MINNEAPOLIS — If you’re a Boston fan headed to the Patriots game this Sunday, your best bet is to park at the mall and take the Blue Line. And the T says don’t worry about snow on the tracks.
OK, we’ll clarify that. By the T, we mean Metro Transit in the Twin Cities — they have a big T with a circle around it, too — and the Blue Line is the light rail going from the Mall of America directly to U.S. Bank Stadium. (The Green Line from St. Paul also goes there.) But the snow is pretty much the same. So what makes Minneapolis transit officials so confident their trains will get through while Boston's T gets notoriously stuck?
“We don't really have any issues with snow, as long as the trains keep running,” says Shawn Jensen, a track maintenance supervisor. Jensen first joined Metro Transit 10 years ago and says he, too, at first thought snow would be a problem. But it isn’t, he says, because the trains have plows attached to the front cars and are kept running constantly — every 10 minutes during the day — to keep the tracks clear of snow.
One way to think of it is like shoveling your driveway during a storm. If you wait until it stops, you could have a foot to deal with. But if you hit it every 10 minutes, you’ll only have to move away inches each time.
Craig Bell, a rail operations supervisor, says the trains keep that headway late into the evening
“We have our 10-minute spacing pretty late into the night, so that is not an issue,” he explains. “If it does become an issue, we put out extra trains to keep the trackway clear of snow. Right now, our 10-minute service goes 'til about midnight and then we gradually take it down to a half hour, [then] an hour service. But by [that] time, we start pulling out trains ... for the next service day.”
You heard right, MBTA riders: The Twin Cities, which have about a million fewer people than greater Boston, run trains all night. In Beantown, the trains stop running around 1 a.m. on average.
“We do run all night, yes,” says Bell. “It definitely outweighs the cost of not running them. If we have enough available, we’ll put out as many as we need to. We never had a complaint of too many trains.”
Bell says it’s worth the cost of running the trains all night to keep the tracks clear rather than have them bog down in the morning. Blue Line Rider Kathy Kurtzweil and her family were quite happy about that late-night service as they headed to pre-Super Bowl festivities in downtown Minneapolis recently.
“I believe if we wanted to come back at 3 a.m. tomorrow morning, we could still catch a ride from Nicollet Mall and back to the Mall of America,” she says, folding up a paper train schedule. “So we’re good. We’re set.”
She also says the system has never shut down because of snow. Regular rider Michael Hoghaug, who’s been using the train for 12 years, almost half his life, says likewise.
“I never had ... problems with the snow," he says. "There’s been some delays sometimes. They have to work on the light rail, but not that much.”
Told of the Boston’s woes when a record seven feet of snow in the winter of 2015 shut down the entire system, Hoghaug co-commiserates by saying, “It snows a lot here, too.”
Shocking! It snows in Minnesota? When does it stop?
“Like Mid-April,” he says, laughing.
On average, Minneapolis gets 54 inches of snow versus 43.8 for Boston, and the Twin Cities typically see 23 days a year below zero. That’s something Boston's newly appointed T general manager Luis Ramirez might have considered earlier this year when he sent out — then deleted — a tweet that said: “No system in North America is designed for Siberian temperatures that last more than a few hours.”
But in fairness, the comparison stops with the weather. Boston has the country’s oldest subway; the Twin Cities’ light rail is one of the newest, and it only has two lines, one of them less than four years old. It also has new equipment compared to the T’s dilapidated fleet — a factor in 2015 when the T did attempt to run trains to keep the tracks clear but suffered a domino effect when propulsion systems and third rails failed in spots, stranding all the trains on a line.
For their part, Boston officials say they’ve learned a lot since the snowmageddon three years ago. Speaking before the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board in January, Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville seemed to the echo the Minnesota approach.
“Essentially, the mantra is keep everything moving," he testified. "So that’s switches, that is trains, that’s doors, that’s braking systems on the vehicles. It’s doing whatever we can to keep the system up and functioning."
That means keeping third rails and switches heated and overhead power lines constantly scraped free of ice, actions taken early in January when the worst winter storm since 2015 hit Boston. Though there were delays, the system didn’t shut down.
So, what’s the temperature going to be for the Super Bowl? So far, the forecast says between 10 above and 5 below. But don’t worry: If you’re at a late-night party hoping to get back to your hotel or the airport for an early morning flight, you won’t freeze if you miss a train. The next one will be only 10 minutes away.