Northstar Commuter Rail

Roads - Rails - Sidewalks - Bikeways
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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 10th, 2012, 7:32 pm

If I quote Matt, maybe it won't seem like I'm talking to myself...
mattaudio wrote:My hypothetical for Northstar?
Repurpose it as regional rail. Departures from STC and Mpls every two hours.

Maybe leaving STC at 5 AM, 6, 6:30, 7, 7:30, 8, 10, Noon, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10
Leaving Mpls at 5, 7, 9, 11, 1, 3, 4, 4:30, 5, 5:30, 6, 7, 9, 11
Yeah, I'd like to see something like that. I think it's achievable without a totally ginormous investment, though it still wouldn't exactly be cheap. I guess I should try hunting for numbers again, but off the top of my head, it seems like Northstar sucks down $12 to $15 million a year in subsidies. But if we invested another $100 million into the line to get the needed capacity, could we drop that subsidy significantly? I think that if proper value engineering is applied, there's actually enough direct savings to be had that it would make sense for Metro Transit to go to a big bank and simply ask for a plain vanilla 10- or 20-year loan to pay for it. The new operating cost plus the loan payments would likely be cheaper than the current operating cost. I wrote about this basic idea on my blog a year ago, though I only really envisioned converting the existing daily mileage into a few round-trips per day -- it would have lost its commuter identity entirely.

I went for an outing on the Northstar this afternoon, and I was reminded of several things. For one, the Northstar train is actually a useful service for many people, so I'm glad you tried to keep some reasonable peak-time service in your schedule. The outbound train I took had 4 cars, and I poked my head into two of them which seemed to be 50-60% full (at least if you only consider seating room -- with a full standing load, the capacity doubles or triples). Most people took one seat and had the seat next to them empty, though I think some folks were doubled up, especially on the upper level which is a bit more scenic. It was definitely quieter on the return trip, though. It was the same physical train -- I went up to Anoka, walked over to Subway for some supper, then walked back to catch the train as it made its return.

The "kiss-and-ride" bay was pretty much full when I got off in Anoka, as were the parking lots.

The Northstar service does carry more than 4 times as many passengers as its predecessor bus route did, which makes it pretty hard for me to consider it an outright failure. It's a pretty smooth ride -- smoother than Hiawatha in many respects. It's also pretty cool to me how people use it for

The big problem is just that the operating costs skyrocketed when the transition was made from buses to a huge double-decker train. Expensive equipment like that should be in motion as much as possible, but they sit parked way too much.

There are a couple of things that should be done to make the Northstar cheaper to operate. First, it's probably best to trim the train crew size -- There are 3 or 4 people per train: an engineer, a conductor, an assistant conductor, and in at least some instances there seems to be a second engineer in the trailing cab. Considering how I've frequently seen the local police or county sheriffs onboard checking tickets or just making their presence known, there really isn't much need for more than one conductor. I'm not sure how much money that would really save, though -- it may only be a drop in the bucket. At the moment, my sense is that the cost savings would be greater from simply running the trains for more hours each day rather than trimming the crew size.


On another topic, sort of, I was thinking that it'd be a good idea to add a Northeast Minneapolis station at or near the Northrup King Building. It's a fairly industrial area, though it does give the potential benefit of building platforms at both of the main BNSF lines through town -- the Midway subdivision which Northstar currently uses (and Amtrak often uses to get to Midway station, and will probably continue to use to get to SPUD), and the St. Paul subdivision which is a faster way to get over to St. Paul because it doesn't have any yards in the way.

