Cary Schaller lives in Big Lake and works in downtown Minneapolis. But for the past decade, he’s spent just a few minutes of his daily, hourlong commutes in his personal vehicle.
That’s because Schaller has been riding the Northstar Commuter Rail Line since it opened on Nov. 16, 2009. The 40-mile commuter rail line operates between Big Lake and Minneapolis, primarily serving weekday commuters coming in and out of downtown from the north metro.
Before taking Northstar, Schaller commuted on express buses from Blaine and Fridley. He spent his teen years in the New London-Spicer area and moved to Big Lake to enjoy life in a small town.
“My wife and I moved to Big Lake in September 2008 knowing Northstar was coming soon,” said Schaller, who works at Ameriprise Financial.
As a Northstar regular, Schaller enjoys getting to and from work without facing the stresses of driving. During a recent trip, he gleefully pointed out a long line of cars passing below the train on Interstate 694.
Relaxed, he instead enjoys taking in sights like the illuminated Grain Belt sign on the banks of the Mississippi River and watching for wildlife at places like the Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley.
When not peering out the window, Schaller pulls out his laptop and gets to work. Tables and free Wi-Fi are available on all Northstar passenger cars.
Over a decade of riding, there’s also been plenty of chances to make friends.
“One pleasantly unexpected result of taking Northstar is the community of individuals who I without a doubt consider my friends,” Schaller said. “We’ve had holiday parties, barbecues, happy hours and other social gatherings outside of work. We’ve celebrated special occasions and supported each other during low times like funerals and other life events.”
The benefits Schaller enjoys have created a stable base of Northstar customers. More than 7 million rides have been taken on Northstar since service began, and an annual record was set in 2017.
In addition to serving weekday commuters, Northstar is a popular option for fans traveling to special events in downtown Minneapolis. Northstar serves every Twins and Vikings home games and a handful of special trips are made throughout the year.
On Saturday, Dec. 21, a specially decorated Northstar Holiday Train will travel from Big Lake to Union Depot, a relatively new tradition.
Such events help introduce Northstar to newcomers like Coon Rapids resident Adam Pepple, who says he wasn’t immediately sold on the benefits of commuter rail.
Pepple is an accountant for HGA Architects and Engineers, which is just steps from Target Field Station in the Ford Center. He’s been riding Northstar since 2017. “It’s cheaper than parking and usually a more reliable way to get home,” he said.
Amanda Kennedy, also of Coon Rapids, started riding when she got a job in downtown Minneapolis a little over a year ago. The decision to ride Northstar, she said, was a no-brainer.
“I don’t want to have to drive or pay to park,” Kennedy said. “I like the idea of getting from point A to point B and not being in traffic.”
Looking ahead, Metro Transit is focused on rehabbing Northstar locomotives and passenger cars, expanding the Operations & Maintenance Facility in Big Lake and encouraging development near Northstar’s seven stations.
Northstar trains are operated by BNSF, which also maintains the tracks it operates on. Partners along the corridor continue to support and promote the service.
“We’ve had a great experience over the last decade and we’re looking forward to building on that success for many more decades to come,” Commuter Rail Director Tony Hebert said.