Light Rail Ridership Growth Spurs Minneapolis' Metro Transit to Expand Services

Posted on August 19, 2013

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Launched in 2009, the Northstar commuter rail line is currently growing ridership at a rate of 15.1%.
Launched in 2009, the Northstar commuter rail line is currently growing ridership at a rate of 15.1%.

Commuter rail
The Northstar commuter rail line is a 40-mile system that runs from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis at Target Field. It uses existing track and right-of-way owned by the BNSF Railway, which operates the system.

The commuter line was launched in late 2009 during the economic downturn.

“It is strictly a commuter line — we have five trips inbound in the morning and five outbound in the evening with one reverse commute trip each way,” Byers, explains. “Initially, we had excellent ridership, but at the end of the first full year, we found ourselves 20% lower than projections. Ridership was flat in 2011 and trending below expectations for 2012.”

To combat this, Metro Transit reduced fares by $1 in August 2012. The reduction and the opening of a new station in Ramsey, which is exceeding initial projections, have resulted in a 15.1% ridership increase at the halfway point of 2013.

While one of the benefits of the system is transporting fans to sporting events, Byers says ridership has waned over the last couple of years due to lower attendance at Twins games compared to the sold out 2010 inaugural season at Target Field. He also adds that since the line ties into the bus system and Blue Line, it is dramatically growing as an option for the weekday commuter, especially during periods of inclement weather.

“When we have days with snowstorms or anything that is going to impact traffic, we see big spikes in ridership, because people know how reliable it is,” Byers says. “So, instead of spending upwards of two hours on freeways battling their way into the central business district, people choose a Northstar train, which gets them downtown in less than 50 minutes.”

The success of the Blue Line has been key in helping Metro Transit move forward with additional light rail, commuter rail and bus projects.
The success of the Blue Line has been key in helping Metro Transit move forward with additional light rail, commuter rail and bus projects.
Green Line
Set to open in mid-2014, with construction currently 95% complete, the 11-mile METRO Green Line will connect the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul and travel through the University of Minnesota. The line marks the return of rail to the corridor for the first time since the early 1950s, when streetcar lines that had run along University Avenue were paved over. The old tracks remained beneath the center median pavement until 2012 when they were excavated and removed for the new line, says Laura Baenen, communications manager for the light rail project.

“University Avenue, the primary local street connection, has been rebuilt,” she says. “It was interesting to see the construction of it, because there were many layers of strata from the previous roadway. If you were visiting today, you would see stations that are substantially complete, with some of the systems work, ticket vending machines and other technologies still needing to be added, but it is looking nearly complete.”

A good amount of the overhead catenary wire has also already been strung, and testing of the line has begun both with trains towed the length of the line and some tests on a shorter powered section. In anticipation of additional integrated testing later this year, public safety messaging is also changing.

“Our current safety campaign warns the public about being around the stations and tracks while they are being constructed,” Baenen explains. “As we ramp up preparing for revenue service in the middle of 2014, we are pivoting the message to let people know that there will be test trains running on these tracks.”

As mentioned earlier, the Green Line will carry passengers on 47 new Siemens light rail transit vehicles, each with 66 seats and comfortable standing room for an additional 70 people.

Passengers will access the Green Line via 18 new stations, plus five stations shared with the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis. It connects with the Blue Line at the Metrodome Station and its western terminus is at the Minneapolis multimodal station that will also serve the Northstar commuter rail line. Trains will operate every 10 minutes during peak travel periods, with a travel time of 39 minutes between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.

Siqveland says the success of the Blue Line has had a major impact on the growth of public transportation in the area.

“Had the Blue Line either not have happened or been such a success, the path forward to implement the Northstar and Green Line system certainly would have been far more challenging,” he says. “Truly, the success and growth of that line has allowed many in the Twin Cities to experience the value of rail — how convenient it is, how well it works — which has served as a catalyst for advancing other projects.”

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