All Aboard! Express Bus vs. Commuter Rail

Metro pass in hand, I board the Ramsey Star Express.  As a commuter living in the northwest suburbs, I have access to riding the Ramsey Star Express (the bus) or the Northstar Commuter Rail (the train).  My choice--the bus.  But why?

Before I go into why, let’s learn more about both options…

The Ramsey Star Express, operated by Metro Transit, provides Ramsey and surrounding residents with “coach comfort," on-time service, and four daily rush hour trips to downtown Minneapolis.  The attractive nature of a coach bus was recently overshadowed by the new Northstar Commuter Rail with promises of a safer, shorter, and more reliable commute.

Minnesota’s first commuter rail service, the Northstar Commuter Rail hit the tracks in late 2009.  The Northstar train travels on a 40-mile stretch along Highway 10 between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis, with stops in Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids, and Fridley.  When first launched, advocates for the train predicted big ridership numbers and huge time savings for riders.  As stated in last week’s Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal article, “Northstar tallied 710,400 rides in 2010, nearly 21 percent below projections. Metro Transit said the service, aimed at rush-hour commuters, was 'hampered by the weak economy and a 7 percent unemployment rate with fewer people headed to jobs in downtown Minneapolis.'”

So, you may be asking yourself, why the bus?

The answer is simple--time and money.   Twenty minutes is the estimated travel time for the Northstar train from the Anoka station to downtown Minneapolis.  Twenty minutes doesn’t seem bad compared to the 40 minutes you’ll spend on the bus from Ramsey to Minneapolis.  But, why would I choose the bus over the train, if it saves me time? I choose the bus because the train actually adds time to my commute.

When I take the bus, I drive less traveled back roads to the park-and-ride station, wait in my nicely heated car for the bus, board the bus, and in approximately 40 minutes, I’m dropped off at the front door of the 5th street garage in downtown Minneapolis.

When I take the train, I have to drive to the Anoka station.  The Anoka and Ramsey stations are equal distance to my house, but when I drive to Anoka, I’m forced to drive on Hwy 47 (the only road taking commuters to Hwy 10).  I sit at stoplight after stoplight making my way to the Anoka station.  After arriving at the station, I park my car, waiting outside (I park on the opposite side of the train tracks so that when I come home at night, I don’t have to walk all the way down the platform to cross the train tracks before getting to my car).  When the train arrives, I board and in 20 minutes or so I’m dropped off at Target Field.  From Target Field, I’m forced to walk outside for approximately two (very long) blocks (in the winter) to get the 5th street garage.  The additional time spent sitting in traffic on Hwy 47 coupled with the fact that I’m not getting “door to door service” adds approximately 20 minutes to my commute.  As you can see, I break even when it come to door-to-door elapsed time.

Fares for the Northstar Commuter Rail were initially quite a bit higher than the bus.  As time went by and ridership numbers remained low, the fares for the commuter rail were lowered.  Currently the one-way fare on the train is $4.  The bus is $3.

Taking into consideration that I’d pay $2 extra per day and I’d still have the same commute time, I’d much rather take the bus.  Ramsey is a proposed site for a new train stop, the exact date to be determined.  For now, I’ll continue riding in “coach comfort"!

Opus Magnum readers--do you take public transit to work or school?  Let us know what you like or dislike about the Northstar commuter rail, suburban buses, city buses, or the Hiawatha light rail.