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By Robert J. Derocher
Three months after launching service on Minnesota's first commuter railroad, officials from Northstar Commuter Rail and BNSF Railway Co. were faced with an operational and public relations dilemma: A minor derailment at a BNSF yard halted commuter service on a frosty February morning.
"We had 13 tabletop discussions with [Metro Transit officials] before opening [on Nov. 16, 2009], and they included derailment situations," says Jan Ruby, BNSF's manager of Northstar operations. "We just went back to the tabletops."
In just a few hours, buses were mobilized to transport rail passengers, limiting delays to less than 25 minutes. The derailment was quickly righted and Northstar service was back to normal the next day.
Although Northstar — which is owned by the Metropolitan Council and managed by Metro Transit, a "service" of the Council — carried fewer than half the passengers that day than it had been carrying, riders soon returned, putting ridership ahead of early projections.
"Everybody has pulled together, and it's paid dividends," Ruby says.
Despite the derailment, a job-draining economy and flat gasoline prices, Northstar Commuter Rail's off to a good start. Moreover, a 97 percent on-time average and the opening of the Minnesota Twins' new ballpark at the railroad's Minneapolis terminus are buoying hopes for longer-term success, even expansion.
Challenges remain for the fledgling commuter line — a still-unsteady economy, lingering uncertainty on the state and federal funding fronts, the usual new-start hiccups — but Northstar officials feel good about what's been a mostly successful launch.
"The feedback I've gotten has been very positive," says Dan Erhart, chairman of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority and an early proponent of commuter rail in Minneapolis. "This is a long-term program. I think we'll be looking at this as more of a success 20 to 30 years from now."
The $317 million Northstar project was designed and constructed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The line serves Minneapolis and its suburbs.
Northstar service launched with a 40-mile route from Minneapolis northwest to Big Lake, Minn. Northstar operates on a mostly double-tracked, BNSF-owned line that also serves Amtrak and freight trains — the latter carry Powder River Basin coal, grain and intermodal cars.
Northstar is paying BNSF $107.5 million for a perpetual easement to run 12 weekday and 12 weekend one-way trains. In addition, BNSF retains a 10-year contract to provide 24 conductors and engineers to operate the trains. The Class I will receive $5.5 million to operate the trains this year, with similar future amounts that also are tied to factors such as inflation and on-time performance of 95 percent or better.
Northstar built and maintains the six stations on the route. The railroad also purchased and maintains five MP36PH-3C diesel locomotives from MotivePower Inc. (along with one leased unit) and 18 new bi-level passenger cars from Bombardier Transportation. The $317 million spent to build the system was covered mainly by federal and state funding, along with contributions from local counties, regional agencies and the Minnesota Twins — the ball club contributed $2.6 million toward the station stop at newly built Target Field.
Through February, Northstar carried 170,827 passengers, about 2.5 percent more than the railroad's goal for the November-February period, putting it on target for its 2010 goal of 3,400 riders per weekday.
"The numbers we're seeing now were originally predicted for the end of 2010," Erhart says.
The ridership figures have been a long time coming. As Erhart and other project planners note, getting Northstar off the drawing boards and onto tracks took patience, cooperation and hard work.
The plans date back to the 1980s; originally, the system was to stretch as far as St. Cloud, 25 miles north of Big Lake. Over time, doubts about ridership and funding availability led planners to develop the current route. The 2006 right-of-way agreement with BNSF was key to getting the project moving.
"They were always at the table," Erhart says.
With funding in place, Northstar began to build stations and obtain cars and locomotives, while BNSF began track upgrades. Among the key improvements to accommodate the new commuter-rail traffic:
"We had crews brought in from all over to do this work," Ruby says. "It all came together pretty fast and it was pretty seamless."
By the time work was completed last year, segments once limited to train speeds of 10 mph could handle traffic at 25 mph, and areas at 25 mph could handle speeds of 45 mph. The maximum speed jumped from 60 mph to 79 mph.
Meanwhile, BNSF and Metro Transit officials also were busy working off track. Last summer, they paired up to select and train the crews of conductors and engineers to operate the trains. Virtually all of the crew members came from BNSF and live within an hour of the rail line, says Ruby, who praised the work of the crews during the railroad's opening months.
So far, riders have viewed the crews as friendly, helpful and professional, says Ed Byers, manager of Northstar for Metro Transit.
"The conductors have been very popular," he adds.
BNSF's crew operations were vital in helping the railroad get off to a solid start, Byers says. Communication's been key to the coordination; Ruby's office is across the hall from Byers' in Big Lake.
Keeping the momentum going could be a challenge. The weak economy continues to keep area unemployment high; Metro Transit's sister bus and light-rail agencies reported a combined 6.2 percent decrease in ridership last year, due in large part to unemployment levels in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Meanwhile, the $4-plus-per-gallon gasoline prices that helped drive record increases in transit ridership nationwide in 2008 have disappeared. Northstar also was challenged this year with a particularly harsh Minnesota winter, which led to some occasional whistle freezes, as well as low ridership numbers during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
"It was a hard time to start a railroad," says Byers, who joined Northstar from Florida's Tri-Rail in 2008. "I'm confident we can make this work."
The trend lines give him reason to believe. A pilot program that allows overnight parking at some Northstar stations could be expanded, as more passengers use Northstar to connect to light-rail trains and buses with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Weekend ridership also has been strong, driven in part by a special reduced rate for families, and a promotion that combines rail fare with special rates for Minneapolis hotels and theater productions.
Some of the highest ridership hopes are pegged to this spring's opening of Target Field, the new 40,000-seat home of the Minnesota Twins. Northstar plans to run trains for 53 of the Twins' 81 home games this season. With many of those games projected to be sell-outs, Northstar execs expect fans will ride the train to the ballpark.
"It's easy," Ruby says. "You take the train into the station, you get off the train, you ride the escalators up and you're in left field and you're ready to watch the game."
As ridership and interest in Northstar continues to grow, Ruby and other commuter-rail backers hope state, federal and county agencies will take note — and consider extending the service northward to St. Cloud.
"We're pretty much shovel-ready," says Felix Schmiesing, a Sherburne County commissioner who heads the Northstar expansion effort. "There's a huge demand for this service."
State and federal funds for engineering services already have been secured, and service between Big Lake and St. Cloud could be operating by 2012 if funding and right-of-way issues can be resolved ASAP, he says. A new right-of-way contract with BNSF, which also owns the track between the two cities, would need to be negotiated, but the railroad would be willing to talk, Ruby says.
In the meantime, Northstar's early — and continued — success will go a long way toward making the expansion talk a reality.
"As more people ride it, the more they become impressed with it," Schmiesing says.
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based free-lancer writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.