Crowded tracks put westbound Amtrak on hold
Westbound Amtrak train service on the Empire Builder is being switched to buses until Sunday for passengers in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby, N.D.
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson received the news late Monday afternoon in an email from Amtrak’s government affairs office in Chicago.
Passengers from the three communities are being shuttled to meet the Empire Builder in Minot on a daily basis, according to the memo.
“The bus will represent Amtrak,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Tuesday.
According to Amtrak, vehicles operated by either Triangle Coach Service or Lucky 7 Limo will pick up passengers daily according to the following schedule: Grand Forks at 4:52 a.m.; Devils Lake at 6:13 a.m.; and Rugby at 7:07 a.m. today through Saturday.
No changes were announced for the eastbound train.
The news came just three days after Devils Lake officials learned that the city will lose its only commercial passenger air service at the end of the week.
While officials with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program assured North Dakota’s congressional delegation Monday that they would approve a new airline to serve both Devils Lake and Jamestown by the end of the week, it still could take a few months to resume service.
“No doubt, these two events hit our community hard,” Johnson said. “A lot of people rely on Amtrak and the air service.”
Amtrak’s schedule changes were prompted by a decision by BNSF to shift to one-way train traffic through much of North Dakota, according to Magliari.
All eastbound trains continue to run on the northern route, which travels from Williston, through Stanley, Minot, Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks, before turning south to Fargo.
Westbound trains are taking what is known as the New Rockford line, a route that runs diagonally between Fargo and Minot, bypassing Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby.
“BNSF service is being impacted by extreme cold and winter weather conditions across the Midwest,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said. “The extreme cold and snow are presenting significant operating challenges for our operations. To recover, we are operating our westbound trains on our route through New Rockford and eastbound traffic through our Devils Lake route. We will continue working with Amtrak as our network recovers.”
She said weather is a short-term factor. However, she did not estimate when the situation might return to normal.
McBeth said BNSF absorbed 50 percent of all the volume increases in the rail industry last year while also setting a single-year record for capital investment to improve and expand capacity.
“We invested well over $200 million last year in North Dakota alone and plan to make similar aggressive investments this year, that will benefit all traffic in the state,” she said.
Oil shipments from western North Dakota were only one part of the heavier volume, according to McBeth.
“The traffic volume increase leader on our railroad in 2013 in terms of new units of traffic was domestic intermodal traffic, not crude oil. Industrial products and automotive traffic were also very robust and a late compressed harvest created a late grain surge. Crude oil makes up about 4 percent of the overall volume hauled by our railroad.”
BNSF and Amtrak officials discussed the track situation about two weeks ago, according to Magliari, who added BNSF officials have indicated track rerouting might continue, at least part of the time, for several weeks or months.
“This is not a development we are happy about, and we are working with BNSF to improve the situation,” he said.
Amtrak leases the tracks from BNSF Railway.
Two years ago, BNSF, Amtrak and the state of North Dakota divided the cost of a $100 million project to raise and rebuild a 17-mile stretch of flood-threatened track and two bridges in the Devils Lake Basin.
“We’ve made it very clear that our desire is to operate over the normal route of the Empire Builder because communities along that route count on that service,” Magliari said. “There are businesses and individuals that rely on that service.”