News & Reviews News Wire Metro Transit adds Northstar commuter trains

Metro Transit adds Northstar commuter trains

By Steve Glischinski | October 3, 2023

First expansion of service since pandemic

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Northstar commuter service

blue and yellow Northstar commuter train
On the first day of additional Northstar commuter service, one of the new trains rolls through Anoka, Minn. on Oct. 2. Steve Glischinski

MINNEAPOLIS — Twin Cities Metro Transit began operation of additional commuter trains between Minneapolis and Big Lake, Minn., on Oct. 2. The service was decimated by the pandemic — before it struck Northstar operated five trips in each direction weekdays and three in each direction on weekends. As the pandemic waned the service returned with only two round trips on weekdays and no weekend service. Popular special train service to Minnesota Twins baseball games and Minnesota Vikings football games also did not return.

Now Metro Transit has added more trains, expanding the service to three southbound trips weekday mornings, and three northbound trips each weekday afternoon. There is also a reverse commuter service, with a train heading from Minneapolis to Big Lake in the morning and Big Lake to Minneapolis in the afternoon.

While Northstar still won’t operate regular service on weekends, it is reviving special train service before and after Minnesota Vikings games beginning with the Oct. 8 game against Kansas City.

Northstar provided about 50,000 rides through July of this year, up 20% from the same period in 2022, but nowhere near pre-pandemic levels when it carried 3,000 riders a day on average.

In addition to the service cuts, funding became an issue as Anoka County disputed its share of operating costs amid the cuts in service and ridership. Without the funding provided by the county the service could not be scaled up to pre-pandemic levels. The issue was resolved effective Oct. 1 as funding for the service was shifted to an 0.75% metro-area transportation sales tax the Minnesota Legislature approved this year.

Northstar has long been considered an underperformer, which could at least partially be blamed on the fact it was initially designed to run between Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Rice, Minn. The project was counting on federal funding for half of its construction costs, but estimated ridership for the full route was not high enough to qualify for the level of federal funding needed, so it was decided to terminate the service at Big Lake instead. Today St. Cloud is a city of over 68,000 with two large universities, while Big Lake only has a population of 12,000. Northstar Link bus service is offered between St. Cloud and Big Lake.

The Legislature this year passed an Omnibus Transportation bill that includes funding for a study that will consider possible rail services to St. Cloud and could include recommendations to extend Northstar to that city.

2 thoughts on “Metro Transit adds Northstar commuter trains

  1. Northstar has long been considered an underperformer, which could at least partially be blamed on the fact it was initially designed to run between Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Rice, Minn. T

    NONE of Northstar’s performance can be blamed on that. The then rosey ridership projections were _NOT_ sufficient to justify expenditures to run it to St. Cloud. Running a train there would’ve still resulted in piss pour ridership.

    It’s a shame that federal funding all but in name prohibits ending costly mistakes like this. A waste of money.

  2. Daily ridership was 2,814 in 2019, the same level it was in 2017. It was projected to be 5,590 in 2025 and 6,200 in 2030, according to a 2009 study by Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc.

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

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