• Ridership reportedly down 8 percent from one year ago
by Jim Boyle
The Sherburne County Board of Commissioners wants to know what the Metropolitan Council can do to help increase ridership on the Northstar Commuter Rail.
Concerned about ridership trends in 2014, members had Sherburne County Administrator Steve Taylor fire off a letter on July 18 to Susan Haigh, the chair of the Metropolitan Council.
They got her attention and that of MetroTransit. Vince Pellegrin, the chief operating officer of Metro Transit, and another transit official were in Elk River on Tuesday to give a report on ridership trends to the County Board.
Pellegrin reported there is good news and bad news on the ridership front.
The bad news, he said, is ridership is down 8 percent in 2014.
The good news is it was up 5 percent in the month of July compared to July 2013, due in part to special events surrounding the All-Star Game.
That was of little comfort to County Board Member Felix Schmiessing.
“We didn’t build the train for special events,” he said. “We built it for commuters.
“I have been critical of Northstar not running on time. I don’t want to put that all on you. It’s not all on you, but it’s a problem.”
Schmiessing said the county and the Northstar Corridor Development Authority made a deal with BNSF Railway to run trains at a certain times.
“In my mind, (BNSF) is not living up to their end of the deal that we made,” he said.
Pellegrin said MetroTransit is focused on regaining its on-time reliability. He said he believes things will get better once scheduled maintenance is done. He also noted BNSF does have plans for improvements on the line that should help.
“We believe Northstar ridership will improve… as a result of the reliability of the system getting better,” he said. “We don’t need to tell you that we have struggled with some reliability (issues).”
This past winter was particularly tough due in large part to bitterly cold weather. Increased train traffic, work on the line and incidents beyond anyone’s control have continued to be problematic for Northstar’s ability to maintain its timeliness.
Work on the line this week has delayed trains, but Pellegrin reported the train was 100 percent on time Thursday morning.
MetroTransit has made some internal improvements in an effort to better track Northstar by moving its tracking systems into the command center for light rail three months ago. There, boards show in real time where trains are and it’s staffed full time.
“We are closely scrutinizing the operation to the extent we can,” Pellegrin said, noting that it’s not like the Hiawatha line, which MetroTransit controls.
BNSF approves the trains, maintains the right of way, the signals and everything in the corridor.
“On the light rail track, we own the track, the right of way, the maintenance and all of the signals,” he said. “I have much more control over that.”
He said MetroTransit works closely with BNSF and they are “good folks” who are genuinely trying to improve reliability.
He said there are some track improvements that were planned this year that have been pushed off until 2015 for now. Once they are done, they should shave a few minutes of the train’s commute between Fridly and Minneapolis. Pellegrin said the speed of the train should be able to increase from 45 mph to 60 mph in that stretch.
As for the delays stemming from maintenance, he said it’s no different than the Minnesota Department of Transportation shutting down a freeway for a time. Pellegrin said MetroTransit is doing a better job of alerting people to delays, and “pulling audibles” when things outside their control happen. That can mean using another track or bringing in buses to get people to their destination.
Pellegrin said customer appreciation events are being planned for when the maintenance is done and reliability is restored.
“We need to deliver what we promised,” Schmiessing said. “Tell me there is hope.”
Pellegrin said there is.
“There are going to be days where things happen,” he said. “I’m not going to pull any punches.”