routes would also make sense. The LRT extension was undeniably worthwhile.

FYI, the commuter rail project features double tracking along most if not all of its length, which should allow all-day service in the future and improve Amtrak service. Although it seems a bit overbuilt for the existing service!

Total tab – $317M
Track rights – $100M+
Passenger cars – $45M (18 * $2.5M)
Rolling stock (locos.+ cars) – $66M (unconfirmed blog post)
LRV extension + stn. + mini-yard – $100M (est. – no hard number found)

The MPR re-cap. below was the source for some of the above numbers.
More links :
Northstar numbers page
MPR re-cap.
Rail industry re-cap.
Backgrounder blog post

P.S. The disturbing thing about the above information is the absence of a costs breakdown on the Northstar numbers page. I also poked around at the Metro.Council’s website and didn’t turn up anything.

A hearty welcome to the nation’s 22nd active regional rail system (and the fourth to open in three years). We need to make better use of our many urban rail rights-of-way, and so I wish Northstar the best of luck.

Now that we have a downtown station, some rolling stock, and a maintenance facility, the cost per mile of future commuter rail will be substantially cheaper…unless we get another Pawlentyesque governor,

ROW purchase can be very expensive, and I’m not surprised at the track rights costs — this is the BNSF mainline, after all, with the only alternative routes being several states out of the way. I just hope they got a lot of room for future expansion with that purchase. If it was $100 million for rights to run just the current set of trains, it *is* too much. If it inlcudes rights to run a whole bunch more trains all the way to St. Cloud, maybe not.

To those who have used Northstar: Are the suburban platforms built with future tracks in mind? I really hope there’s space for 3 or 4 tracks between the platform, or else it would make additional investment in this corridor prohibitively expensive. This is the BNSF’s north transcon, after all. In addition, south of Foley Jct shares traffic with trains heading to Duluth (world’s largest inland port) and this section has already been proposed to be at least triple tracked to Mpls Jct. Maybe if the government helped make Northstar triple/quad tracked they could get much much more favorable trackage rights from BNSF and in the end it would be a wise investment on both sides.

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