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.

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

 

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