Northstar Commuter Rail

Roads - Rails - Sidewalks - Bikeways
talindsay
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Re: Northstar

Postby talindsay » October 14th, 2012, 9:42 pm

As much as I hate to say it, I'm starting to come to the conclusion that Ms. Meeks might not be wrong on this one. The problem is, you have to either do your business or get off the pot, and they chose not to do their business properly to start with, and now they've been dawdling on the pot.

This project was effectively killed when T-Paw cut it in half. The thing is, high-volume, high-amenity mass transit has no business going 40 miles into an empty area with 8-mile station spacing. The whole thing had been premised on the line connecting St. Cloud to the City, but by cutting it in half the project became a ponzi scheme tied to the growth of mid-density suburbs where there weren't any - and still aren't any.

Commuter rail makes sense when secondary cities provide a lot of traffic into specific primary cities in a dependable work-commute time window - Tacoma to Seattle, San Jose and Silicon Valley to San Francisco (and vice-versa, now), Riverside to Los Angeles, Newark to Manhattan - and where populations are so high that high-volume express lines supplement an already full-built-out metro and highway infrastructure, such as New York, Paris, Toronto, and to some extent, Chicago. We could have had the first scenario, somewhat, if the line went to St. Cloud, but we're nowhere near the second.

Hiawatha carries 32,000 riders daily in exchange for an operating subsidy of only slightly more than Northstar's operating subsidy for 2,000 riders. Notice she never brought up Hiawatha in her piece, because even she knows that Hiawatha is successful. Transit advocates look at Hiawatha and Northstar and say, "we should invest in urban and inner-suburban mass transit and not exurban high-amenity transit" but since her desire is to reduce transit altogether Hiawatha is a distraction.

The right thing to do with Northstar might be to dump in the funding to link it to St. Cloud; or it might be to call it a failed experiment and pack it in. Neither one is too likely - the first sounds wasteful given the line's awful ridership, but the second appears to be squandering the investment already made.

Given that, I think Met Council needs to try one last bold gesture to try and improve ridership. Here's what I propose: (1) an actual urban station that isn't downtown, in Northeast just north of St. Anthony Main, perhaps right against University Avenue. Don't make it a $12 million station, just build the equivalent of a light rail station that's 500' long. It should cost about $3-5 million tops. Reroute all buses that currently go on University and Hennepin in northeast to loop through the station. This drastically expands the destinations that can be reached quickly and effectively by the line, since this connects you much more quickly to all of northeast, to the University, and to the Midway. Nobody would take the Northstar to the U currently, for example. (2) more trips, both during the rush hours and not. Sure, it costs more and they'll run more empty in the short term, but the biggest complaint about commuter rail is that there isn't a train when you need it. So run eight trips in and two or three out in the morning, and eight trips out and two or three in in the evening. We easily have enough rail cars and engines for that, though it will tax the equipment more. Make sure the first ride in is *early* - like 5:30 AM - and the last ride out is *late* - like 8:30 PM or even later. Make it possible to use the line for more types of trips. Run the trains regularly throughout the day on Saturdays and somewhat regularly on Sundays. (3) make the cost of a ticket exactly the same as an express bus for all stops within the transit taxing district, except that rides between Fridley, Northeast, and downtown are regular-bus cost. Stops outside the transit-taxing district have a dollar surcharge.

Run this scheme for two years, at whatever it costs to run it. Collect lots of metrics on ridership patterns, and continuously monitor transfers. If this dramatically improves ridership numbers in two years' time, figure out what made the difference and invest in making it operationally effective: buy the locomotives to properly handle the load, rework stations, negotiate better contracts with the freight railroad, etc. Perhaps experiment with fare rises (though be careful).

If after two years operating with the above scheme it's still missing ridership targets, shut it down and cut the region's losses - sell of the rolling stock and mothball the stations for a time in the future when we can connect it properly to St. Cloud.

