How Close a Call? Northstar Trains Carry Passengers on Tracks That Failed in Fridley

Two railroad workers were injured in Saturday's freight-train derailment.

UPDATED BELOW Every day, on average, hundreds of people ride passenger trains over , on Saturday.

The service uses tracks belonging to the (BNSF) railroad. Side-by-side northbound and southbound tracks cross over Rice Creek on a BNSF bridge that was damaged in the derailment.

A Northstar train was scheduled to pass the derailment site three and a half hours after the 7:13 a.m. derailment of the BNSF freight train.

A special train taking as many as 700 fans to the Minnesota Twins game was scheduled to travel southbound over the bridge at the derailment site less than 10 hours after BNSF train went off the rails.

That Twins train is cancelled for Saturday, as is all other Northstar and BNSF freight service on the route.

Had heavy rains washed out the tracks on a weekday rather than on a Saturday, twice as many Northstar trains carrying nearly twice as many passengers would have been using that stretch of track.

Each weekday, Northstar trains carry an average of 2,400 passengers on 12 trips between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake, MN. The average for Saturdays in 1,250 on six trips.

(Those averages are from May 2011. They include riders on special trains to Minnesota Twins games, according to Metro Transit spokesperson John Siqveland.)

BNSF has 50 trains per day traveling on that stretch of track, according to BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth.

Here is a timetable showing when Northstar passenger trains are at Fridley Station, just south of the derailment site. Outbound trains traveling from Minneapolis north to Big Lake (the same directionas the derailed BNSF train) are in bold.

Friday Saturday DERAIL Twins Sunday 5:32am 6:22am 6:26am 6:52am 7:22am 7:13am 7:52am 10:04am 10:54am 10:53am 11:43am 12:24pm 1:54pm 1:33pm 4:10pm 4:13pm 3:14pm 4:40pm 5:10pm 5:01pm 5:08pm 5:37pm 5:40pm 5:44pm 6:28pm 7:13pm 48

UPDATE (5 p.m., Saturday): I asked the spokespersons for Metro Transit and BNSF for their comments on this post. Amy McBeth from BNSF emailed this response: 

Railroads, and BNSF in particular, have one of the best safety records in the transportation industry.

We believe every derailment can be prevented and work toward that.

But every derailment is unique and has specific factors that contribute to the incident. That's why we conduct a thorough investigation after a derailment to use the information and learn from it to try to prevent a similar incident in the future.

But to speculate about derailments occurring is not productive.

Update (5:30 p.m., Saturday): John Siqveland of Metro Transit sent this response:

Responding for Metro Transit, while you are correct that freight trains are heavier by several orders of magnitude and occupy the vast majority of traffic on these tracks. I think this is an unproductive area of speculation. Derailment of any train is always a possibility, but each derailment is based on different conditions and each derailment is of a different severity.

For instance, a Hiawatha light rail train in revenue service derailed earlier in the year for the first time ever. It went about 3 inches off the track late night Saturday with a handful of people aboard. It essentially had the impact of a sudden stop. There were no injuries and everyone was safely evacuated from the train. Crews got the train back on the track after a few hours and there was essentially no disruption to service because it occurred late at night.

Amy has addressed BNSF safety measures to prevent derailments or other incidents. The idea that the images from this particular incident coupled with a sensational word picture about what could have happened if it had only been a Northstar train with hundreds of commuters is, I believe, inappropriate and distasteful.
John Haluska July 17, 2011 at 02:17 PM
Inappropriate and distasteful? Hardly. A good story, factual, well written and if there ar any shortcomings they are a lack of the tough questions. What is the history of the trestle? When was the trestle last inspected? What did that and prior inspections show? What is going on regarding similar trestles on the line? And, from me, why is Siqveland so worried about readers knowing the facts? Why is he blaming the messenger for showing that even rail travel has its hazards? There was neither criticism nor sensationalism in the artcle, just a clearing telling of the facts about the accident and the volume of passenger and freight traffic on the line. Maybe Siqveland wants to dissuade anyone from digging deeper. If that's the case, plese keep digging.
eastriveroad July 18, 2011 at 04:03 PM
It is a blessing no one was seriously hurt. Thanks to this article I'll be sure to watch for trains that were 10 hours later and a week ago, southbound, while a pigeon is flying north, and my neighbor does yoga because, hey, that disaster is just bound to happen.


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