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Light rail leaves the station
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The LRT train makes a stop at the 38th Street station (MPR/Photo Art Hughes)
Metro Transit officials expect a large turnout for the launch of the Hiawatha Light Rail line in Minneapolis. Interest is high for the state's first commuter rail in 50 years. After the initial buzz dies down, the train will have to go about the unglamorous work of moving people from one place to another and trying to live up to its promise as a viable alternative to more blacktop and cars.

Minneapolis, Minn. — After decades of political wrangling and more than $700-million in public financing, whining steel wheels and blaring train horns are added to the rest of the urban noises in Minneapolis. Metro Transit workers continue with last-minute work to help make the start of light rail run smoothly this weekend.

Rail Operations Assistant General Manager Joe Marie's days start at 4:30 a.m. Some days he stays past 9:00 p.m. Recently, he walked through the Franklin Street shop pointing out the new trains that haven't quite finished the necessary hours of break-in time before they're able to take passengers.

"See 115, 114...we're actually doing what we're calling 'buy-off's' on this train now to conditionally accept it today" Marie said. "Which means it transfers in ownership from Bombardier to Metro Transit. So we're pushing through a lot of trains through at the very last minute."

One of the trains won't be ready for passengers until 2:00 a.m. the day service starts.

In this first phase of the opening passengers will be able to get on at any of the 12 stations along the eight mile stretch between Hennepin Avenue downtown and Fort Snelling. The remaining three miles under the airport to the Mall of America are scheduled to open by the end of the year. Metro officials expect most of the initial riders will be people living near the tracks.

"The standard walking distance is a quarter of a mile so we expect people within quarter of a mile on either side of the line will probably prefer to walk to it," Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said.

He estimated about 9,500 riders will board the trains every weekday to start. But he said that number should shoot up after the rest of the service opens. "Next year the ridership will jump to 19,300 per weekday," Gibbons said. "Then as the service matures in the years ahead we'll get up to 25,000 per weekday."

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Image In control

With the rail line launch, Metro Transit is simultaneously switching several bus routes to drop commuters at the stations along Hiawatha Avenue.

At each station, commuters will purchase train tickets from a vending machine. The cost is $1.75 during peak morning and afternoon hours, $1.25 the rest of the time. The machine instructions are available in four languages including Spanish, Hmong and Somali.

The basic ticket expires after two and a half hours and is good on buses as well. Train operators check for passenger tickets at random. Someone without a ticket could be fined up to $200. Rides on opening weekend are free.

Outside of the whistles and electronically reproduced bells, the train makes relatively little noise. Each vehicle connects to the 750-volt overhead copper cable to power four electric motors. The trains can get up to 55 mph in about 20 seconds--although they will mostly stay under 40 mph. Metro Transit's Joe Marie said most of the maintenance happens at night in the shop, but some high tech repairs are possible on the fly.

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Image Metro Transit's Joe Marie

"Occasionally on the line you might see a technician get on board and actually plug a laptop into the train and do tests on the train while the train's in revenue service," Marie said.

Inside the operation center the entire line is laid out graphically on a wall-sized bank of screens. An operator watching the screens makes adjustments on a computer that set up track changes so the trains stay out of each other's way.

"You can see all the train numbers," Marie said pointing to the screen. "For instance leaving Fort Snelling is train number 102. Entering Veterans (Administration Medical Center) is train number 108. All of those green blips along that screen are trains. So we know where every train is at every moment and how it compares with our schedule so we can monitor schedule adherence."

Another wall of the center is covered with monitors connected to video cameras at each station and at selected places along the tracks. Marie said the cameras are for more than keeping visual track of the trains.

"Really this is a security feature of the system so if we have any incidents on the platforms---incidents of graffiti or vandalism, what have you, we're able to download that information and provide it to the police so they can make an identification," Marie said.

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Image welcome aboard

He said the cameras have already come in handy stopping some kids who were putting rocks and other items on the tracks in front of the trains. One short tunnel on the route has an added security feature.

"We know people enter the tunnel," Marie said. "There's an intrusion alarm so if someone walks into the tunnel we get an alarm here at the control center."

Marie said the monitoring aims to increase safety, including catching cars crossing tracks illegally. So far, the efforts appear to be working. There have been close calls but no accidents during the months of testing. Marie said most accidents happen when drivers or pedestrians go around guard arms to try and beat the trains. The trains take up to two football fields to stop even in an emergency. He said accidents typically diminish over time as people get used to sharing the road with trains.

"Typically the bell curve, if you will, or the incident rate is higher in the testing and then the start up phase," Marie said. "And as you go into revenue service people become more familiar with the system there's a degradation or decline in the number of incidents---grade crossing incidents or what have you. We've been fortunate here. We really have. We've managed to avoid those types of things and we hope to keep our track record going."

Transit police will be strictly enforcing safety rules as train service starts. Officials remind pedestrians to cross only at crosswalks. Passengers waiting to get on the trains should stand behind the yellow edges of the platforms and allow riders already on the train to exit first.

The first official train carries a selected group of elected leaders and other VIPs at 11:00 Saturday morning.

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