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Ottergoose
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Re: Northstar

Postby Ottergoose » October 14th, 2012, 9:57 pm

The problem with increasing commuter train frequency is more an issue of BNSF's capacity though, no?

helsinki
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Re: Northstar

Postby helsinki » October 15th, 2012, 12:10 am

As a career political operative in the conservative movement, Mrs. Meeks brings an agenda to this discussion colored by animus to transit. Highways are sinkholes for public funding in greater measure than our nascent rail transit system; I'm sure I94 didn't recoup its cost right away. We shouldn't strangle the system in its infancy out of a misguided belief that trains are left wing lunacy.

Lancestar2

Re: Northstar

Postby Lancestar2 » October 15th, 2012, 1:09 am

I do agree with most of what talindsay is saying and I also think another long term goal I personally would love to see is the following:

Big Lake Station from 43 East to Lakeshore Drive would be converted into a urban strip! extend the beach to the south side of the lake to include better accessibility. Create nice large walking paths and bike baths on both sides of the road. Encourage urban residential development and retail including hotels and entertainment development. Manindate parking will be accessed from the rear of buildings while walking traffic enjoys priority! I think it would be a nice place for Twin Cities residents to reverse commute to enjoy the lake rent a hotel rent a boat and enjoy a weekend or a vacation locally!

Elk River Station run a shuttle bus along 196 N and 101 S you know like the short buses that would be rather cheap to run would increase usage what maybe 50-100 riders a day?

Anoka Station work to relocate businesses next to station and develop land for dense residential housing with pockets of retail. Which would further increase riders per day!

It would be nice if the North Star went somewhere FUN! besides just being a commuter train I think it would really be cool if Big Lake had a mini branson MO. strip that was walking friendly next to the lake too. Of course maybe not along the big highway but it could be between the frontage road and the tracks. I still haven't rode the Northstar train yet... and I think it says somthing about it if a resident of Minneapolis who has such easy access to the train and would LOVE to ride it just can't justify spending 20bucks and a afternoon for just a DQ Hamburger! :roll:

twincitizen
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Re: Northstar

Postby twincitizen » October 15th, 2012, 8:23 am

Ramsey Station scheduled to open Friday November 16.

Good news- overall running time (49 minutes) will not be affected. Given that the dwell times are only 45 seconds at each station, I guess this shouldn't be too surprising.

Ramsey fares will be $3.50, exactly what the Ramsey Star commuter bus has been charging.

A little over 200 passengers are currently using the bus, on average. It remains to be seen whether "rail bias" is real, but this will be an interesting case to watch. Of course, the ridership numbers will get even higher when the apartment complex opens and development continues in the area.

UptownSport
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Re: Northstar

Postby UptownSport » October 15th, 2012, 10:42 am

talindsay wrote:This project was effectively killed when T-Paw cut it in half. The thing is, high-volume, high-amenity mass transit has no business going 40 miles into an empty area with 8-mile station spacing.

sell of the rolling stock and mothball the stations for a time in the future when we can connect it properly to St. Cloud.
Building destinations to try to force success for it isn't going to work No one wants to live in a cornfield, as talin says, because you can make (only) one trip to Minneapolis a day.

The lesson here is to not take any transit just because it's transit, but to ensure the line is a no-risk success

mullen
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Re: Northstar

Postby mullen » October 15th, 2012, 11:06 am

the line was envisioned to go all the way to st cloud. so yes, that particular governor's cutting of the route had a large effect on the ridership numbers.

spearson
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Re: Northstar

Postby spearson » October 15th, 2012, 1:56 pm

Lancestar2 wrote:I do agree with most of what talindsay is saying and I also think another long term goal I personally would love to see is the following:


