Monday, April 22nd, 2024 Church Directory
PASSENGERS LEAVE THE NORTHSTAR Commuter Train at the Big Lake Station Wednesday at 5:55 p.m. About 30 commuters exited the train, which was nine minutes late arriving at the station.

Train Delays Affecting North Star, Xcel

Significant train delays this past winter have had a negative impact on commuters, freight shipments and delivery of coal to power generating plants.

Due to delivery delays, the coal supply reserve at Xcel Energy’s generating station in Becker dropped to a low of nine days instead of the 30-day goal.
 
There were more than 93 delays of more than 10 minutes in January and February of 2014 on the NorthStar Commuter train. Many were more than 30 minutes.
 
Those delays have resulted in a ridership reduction of approximately 6,500 rides from January through March of 2014.
 
Earlier this month, Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing and Public Works Director John Menter attended a private meeting with Tom Brugman, Deputy Director of Public Assistance and Compliance with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), and Attorney-Advisor Mike Higgins, to talk about issues with rail traffic in the county and the region.
 
Schmiesing says Brugman is a significant figure who has authority from the senate and congress to initiate action on rail issues.
 
“He really didn’t mention what remedies they might take,” says Schmiesing. “But he did indicate they were having trouble with fertilizer shortages and deliveries in northwestern Minnesota and some other places, and they did get the railroad to get some delivered for spring planting. Apparently, they did step it up.”
In 2013, NorthStar averaged about 800,000 riders and its popularity was increasing almost every year. But even some of its loyal riders had second thoughts about using the train after this past winter.
 
Unhappy Commuters
“It just became unreliable,” says Dan Nygaard of Big Lake, who has taken the train to his job at Xcel in Minneapolis since it began carrying passengers in November, 2009.
 
“It was really reliable until this winter,” he says. “Then it was absolutely horrible.”
 
Nygaard said a big issue was communication. Many times commuters would be told there was a delay, but never informed how long it would be.
 
In one case, the train was returning from Minneapolis and stopped just before it reached the Big Lake station. 
 
“We could see the station. We probably were there 30 or 40 minutes, stopped,” he says. “If they would have let us out, we could have walked to our cars.”
 
Ken Janda, another commuter from Big Lake, has also been riding the train since its inception. He says everything was fine until last winter.
 
“It was pretty bad. We had a couple of delays that were two hours,” he says. “One train was cancelled.” 
 
Like Nygaard, he says communication was the biggest issue.
 
“One time the train was stuck in the station for 1:45. They kept saying another 10 minutes,” he says. “A lot of people just went home frustrated.”
 
Multiple Causes
Schmiesing says there has been lots of talk about the causes. Some say the terribly cold winter had a lot to do with the delays because of switches freezing. 
 
Others cite an increase in rail traffic because of the oil trains leaving the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.
 
Schmiesing said he was told by STB representatives that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) was one of the fastest in terms of rail speed until early 2013.
 
“He said all of a sudden their train speeds just dropped. I don’t know how that ties to NorthStar, but their train movement system-wide has gone down,” he says. “I understand it probably is causing some delays in deliveries of commodities and freight and Amtrak and everything else. But he could not tell us why.”
 
STB representatives indicated they are questioning whether larger rail companies have committed to move more materials than their systems can handle.
 
People in Sherburne County have witnessed trains frequently sitting on tracks waiting to be moved.
 
“That’s an issue as well, and this is kind of a bottle neck here” says Schmiesing. “Sometimes people are inconvenienced for significant periods of time because of that.”
 
Nygaard believes it’s congestion, not cold weather, that caused delays. He says he’s seen the commuter rail stopped while waiting for other trains to pass.
 
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had cold weather in Minnesota,” he says. “Sure it was cold this winter. But it’s cold every winter.”
 
Track Agreement
Schmiesing says it doesn’t matter what the cause is. It’s up to the railroad to deal with the issue. NorthStar paid BNSF $107.5 million for permanent easements to use the track between Big Lake and Minneapolis.
 
“We have an agreement with them. We want to keep working with them,” says Schmiesing. “They operate NorthStar. They seem to have a courteous and friendly staff on those trains that try to do the very best they can to get the commuters here.”
 
He says the whole idea of commuter rail was to give people a reliable, convenient alternative mode of transportation. That includes guaranteed departure and arrival times.
 
“If NorthStar is really going to work we’ve got be able to look at our watches and look down the tracks and know that it’s going to come,” he says. “How we work our way through this and improve the service is really going to be pivotal.”
 
Since the end of winter, communication has improved. Commuters can now receive alerts about delays by email or Twitter.
 
Janda continues to take the train, and says although delays still happen, they’re not as bad as before.
 
“Nothing more than 10 or 15 minutes,” he says. “And with my schedule, that’s not a big deal.”
 
But getting those lost riders to come back is a big deal, says Schmiesing. And the county is going to continue to stay in contact with the STB to make sure issues with the trains are resolved.
 
“NorthStar is a great service when it runs on time. We’re going to have to see if last winter was an anomaly, if we’ve corrected those issues. Then we can continue to build from there,” says Schmiesing. “Then we’re going to need to go back to our riders and say give us a try again. But when I ask someone back and say we’re doing better, we’ve got to be doing better.”