Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Riding the Northstar Rails

Dateline: 3:58 pm November 23, 2009 Filed under:

I’m not sure why train conductors wear those distinctive conductor hats with a brim, but I’m glad they do. I boarded the new Northstar commuter rail last Friday morning, during its inagural week of service, and was greeted by a conductor wearing a hat with a friendly “welcome aboard.”

Surely, you ask, what kind of idiot wakes up at 5:30AM only to drive 52 miles out of the city just to catch a train back to his house!? Well, for one, because this is a truly historic moment in Twin Cities and Minnesota history – new commuter rail service critical to popular buy-in so future lines can provide better transportation options. And second, because some riders will be driving 10, 20, 30 or more miles every day just to catch this thing. Third, as cool as the train is, and it is very cool, every once in a while I like to be reminded the benefits of working from home.

I found a seat with a table and electrical outlet for my laptop. Every other group of four seats contains a small table and outlet. The others have armrests. I guess that is a tradeoff. Soon after an on-time departure from the Big Lake station we were heading southeast at 79 miles per hour, the top speed allowed along these dual tracks owned by BNSF.

At the first stop, the Elk River station, I was joined at my table by a financial analyst at Piper Jaffray. He used to drive 10 miles towards his downtown job from his home in Rogers to a bus stop in Maple Grove, but was trying out a drive slightly in the opposite direction for the smoother and more reliable (particularly on snow days) train ride. Within Minutes he was on his phone to his wife proclaiming “this train is awesome, by the way!”

Soon we whizzed past the Ramsey Town Center, an intensive mixed-use development that won numerous design awards prior to any construction occurring. A couple hundred homes have been built, as well as a large park and ride structure and the new Ramsey City Hall being relcated to the station area. The original developer subsequently went bankrupt and, as if to rub salt in Ramsey’s wounds, the line bypasses Ramsey as a station stop. One day development will continue in Ramsey, and one hopes the Northstar line adds a well-deserved station there, but for now the city must contend with naysayers claiming density and transit is a farce.

The overall ride took 51 minutes, plenty of time for me to work a little at my laptop, read the New York Times, sip my coffee, and gaze out the window as the downtown Minneapolis skyline grew on the horizon.

The critical piece of this whole system is its connection with places people want to go. The downtown station is located outside of the core business district and adjacent the new Twins Stadium, Target Field. One can walk to their office from the train, either via sidewalk or skyway, located two blocks from the station. However, our one and only light rail line was extended one stop.

I’m happy to report the transition is seamless. One exits the Northstar commuter train, heads to the end of the platform, literally in to the left field corner of Target Field, up an escalator and outside to the light rail platform. On the particular day of my ride, a light rail train was waiting and departed in to the downtown core within a couple minutes. It is possible that one day four light rail lines, several commuter rail lines and even Amtrak trains will meet at a multimodal station next to Target Field.

On the way “home,” I picked up my son Ellis, now three years old and an avid train lover himself, from daycare early so we’d have time to catch the outbound commuter train with enough daylight so he could see the massive freight rail yard in northeast Minneapolis. He was quickly immersed in counting deisel engines, tanker cars, boxcars, coal cars, grain cars and containers. Indeed, the Northstar line follows existing and very active BNSF tracks. One commuter near me commented “it wasn’t a pretty ride,” noting all the “junk” in various industrial yards along the way.

I find that to be the charm of rail travel. Except for stations themselves, the view out the window of a train is primarily the backs of things. Back yards, the backs of buildings, the back of barns, the back 40, backwaters, industrial uses that really have no front or back. As a result, gazing out the window of a train feels vaguely voyeuristic.

That is all fine by me. So hats off to the fine launch of the Northstar Commuter rail line. The ride is quite pleasant, and iwhile it may not lure me to move out to Big Lake, if it entices more people to ride the rails, then it is a success.

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