Anoka Station work to relocate businesses next to station and develop land for dense residential housing with pockets of retail. Which would further increase riders per day!
Anoka does have a plan for developing all the land around the station into their "Commuter Rail Village". A couple steps are already in the works. A large senior housing complex a block away is finishing construction, and Anoka is going to build a ramp in the southbound parking lot and eliminate the northbound parking lot for development.

twincitizen
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Re: Northstar

Postby twincitizen » October 15th, 2012, 2:08 pm

mullen wrote:the line was envisioned to go all the way to st cloud. so yes, that particular governor's cutting of the route had a large effect on the ridership numbers.
How large? A couple hundred more riders would not make this a success. It's not like this was ever envisioned as some sort of bi-directional commuter a la Seattle-Tacoma or something. Even if the line went to St. Cloud, we'd still be operating ONE reverse-commuter trip per peak hour, unless we bought several more trainsets.

I don't know how many people are riding that St. Cloud-Northstar Commuter Link bus, but very optimistically you could maybe multiply that number by 2 to get the number of potential train riders.

The one place I will give Northstar a break on ridership numbers is that the bottom fell out of the housing market right before the line started operating, and that train had already left the station (HAD TO USE THAT PUN, NOT SORRY)
I don't think anyone in 2006 (or whenever the line was approved) predicted that exurban home sales were going to come to a screeching halt and stay that way for (a decade, forever, who knows?)

Since the line is running and we're not likely to mothball it anytime soon (we'd have to pay back the federal money) I think we need to make the best of what we have. Currently 5(!!!) people are transferring from the train to buses at Anoka Station and presumably a handful more than that are doing so at Fridley. Metro Transit could probably do a better job marketing those connections. The Foley Station would be a good next step and should be made a priority in the next bonding session. That would potentially add a bunch more riders who are currently taking buses that are subject to weather, delays, etc. Building the uber expensive Fridley Station instead of Foley was downright criminal.

It's too bad that the Dan Patch Line was legislated out of existence, because I feel like it had so much more potential than Northstar. That corridor has more residential and employment density along the line today than Northstar ever will.
Last edited by twincitizen on October 15th, 2012, 2:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

mattaudio
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Re: Northstar

Postby mattaudio » October 15th, 2012, 2:12 pm

It sure didn't help that the exurban stations were built as park and rides in farm fields, instead of being in the (relatively) dense downtown areas in places like Big Lake. Once upon a time, a train station would be built and the town would run out from that point. It worked. But now today we build stations and expect people to drive to them. Why not spend money on connecting employers and business districts rather than building parking structures.

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » October 15th, 2012, 3:02 pm

Ottergoose wrote:The problem with increasing commuter train frequency is more an issue of BNSF's capacity though, no?
Yes, this is one major issue with trying to get more Northstar ridership. I think a sleeper issue here is the 9-mile stretch of single-tracking between Big Lake and Becker. If trains go through that gap one at a time, it limits freight trains to roughly one every 15 minutes. BNSF probably gets around that a bit by stacking them up on either side of the gap and pulsing several trains through at a single time, but that makes it difficult for Northstar to slot in between the freights and to access the Big Lake station area. As things are today, BNSF claims that Northstar effectively knocks their system south/east of Big Lake down to a single-track line during each rush hour, but their own method of operation probably exacerbates the problem.

Amtrak and Northstar respect a speed limit of 79 mph, while I think freight along the line goes up to 50 or 60 mph (faster for intermodal and probably some unit trains, but slower for general freight). Northstar only averages 60 mph between Big Lake and Fridley, so it seems like they shouldn't really conflict with each other under Northstar's current half-hourly schedule as long as things are flowing smoothly.

The Big Lake-Becker stretch appears to have been double-tracked in the past, so it probably could be restored relatively cheaply ($1-2 million/mile), though Mn/DOT has complained that the tracks are too close to stoplight-controlled intersections along U.S. Highway 10 for their liking, and fixing that would make costs skyrocket quickly. But even shortening that 9-mile stretch by a few miles could help quite a bit, especially if the space where northbound freight trains stack up can get moved northwest of the Big Lake station.

