MINNEAPOLIS – Five of six Northstar commuter trains between Big Lake and Minneapolis were canceled Tuesday morning. A freight train engine was stalled on the BNSF tracks at Big Lake and blocked access of the Northstar trains to the main line rails.
It was the latest problem hitting the 39 mile long rail commute this winter. In previous years, Northstar has boasted a 96% or 97% on-time reliability. That has come crashing down in recent weeks.
"I have been riding since October," said Michele Paddock of Andover. "But since October, it has been late two or three times a week. I am going to start looking for other transportation, I think, because I cannot rely on it. I cannot be continually late to work."
Tuesday morning, Paddock said she was notified by text of the cancelation of her 7:42 a.m. train at the Anoka station. She took one of the substitute buses provided, but became annoyed when the bus stopped in Fridley to pick up more passengers. The delays left her 45 minutes late to her job in downtown Minneapolis.
Customer concerns have not escaped the attention of Metro Transit officials. Metro Transit owns the Northstar trains, which run on rails owned by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF).
"Unlike our light rail service here in the Twin Cities, Northstar shares the track with BNSF and we are probably less than 10% of the overall traffic on the line," said Jon Siqveland, Metro Transit spokesperson.
Siqveland understood the annoyance of Northstar customers and thanked them for their "patience." He took note of problems attributed to the extreme cold winter across the Midwest rail network.
"Not only in the Northstar Corridor, but in the corridor beyond that where we are seeing these issues," said Siqveland. "Then, the freight traffic ends up backing into the Northstar Corridor and impacts our operations."
Siqveland said Metro Transit has begun notifying Northstar customers of delays by social media, their website and news media. "We are doing our best to improve our communications to our customers," said Siqveland. "We have put people on full time in our traffic control center to try to manage what might happen during any commute period."
Amtrak has also shares tracks with freight service and has endured delays this year in passenger service. The "Empire Builder" train between the Twin Cities and Chicago was four hours late on Tuesday. Normally, the trip leaves the Twin Cities at 7:50 a.m., arriving in Chicago at 3:55 p.m. The arrival on Tuesday was reported as 8:00 p.m.
BNSF Spokesperson Amy McBeth said the railroad is "disappointed in our service to all customers on the Northern Corridor over the last several weeks" and is "committed to restoring service levels as quickly as possible." She also blamed the severe cold for recent problems and insisted "there is nothing systemically wrong with the system that cannot be corrected."
BNSF is planning $900 million in maintenance and expansion of the "Northern Corridor". McBeth said BNSF is "adding leased locomotives and taking early delivery of new locomotives" to help alleviate problems like the "air brake" issue that occurred Tuesday.