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Re: Northstar

Postby MSPtoMKE » July 10th, 2012, 10:29 pm

I agree that having it go all the way to St. Cloud and having all day service would make this a much more useful line. I doubt many more trainsets would be required, only enough to account for the increase in length assuming peak service is kept more or less the same. Capital costs would mainly just consist of track upgrades and a few stations. However, a huge cost in addition to labor for operating the line is the amount Metro Transit pays to BNSF to use their tracks. I was recently looking at Metro Transit's 2013 budget, and 35% ($6.3 million) of the expenses listed for Northstar is titled "Contract BNSF", which I presume is the trackage rights. You could easily double or triple that number if you want all day service.
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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 10th, 2012, 11:08 pm

Yeah, trackage rights are a huge gray area. I had kind of assumed that the $107.5 million that went to BNSF up front had trackage rights attached -- perhaps some of that money is being doled out on a yearly basis? Certainly a bit of that yearly contract money is going into paying the train crews (who are BNSF employees) and offsetting dispatching costs, though I have trouble imagining that really getting to much more than about $1 or $2 million.

If new tracks get built for Northstar, I think it'd be best if Metro Transit could somehow own that track and charge BNSF if BNSF wants to use it, but that would probably be tough to negotiate. Then again, pretty much everything is difficult to negotiate when railroads get involved.

And, well, the whole idea of offsetting costs by expanding the service would probably also require higher fares rather than the lower ones which will roll out next month. Under the right conditions, you can bring in a lot of dough with low fares, but I don't think we have the right environment for that to work here.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mattaudio » July 11th, 2012, 8:01 am

Instead of just throwing hundreds of millions at BNSF for easements, I'd rather see a concrete agreement that uses the money to improve the corridor... triple track north to Coon Creek Jct, double track any remaining gaps to St. Cloud, etc. in return for generous rights for transit operations in the corridor. This seems like it would be more productive for the public and equally productive for BNSF.

At some point, I wonder how far the cash sent to BNSF would have upgraded the old GN St. Vincent Subdivision from Minneapolis-Monticello-St. Cloud before it was ripped out.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 11th, 2012, 9:01 am

Yeah, I've had visions of restoring tracks between Monticello and Clearwater, and then adding a bridge across the Mississippi near there to access the Staples Subdivison where Amtrak runs (and Northstar is hoped to run), but it would have been better if someone had pushed the idea of passenger service there before the tracks got torn out.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mattaudio » July 11th, 2012, 11:35 am

I bet most of the ROW between Monticello and St. Cloud has been added to adjacent property owners.

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Re: Northstar

Postby LRV Op Dude » July 14th, 2012, 11:11 am

Blog: Old-Twin Cities Transit New-Twin Cities Transit

You Tube: Old, New

AKA: Bus Driver Dude

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Re: Northstar

Postby MNdible » July 14th, 2012, 12:08 pm

AH, yes. Ye olde historicky parking rampe.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 14th, 2012, 1:44 pm

Sigh -- took me a while, but I finally caught the contradiction.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 25th, 2012, 7:46 am

Metalwork has gone up quickly at the Ramsey Northstar station -- the towers for the pedestrian walkway appear to be in place as of last Thursday:

http://zaetsch.blogspot.com/2012/07/ram ... ks-to.html

I'd gone up there 11 days earlier and didn't see any metalwork in place:
ramsey-northstar-2012-07-08.jpg
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Re: Northstar

Postby mattaudio » July 25th, 2012, 8:29 am

Is this going to be another station where accommodations are not made for a third main? Seems like the investment to bump a track out and have a larger median suitable for a third track in the future could pay off nicely instead of having to redo platforms and possibly pedestrian bridges.

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Re: Northstar

Postby PhilmerPhil » July 25th, 2012, 8:31 am

Sprawl Inducer

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Re: Northstar

Postby MNdible » July 25th, 2012, 9:09 am

mattaudio wrote:Is this going to be another station where accommodations are not made for a third main? Seems like the investment to bump a track out and have a larger median suitable for a third track in the future could pay off nicely instead of having to redo platforms and possibly pedestrian bridges.
Mulad is probably the guy to speak to this, but I'm pretty sure that the third main is really only needed around Foley and the adjacent split in the rails -- nobody's been discussing extending the third main to Little Falls.
PhilmerPhil wrote:Sprawl Inducer
Sadly, yes.

