Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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Northern Lights over the Midwest’s High Bridge

Several years ago you folks may remember I headed up to Alaska in February with the goal of catching the Northern Lights. While I did in fact see them, the effect was not quite as brilliant as I’d hoped. Fast forward to this week, when a powerful geomagnetic storm erupted on the sun, sending charged particles toward our atmosphere and lighting up the sky. I happened to be in Minnesota at the time with my husband, and along with our guide, Midwest railfan photographer extraordinaire Nick Benson, we headed over to the Arcola High Bridge to catch the lights.

According to popular lore, the bridge itself is haunted, and locals have been known to see a “mysterious” blue light. The lights that we saw, however, were quite real, and quite amazing. Pillars of greens, yellows, and purples raged behind the old Soo Line historic bridge, which extends over the St. Croix River and connects Stillwater, Minnesota to Somerset, Wisconsin. The bridge is a single track span that is still active, although with very minimal traffic (about a train per day in either direction). Alas nothing crossed it that night, but with the light show, nobody was really complaining.

Enjoy a few photos from the Midwest’s High Bridge, and stay tuned for a forthcoming post on New York City’s famous High Bridge.

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Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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