Northstar Commuter Rail Service begins in Minneapolis

December 4, 2009 38 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While Jacksonville remains at a relative standstill, Minneapolis' new 40-mile commuter rail line gives us a glance at a transit system that could one day offer local Jacksonville residents an alternative to access various parts of the city.

Construction and Operation

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA) studied options for development of the corridor to handle the increasing commuter load, and felt that a commuter rail line was the best option. It was expected to cost about $265 million in 2008 dollars, estimated to have been approximately one-third the cost of upgrading existing highways. Because most of the rail that is being used already exists, the costs mostly went into building new train stations, upgrading track, enhancing crossings, and adding railroad sidings so that commuter trains, and Amtrak's Empire Builder and freight trains can pass by each other. A significant portion of the cost was used in extending the Hiawatha Line to just above the Target Field station on the west side of I-394 and 5th Street, next to the new Minnesota Twins ballpark, Target Field, opening in 2010.

Bus feeder lines bring residents who live along the corridor to the nearest train station. Once in downtown Minneapolis, commuters can walk upstairs to the Hiawatha Line light rail, or take a bus into neighboring St. Paul and other areas. A commuter bus branded the Northstar Link connects Big Lake with St. Cloud. The line currently has six trains run in the morning and evening rush hour periods, and limited service on weekends and holidays. It is estimated that 5600 rides would be taken each day, saving those commuters 900,000 hours over the course of a year, (26 minutes per day per person) compared to taking a dedicated bus line. The overall benefit should be even higher, saving time for drivers by reducing congestion.


The route was initially designed to run the full distance between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, but the plan was not well-received by Minnesota politicians. Many have supported the idea of new passenger rail service in the state in the past few decades, but few plans have gotten off the ground. Governor Jesse Ventura was an early advocate of the Northstar commuter rail line, and convinced some people to come around to his point of view. However, current Governor Tim Pawlenty did not initially support the idea, and said he would not support it when he campaigned for the governorship. He changed his mind after the Federal Transit Administration determined that a scaled-back version of the line would cost less to initially build and would have lower maintenance costs after going into operation compared to other options.

Many hoped that funds would be approved for the project during Minnesota's 2004 legislative session, but the representatives at the capitol were unable to find common ground on a number of issues, the issuing of bonds among them. The project appeared stalled and many requested the governor to call a special session of the legislature, but some counties in the area and the Metropolitan Council came up with matching funds to allow funding from the United States federal government to continue.

During the 2005 legislative session, a bonding bill very similar to the proposed 2004 bonding bill was passed, including $37.5 million of funding for the Corridor. The issue was believed to have changed the composition of the Minnesota House as the election in 2004 saw at least two non-supporters in direct vicinity of the Corridor ousted by opposition candidates. The bill, worth $866 million, was signed on April 11, 2005, by Governor Tim Pawlenty at the Riverdale Station in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. This funding along with a total of $55 million in local funding is matched with Federal funds and has allowed the NCDA to enter Final Design. A nearly $1 billion budget bill passed by the legislature in May 2006 will provide funding to complete the corridor to Big Lake.

On December 11, 2007, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett met with Governor Pawlenty in Anoka County and officially signed a Full Funding Grant Agreement of $156.8 million, nearly half of the funding for the $320 million, 40-mile line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. The money enabled the release of an additional $97.5 million in state bonding money set aside for the project.

The federal government paid $156.8 million, the state will pay $98.6 million, and the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority has pledged $34.8 million. The remaining partners are Sherburne County Regional Rail Authority ($8.2 million), Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority ($8 million), the Metropolitan Council ($5.9 million) and the Minnesota Twins ($2.6 million, for the station improvements under the new Target Field where the Minneapolis station was constructed).

Northstar Route

At Target Field station, the parallel rail lines of the old Great Northern Railway (north side track now BNSF) and the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway (south side track now Union Pacific) travel eastbound past the Federal Reserve Bank, the site of the old Minneapolis Great Northern Depot, across the Mississippi River on the Minneapolis BNSF Rail Bridge, and then across Nicollet Island. At a wye, the route turns Northwest in the GN East side line, which then joins the parallel ex-Northern Pacific main line. The Great Northern and Northern Pacific lines are merged into BNSF. The route travels north through the Northtown Classification Yards, over Interstate 694 and makes its first stop at 61st Avenue in Fridley at the yard limit of Northtown. The original GN/NP Fridley stop was a mile north at Mississippi Boulevard. The double track line continues past the eventual Foley Boulevard station, and Coon Creek Junction, the old GN route to Duluth, which may eventually be the commuter line to Bethel. At Coon Rapids Riverdale by Round Lake Boulevard, a new commuter station has been constructed. A new station is built for Anoka. Both GN and NP had local service from Minneapolis to Anoka, Elk River and Big Lake through the early 20th Century.


The line uses five MP36 locomotives and seventeen Bombardier BiLevel Coach cars. When the line opened in 2009, typical daily operation required four trains, each consisting of one locomotive and four coaches. The remaining locomotive and coach not in use serve as backups. Northstar station platforms were built long enough to accommodate five-coach trains in the future.

Northstar at a glance

The Trip — By the Numbers

- 18: Number of passenger cars; there are five locomotives

- 40 miles: Length of total route from Big Lake to Minneapolis

- 50 minutes: Estimated time to travel entire route

- 52 miles: Length of transit corridor created by connecting Northstar commuter rail and Hiawatha light-rail lines

- 150: How many tons a Northstar locomotive weighs

- 6: Number of stations (Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids-Riverdale, Fridley, Target Field)

- 79 mph: The top speed of Northstar trains

- 5 & 1: Number of trips from Big Lake to Minneapolis and reverse trip each weekday morning; also the number of trips from Minneapolis to Big Lake and reverse trip each weekday afternoon/evening

- 3: Number of roundtrips each weekend day; Northstar will also offer some special event service

The Trains

- 3,400: Estimated weekday ridership in 2010 (expected to increase to 5,900 by 2030)

- 2.1 million rides: Annual capacity

- 139-145: Seated capacity per train car (additional space for standing available)

Passenger cars will have comfortable seating, onboard restrooms, tables with electrical outlets, bicycle and luggage storage and are fully ADA compliant.


The $320 million cost of building the state’s first commuter rail line is being shared by the state and federal governments, the regional rail authorities for Anoka, Hennepin and Sherburne counties, the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Twins.

For more information on a system that may be very similar to what lies in Jacksonville's future visit:

Photos by Mulad at

Article by Ennis Davis