Commissioners vent about NorthStar ridership

Subhead: 
Staff Writer
Ken Francis
Members of the Sherburne County Board had a chance to express their displeasure about NorthStar delays Tuesday. .
There were more than 93 delays of more than 10 minutes in January and February of 2014 on the train. Many were more than 30 minutes.
Those delays resulted in a ridership reduction of approximately 6,500 rides from January through March of 2014.
Tuesday, Vince Pellegrin, chief operations officer for Metro Transit. and John Paul Zanaska, director of commuter rail, attended the board meeting in response to a letter sent by the county in July to Metro Transit regarding NorthStar ridership.
Pellegrin said as far as ridership was concerned, he had good news and bad news.
He said ridership numbers so far in 2014 are down eight percent compared to a year ago.
“However, the good news is we are actually up five percent in July from a year ago,” he said. “Some special events - the All-Star game and those kinds of things helped out.”
Pellegrin said Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is currently doing major track improvements that will help speed up the trip. But he said there will be delays during the improvements.
“We believe that the NorthStar ridership will improve as a result of the reliability of the system getting better,” he said. “I don’t need to tell you we’ve struggled with reliability. There’s track work going on right now that’s causing delays. But we’ve been notifying our customers.”
He said Metro Transit officials have been in contact with BNSF about the issue.
“We’ve been to Fort Worth and expressed our concerns to their very highest level in BNSF corporate,” he said.
Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said he was concerned about the overall reliability of the system. There have been so many delays over the past months, people are no longer confident the train will be on time.
“We only get one chance to make a first impression. We’re probably working on our third chance with NorthStar,” he said. “I’m glad to hear ridership was up in July. But we didn’t build this train for special events. We built it for commuters. That’s where we need to grow ridership.”
Schmiesing said he understood Metro Transit was in a difficult situation because they are trying to run a commuter train on tracks they don’t own.
“I know that you folks kind of got what someone else bought. We negotiated the contracts, we made the deals with BNSF and then we put everything in your lap and said run it,” he said.
“I know I’ve been critical of NorthStar not running on time and I’m not putting that all on you. But it is a problem.”
He said NorthStar bought easements and made a deal with BNSF to run trains at certain times.
“But in my mind, they’re not living up to the deal that we made. So I’m just wondering how we find our way out of that,” he said. “We’re never going to make this work unless we have a reliable train that runs when it’s supposed to.”
Schmiesing said he just wanted to figure out a solution to get the trains running on time again.
“Tell us how we can help achieve this,” he said. “If we did something, didn’t make the kind of deal we should have when we put this together, then we better be looking back at what we did and try to resolve that.”
Pellegrin said it was difficult to do much with BNSF because of the agreement language.
“You know as well as I do that the BNSF contract contains no penalties. It just contains incentives,” he said. “It also has conditions under which those incentives are given. Believe me, we scrutinize that to the Nth degree. Ideally, if we could get more priority from BNSF that would be better - no question.”
Commissioner Rachel Leonard asked how Metro Transit dealt with delays on other systems.
Pellegrin said they use buses to bridge the gap on the Hiawatha Line, but typically those delays are due to maintenance and can be anticipated. He said NorthStar delays are sometimes caused by accidents, trespassers, rail traffic, signal issues and track problems.
“Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict. NorthStar will run on time for a month, then all of a sudden we have a problem,” he said. “This is a 45-mile corridor. Hiawatha may be four to five miles.”
Commissioner Ewald Petersen said the mood was not good at a NorthStar executive meeting last week.
“The prevailing language was, the problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said, “more trains on the tracks, more oil trains, more traffic. It was kind of frustrating to sit there and listen to that.”
He said one of the things BNSF was supposed to be working on was adding track between Big Lake and Becker, but that never materialized.
  “That would allow a little more movement,” he said.
Leonard said when NorthStar was in its planning stages, BNSF was losing business so it seemed like it was a good deal for both parties to use the track. But she felt it might be a mistake now that rail business is picking up.
Pellegrin said it’s common for commuter rail to share track with BNSF. He said it’s done in many other places across the country.  He said he believed BNSF was working to make thigs run more efficiently.
Leonard said it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
“We put a in lot of money to start this,” she said. “It’s a special tax to our constituents, and if we fail on that it’s as if we didn’t keep our promise.”
Schmiesing agreed.
“Business is good for the rail industry right now and I want to see them doing well,” he said. “But we need to be mindful that we have an agreement that we made.” 
Pellegrin said he’s up at 3:30 a.m. each day looking at freight schedules in the corridor and making sure the track will be clear for the train.
He agreed there needs to be improvement  for on-time performance.
Schmiesing closed the discussion with one more comment about the importance of the commuter train running on time.
“We just want to run successful commuter rail for Sherburne County,” he said. “ All our eggs are in this basket. We need to deliver what we promised. Just tell me there’s hope.”
“There’s hope,” said Pellegrin.
 

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