I've mostly thought about that stretch in the context of extending Northstar to St. Cloud, but fixing it would have a positive impact on the current route too. Perhaps Mn/DOT will be less freaked out by the idea if it remains a freight-only improvement for the time being, with the Empire Builder being the only fast train on that stretch...

theroose
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Re: Northstar

Postby theroose » October 15th, 2012, 11:08 pm

Here are some picture of the Ramsey Station.
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theroose
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Re: Northstar

Postby theroose » October 15th, 2012, 11:09 pm

and a few more...
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mplsjaromir
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Re: Northstar

Postby mplsjaromir » October 16th, 2012, 7:38 am

Other commuter rail lines have problems too.

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/ ... er16m.html

Tcmetro
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Re: Northstar

Postby Tcmetro » October 16th, 2012, 8:18 am

One of the most interesting commuter rail lines to me is the Salt Lake City FrontRunner. In December the Provo extension opens, bringing the line to 88 miles. It will have 30-minute peak service, 60-minute midday and evening, and 90-minute Sunday service.

How do we get that on Northstar????

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Nick
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Re: Northstar

Postby Nick » October 16th, 2012, 8:44 am

Tcmetro wrote:One of the most interesting commuter rail lines to me is the Salt Lake City FrontRunner. In December the Provo extension opens, bringing the line to 88 miles. It will have 30-minute peak service, 60-minute midday and evening, and 90-minute Sunday service.

How do we get that on Northstar????
Build our whole metro in a narrow valley?

min-chi-cbus
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Re: Northstar

Postby min-chi-cbus » October 16th, 2012, 9:39 am

There is NOTHING on the other side of that Ramsey Station!!! I know there is that planned TOD station development on the other side, but WOW is that area sparse! I realize transit planners need to sell the idea of TOD as part of the ROI, but I think that plan backfires on you when you place a passenger train in the middle of nowhere with zero riders! Call me crazy...

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Re: Northstar

Postby LRV Op Dude » October 17th, 2012, 2:48 pm

by Tcmetro »

One of the most interesting commuter rail lines to me is the Salt Lake City FrontRunner. In December the Provo extension opens, bringing the line to 88 miles. It will have 30-minute peak service, 60-minute midday and evening, and 90-minute Sunday service.

How do we get that on Northstar????
Double the current ridership?
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jennifat
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Re: Northstar

Postby jennifat » October 17th, 2012, 11:35 pm

min-chi-cbus wrote:There is NOTHING on the other side of that Ramsey Station!!! I know there is that planned TOD station development on the other side, but WOW is that area sparse! I realize transit planners need to sell the idea of TOD as part of the ROI, but I think that plan backfires on you when you place a passenger train in the middle of nowhere with zero riders! Call me crazy...
What you're seeing on the other side of Hwy. 10 is Mississippi West Regional Park. There are a good 24,000 people living on the north side of the highway...

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Re: Northstar

Postby mulad » October 18th, 2012, 12:30 am

Yeah, well, kinda sorta. Most of the city is spread out a lot, and many residents are probably closer to Anoka station rather than this new one at The COR. The COR area itself is pretty empty for the moment -- the nearest current residential is 3/4-mile away by road (though that will fall to just under half a mile once the street grid gets filled in, and of course there's the new building going up right by the station). Still, with the way the city is laid out, I suppose around 1/3 of the population will take either Armstrong Boulevard or Ramsey Boulevard to access U.S. 10, putting them in close proximity to the station anyway.

The ridership at Ramsey station will almost certainly go up compared to the existing bus service. Northstar in general has about 4 times the ridership its predecessor bus service did in 2008. I doubt the same increase will happen this time around, but we'll see. Certainly some riders will probably shift away from the Anoka station to something a little bit closer, so the line's overall ridership bump won't be as high as the bump at this stop/station in particular.


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