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Empire Builder passengers have taken to Twitter to vent their frustrations, with one woman complaining that her ride from St. Paul to Milwaukee was more than 13 hours late. The route is Amtrak’s most popular overnight train.
Over the weekend, Max Grinnell took the train from St. Paul to Chicago and arrived at 1 a.m. Saturday, nine hours late.
“We pulled over to let freight pass at least five or six times,” said Grinnell, who worked as a waiter on Amtrak about 15 years ago. “I kind of lost count.”
A spokesman for Amtrak said the company has talked with BNSF since last month to find a solution, temporarily easing the gridlock through the end of February by taking passengers between stations on buses or vans at some points in eastern and central North Dakota.
“The single most important determinant of whether someone chooses to ride Amtrak is: Is it on time?’’ said spokesman Marc Magliari. “The employees could be as sweet as apple pie, and the apple pie could be pretty good, too, but if the train is late consistently it doesn’t matter.”
As passenger numbers have fallen, according to Magliari, the company is also footing the bill for workers’ overtime and extra meals.
Crude, and more
McBeth of BNSF said in an e-mail that severe winter weather “significantly impacted” efforts to improve service, noting that extreme cold creates air brake problems and limits train speeds and the time rail workers can spend outside.
She said that while crude oil volumes on the railway rose last year, so did all other kinds of freight the company’s network, including coal, grain and industrial products. Construction work to expand capacity on the Northern Corridor also worsened congestion, and nearly one-fifth of a newly announced $5 billion capital plan will go to maintaining and expanding tracks there.
She cited measures to improve service, including adding locomotives, bringing in more crews, and running east and westbound traffic on separate routes in key areas of North Dakota.
Poor on-time record
Amtrak’s statistics attribute most delays of the Empire Builder to BNSF trains needing to pass Amtrak trains, plus problems with tracks and signals. It has been punctual just 57 percent of the time in the past year, and its on-time rate in December was the lowest of all 33 Amtrak routes: 15 percent.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers fired off a letter last month to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, calling for help for the thousands of Amtrak passengers being stranded to make way for increased shipments of crude oil and other freight.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768