Airport raises latest crime and safety concerns for light rail riders

Thousands of passengers concerned for their safety simply no longer take a chance on riding the Twin Cities light rail lines due to rampant crime and vagrants. Just ask Met Council chairman Charles Zelle, who’s repeatedly promised to clean up the problem with scant results.

“The number one priority for us has to be safety, security and I would say the perception of safety,” said Charlie Zelle, chair of the Metropolitan Council, told the Pioneer Press recently. “We’re in a chicken or egg scenario. People aren’t riding the transit because it doesn’t feel welcoming, and yet it won’t be welcoming until we have a critical mass of passengers … to create more eyes and ears, and better, more normative behavior.”

Now there’s word of safety threats and concerns for riders on the short Blue Line link between the two terminals at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport. The Star Tribune shared the story of a veteran flight attendant to illustrate the level of fear among airline employees and others that rely on the line to get to their vehicles in MSP’s parking ramps.

Parking at the smaller terminal means that she and other employees must take a short ride to Terminal 1 on the light-rail Blue Line, confronting unsettling situations often late at night and in the wee hours of the morning.

The last time [Shannon] Thein took the Blue Line between terminals, she said, she had to step over people sleeping in a vestibule. When the train arrived, it reeked of urine and marijuana, and several passengers appeared to be homeless, she said. A man on the train watched her closely.

“I am basically trapped in there,” said Thein, of Minnetonka. “I have nothing to protect me. I’m an easy mark.”

One of the big selling points for light rail was that passengers can relax and leave the worrying about getting where they’re going to someone else. But the paper reported “fear and anxiety” among passengers, including a pilot who confirmed the short hop between terminals can be harrowing.

“I shouldn’t have to go through this to get to work,” said Paul Hansen, a pilot for another airline who lives in Maple Grove.

Hansen, who’s been a pilot for 32 years, said he’s seen people using drugs, defecating and screaming on the train before as well as during the pandemic. He said his uniform makes him an easy target for verbal harassment, and he keeps a “big stick” in his car in case he’s followed.

It’s not as if the Met Council or Metropolitan Airports Commission hasn’t had time to address the threat. The hassles of riding the light rail connection between terminals go back awhile. At least one airline put employees on notice of the safety issues on the light rail line long ago and offered alternative transportation options.

Sun Country Airlines began sending out advisories about two years ago after crew members were “verbally harassed” on light-rail trains connecting MSP’s terminals, said company spokeswoman Wendy Burt.

The advisories instruct pilots and flight attendants to wait for trains in well-lighted areas, to sit near the operator once on board and to conceal their uniforms if possible. The airline also tells employees how to report a crime while on the train.

Sun Country provides a Lyft ride to crew members who feel unsafe taking light rail at MSP. While the airline operates out of Terminal 2, some employees need to get to the main terminal to fly to other airports for work.

It makes you wonder what it will take for the Met Council’s Zelle to do what’s necessary to secure the light rail line that serves the airport, one of the key drivers of the state economy. The agency claims to have increased the presence of police and added a texting hotline for passengers to report problems. But it’ll take a lot more than that to convince regulars.

“By the time I finish the text [for help], I could be bleeding to death,” Hansen said. “There just aren’t enough police on the trains.”