Cold, stranded and fuming: Passengers on Amtrak, Northstar line see major delays

North Dakota crude oil is being partly blamed for the overcrowded rail lines

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Michele Paddock of Andover read a letter of apology from Metro Transit that she found on her Northstar train seat Thursday.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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North Dakota’s oil boom is helping to make some Twin Cities commuters late for work.

And it’s making some Amtrak passengers regret booking tickets for travel on the Empire Builder, the popular rail link between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest.

Train passengers have been left shivering and fuming at the station, or left stranded for hours, in recent weeks as rail lines beset by winter weather and crowded with trains from North Dakota’s booming oil fields have become overwhelmed by traffic demands.

Crude oil rail shipments have exploded in recent years thanks to the North Dakota oil fields. Rail cars began moving oil from North Dakota in 2008, and now account for 71 percent of the crude transported from the Williston Oil Basin. Rail capacity this year is projected to hit 1.2 million barrels of oil a day — 38 times the volume handled six years ago.

The rash of associated delays on the Northstar Commuter Line this winter has forced some users to form impromptu car pools or drive solo to get to their jobs. Metro Transit handed out letters of apology Thursday, after one morning outbound train was canceled and passengers ended up taking a bus.

Heather Beyer showed up Thursday at the Elk River station in subzero weather to catch the 6:31 a.m. train only to find it delayed.

“They didn’t start announcing it until five to 10 minutes later and you are standing in this warming house that is not all that warm,” said Beyer, a Northstar rider since its 2009 inception. “We were just stuck waiting.”

Bill Koncar said he and other riders, fed up with delays and the lack of information, twice last week drove from the Anoka Station to the Foley Boulevard Park and Ride in Coon Rapids and caught a bus to downtown Minneapolis.

Thursday afternoon, Metro Transit handed out notes of apology and acknowledged that its service during the past few weeks has been unacceptable.

“Delays during these cold days have tested your patience and inconsistent notifications have not provided you with the complete information you deserve to plan your travels,” the letter said. “Metro Transit and BNSF have been in close discussion and are committed to returning Northstar to the reliability you should expect.”

To back up its pledge of providing better communication, Metro Transit unveiled this week a Rider Alert program using text messages and e-mail. Metro Transit said it will send train-specific messages to riders if trains are running 15 minutes or more behind, or if the agency knows in advance that trains will be late.

– Northstar (Route 888).

Schedules derailed

Some riders of Amtrak’s Empire Builder have abandoned the train altogether, frustrated by its worst-in-the-nation delays.

“It’s one and two and it’s three [freight trains], and then it’s like, ‘How about we take turns or something?’” said Scott Patten, a loyal Amtrak passenger who arrived in St. Paul from a trip to Seattle eight hours late, after his train sat idling at length in Fargo. “Like on the school ground: your turn, then my turn.”

Some critics are asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to intervene. A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway Co., the company that owns the tracks, said it is working to improve service.

“We have been disappointed in our service to all customers on the Northern Corridor over the last several weeks,” said Amy McBeth of Texas-based BNSF.

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  • Passengers boarded a Northstar train in Minneapolis on Thursday. Many commuters are frustrated by frequent delays recently.

  • behind schedule

    Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs along a BNSF Railway route heavy with oil shipments from North Dakota. It had a 15 percent on-time rate in December, lowest of any Amtrak line in the U.S.

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