Official: Blame cold for Northstar delays

Blame the weather — not more oil trains — for a recent rash of delays on the Northstar Commuter Line, a railroad official told a House committee Thursday. 

Frustration has grown as commuters in the northwest Twin Cities metro have dealt with a growing number of delays in recent weeks along the 4-year-old line between Minneapolis and Big Lake, with some trains delayed up to two hours earlier this week. 

But a spokesperson for BNSF Railway, the rail giant that owns the tracks on which Northstar runs, said the problem hasn’t been an influx of oil freight from North Dakota’s booming Bakken fields bound for refineries.

Rather, it’s the bitterly and unusually cold winter that plunged temperatures below zero again Thursday morning, said Brian Sweeney, a government relations official with BNSF. 

“When you have a problem with one train it has a ripple effect on the system,” Sweeney told the House Transportation Finance Committee. “Any event can have a large consequence.”

Earlier reports had blamed the slowdowns on a flood of crude-laden trains, with stranded, frustrated commuters saying they have watched oil freight roll by as they waited for heavily-delayed Northstar trains.

The extreme temperatures have taken a toll on BNSF freight trains, tracks, equipment and the company’s employees, Sweeney said. Similar problems have also afflicted BNSF’s shared commuter and freight lines in Chicago.

Lawmakers were critical of the delays, which a Metro Transit official said were eroding rider confidence in Northstar, although ridership numbers have increased in the past year.

“We need to get to the bottom of why this is happening and make sure it never happens again,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), the committee chair. “I think some of it is weather-related. I think some of it is infrastructure-related.”

No legislation was considered during Thursday’s hearing. Continued delays, however, could lead to a lengthier hearing on the issue, Hornstein said.

Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said solving the problem of delays is critical to retain ridership on the fledgling rail line.  

“Customers on Northstar depend on reliability,” Lamb said. “That’s why they ride Northstar.”

Courtesy House Public Information Services