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Re: Northstar

Postby spearson » July 25th, 2012, 9:10 am

mattaudio wrote:Is this going to be another station where accommodations are not made for a third main? Seems like the investment to bump a track out and have a larger median suitable for a third track in the future could pay off nicely instead of having to redo platforms and possibly pedestrian bridges.
If I recall correctly, the third main isn't needed that far out. I think it's the area from around fridley to downtown that has the highest rail line traffic in the state and the main area where an additional line would be incredibly useful. I think this third line was to be included in the Northern Lights commuter rail project. I'll see if I can find the reference for where I read that.
PhilmerPhil wrote:Sprawl Inducer
Hardly - sprawl is the result of our large roadway network and love for the automobile. Rail would have a minimal if not zero affect on urban sprawl. If anything rail would cause some gentrification around the station, but it isn't going to be the reason people move to a particular area.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 25th, 2012, 10:15 am

Heh, I don't know if I'm the guy to talk to. Yes, the plan is to have 3 main tracks up until Coon Creek, just north of Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids, and a little south of the existing Riverdale station there. I think a third track could be beneficial farther north, but the bigger problem at the moment is the 9-mile stretch of single-tracking between Big Lake and Becker.

I do think you could fit a third track on the south side of the inbound platform at Ramsey without much trouble. However, it's pretty rare for a rail line to really, truly need more than 2 main tracks. Refining schedules, improving signaling, getting better locomotives and rolling stock, and electrifying the line should probably be considered before expanding it to 3 tracks.

As for sprawl, it's hard to imagine anything worse than what Ramsey has already done. They're one of those outlying cities which really came about after a township incorporated, so they've got a huge land area. Despite the size, a big percentage of their land is already consumed because they had been parceling things out with lots that were often 2 or 3 acres in size -- pretty unsustainable even in the short- or medium-term, let alone one or two life cycles from now.

So, I give them some credit for the whole Ramsey Town Center/COR at Ramsey plan, since it is at least an attempt to create a dense center for a place that never had one. That seems to be a more well-defined TOD plan than what many other cities along the route have had, though implementation is certainly lagging behind what they had expected. It has been criticized both rightly and wrongly -- I certainly have concerns about how it's laid out and how auto-centric it will continue to be -- but it is miles better than what had been happening in the city previously.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mattaudio » July 25th, 2012, 11:09 am

I'd love to see electrification on some of these corridors someday.

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Re: Northstar

Postby spearson » July 25th, 2012, 11:22 am

You should read Anoka's 30 year plan. They have a grand vision to build a "Commuter Rail Village" around their rail station. Two pieces of it are already in the works. The first is a big senior residential area a block away (in construction - you can see it in the g-maps picture below), the second is a parking ramp at the Northstar station (in planning). The area around the station is pretty dead, and has been for pretty much the last 20 years. I don't know what to think of it yet, but I'm leaning towards not agreeing with it.

Though it is pretty neat having the old State Asylum for the Insane as your neighbor:

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Re: Northstar

Postby Lancestar2 » July 25th, 2012, 12:26 pm

Hey, I got a dumb question! :D

If there is a single rail track from Big Lake to St. Cloud why can't they run just one train in the morning and one in the afternoon? I'm sure that would really improve ridership. Also if they can't because the one track is not up to code then wouldn't it make more sense to update that single track instead of building another station along a already low capacity transit line? Although having the "link bus" really defeat that purpose to focus on that addition?

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » July 25th, 2012, 12:40 pm

The track is maintained to a high standard. There isn't a problem of it not being up to code -- its just that BNSF crams like 50 trains a day down that track and there isn't much capacity for more with the way it is currently operated.

A big unknown for me is the contract between Metro Transit and BNSF, how that might be modified, and for how much. BNSF wants passenger rail clients to offset their usage through investments that preserve freight capacity, and there seem to be other financial obligations beyond that too.

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Re: Northstar

Postby ECtransplant » July 31st, 2012, 10:35 pm

The decreased fares start tomorrow. I doubt there's going to be much improvement, although I do hope I'm wrong. The schedule is too limited for people to rely on Northstar for regular commuting, imo.


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