Jeremy Spilde, manager of commuter rail maintenance, in a service pit at Northstar's Operations & Maintenance Facility in Big Lake, Minn.
Locomotives and passenger cars that have been operating for the past decade on the Northstar Commuter Rail Line are about to undergo their first major overhaul.
Before that work can begin, though, the Northstar Operations & Maintenance Facility needs a bit of an overhaul itself.
In a $4 million project, the Big Lake facility will be converted from what’s known in railroad parlance as a running shop into a space where wheel sets, drive motors, generators, engines and other parts can be efficiently serviced or replaced.
Like buses and light rail vehicles, Northstar’s mid-life maintenance program is intended to ensure the 18 commuter rail cars and six locomotives that operate between Minneapolis and Big Lake safely reach their 30-year life expectancy.
Northstar train cars have logged an average of 300,000 miles since service began in 2009. The fleet overhaul is due to begin as early as 2024 and to continue to for up to eight years. Upgrades to the cars’ interiors, including flooring and lighting, are also being pursued.
Facility improvements now underway will make future overhaul activities and routine maintenance much more efficient.
One especially important new feature being built this year is what’s known a drop table, a level section of track that rests atop a 26-foot deep pit.
When locomotives and passenger rail cars are placed on the table, wheel sets can be lowered to be serviced or replaced, then lifted back into position. Mark Lanthier, Metro Transit’s construction manager for the project, described the setup as an “elevated bridge within a building.”
Today, mechanics who need to get under train cars use electric hydraulic jacks to lift the 380,000-pound locomotives six to eight feet into the air. Using jacks is more time consuming than using a drop table.
Work also will begin outside this year on a new section of track that will provide more room to perform overhaul activities. In the coming years, the track will extend half the length of the maintenance facility.
The 80,000-square-foot building will also be expanded to house trucks, forklifts and other rail support equipment.
This year’s construction is due to wrap up in November. Until then, Northstar technicians will largely be working outdoors.
Passengers should not experience any changes in service during construction, but they may be able to spot the activity from the nearby Big Lake Station.
Construction is being led by St. Paul-based Sheehy Construction, with support from 11 subcontractors. Up to 55 employees will receive a combined payroll of more than $3 million for this year’s work.