Yesterday was the first day for the “Northstar” commuter rail service.
Now, commuter rail is one of those areas where I break with some of my conservative friends – with a big, red asterisk. Unlike Light Rail, which is a pretty universal money pit, Commuter Rail – heavy cars using existing right of way and rails – is relatively inexpensive. The forty mile Northstar cost less than half of what the seven mile Ventura Trolley did, and is currently coming around a quarter of the ludicrous, city-destroying Central Corridor’s price tag at the moment. Had the Met Council opted to buy used rolling stock (cars and locomotives) and build its stations on the cheap, and had gas prices remained high and pumped up the ridership, the Northstar could have hypothetically been revenue-neutral and self-supporting in relatively short order. Which, for a government program, ain’t chicken feed…
…provided you get all those “ifs” out of the way. The Met bought new rolling stock (enh) and as always used the stations as an excuse to subsidize local artists, and the price came in a good third higher than it might have.
Still, for those who are trying for whatever reason to recalibrate their lives around the shiny new toy, madness awaits:
Trains were on time — the first one arrived three minutes early — but the first day was not entirely free of glitches. At Target Field, the doors of the 7:10 a.m. train didn’t open for a few minutes, so its more than 300 passengers were stuck inside. Once they made their way upstairs to the Hiawatha station, light rail wasn’t there to greet them because of a mechanical problem. A replacement Hiawatha train left the station at 7:25.
During the afternoon rush, there were some frantic dashes for closing doors, some doorway stumbles and even a few people who missed trains and had to wait for the next one. Only one person missed the final train, arriving at Target Field two minutes late on a connecting light-rail transit train.
Metro Transit has a way of letting you down; I can’t count the number of times, back when I did a lot more transit, that buses would run late or sometimes not at all, or schedules would be inaccurate, or bus stops would be incorrectly marked; for that matter, in one year I had two buses break down on me in mid-trip. Carrying a bike with you in one of the bike racks, I came to realize, is a bit like having a lifeboat on a ship.
Susan Sullivan of Andover hopes not. “When I got to the Government Center, it was 10 minutes later than my bus ever got me there,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And I will be paying $2 more each day for the ‘privilege’ of riding this.”
And then there are those for whom ideology swerves into irrationality:
The sole outbound morning train to Big Lake had 44 customers when it headed northwest at 6:05 a.m. Kate Pound of St. Paul, was one of them and had one of the more complicated commutes. She rode her bicycle to a bus stop, transferred from the bus to a light-rail train and then to Northstar at Target Field. She departed the Big Lake station via a Northstar Link bus to her job as a geology teacher at St. Cloud State University.
“It’s great, it’s cheaper, I’m doing the right thing in terms of my carbon footprint,” she said. “But what if I’m late and miss my connection in Big Lake? As long as I don’t get stuck, this is the way to go.”
Well, no, Ms. Pound – moving to Saint Cloud would be the “right thing in terms of your carbon footprint”. What you’re doing is salving your precious environmentalist ego, while continuing to live the high-density urban life you no doubt came to love while attending Macalester. If I were to guess, anyway.
Anyway – if you’re taking the train, enjoy. It’s a less-dumb option than the Ventura Trolley, and vastly less criminally stupid than the Central Corridor is going to be.