Coping for months with long delays in train service between St. Paul and the Pacific Northwest, Amtrak on Thursday announced schedule changes along its Empire Builder line in hopes of giving passengers a better chance to arrive on time amid chronic freight traffic congestion.
The adjustments between St. Paul and Seattle and Portland, Ore., will start April 15 and last into June, according to Jim Brzezinski, the Empire Builder’s route director.
It comes as BNSF Railway Co. still struggles with congestion that worsened during a cold winter. Earlier this week, western coal shippers asked a federal agency to investigate the railroad’s service, warning that utilities that rely on coal could run out this summer.
Amtrak travel from Seattle and Portland to St. Paul will be scheduled to take about three hours longer, and the trips out west will be scheduled to last an additional 90 minutes. Amtrak said that Empire Builder service between St. Paul and Chicago will be largely unchanged.
The departure and arrival times at the Midway station in St. Paul will remain the same, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. Amtrak moves to Union Depot in St. Paul later this year.
“We are working closely with BNSF Railway Co., which owns the tracks and controls the dispatching of the Empire Builder trains between St. Paul and the West Coast, in order to publish a schedule that accounts for the freight train congestion and the condition of the BNSF-owned infrastructure,” Brzezinski said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
In response to Amtrak’s attempt at a short-term fix, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth pointed out that the railway’s expansion of capacity along its northern corridor “will benefit all of our freight customers and Amtrak’s Empire Builder.”
For many months, heavy freight traffic has bogged down Amtrak trains west of St. Paul. In mid-December, Amtrak canceled five runs of the Empire Builder between St. Paul and Spokane, Wash., citing lengthy delays for hundreds of passengers attributed to the heavy freight traffic. The cancellations were an attempt to get the schedule “back on cycle,” Magliari said at the time.
In Devils Lake, N.D., Steve “Zippy” Dahl, owner of the Perch Patrol ice-fishing and guide services, said late trains were causing problems that he’d never before seen in his 19 years of operation.
“The trains were seven or eight hours late, and when my customers are missing their whole first day of their three-day fishing trip, they’re not so fun to take fishing anymore,” he said. In late January, he and other guides decided to cancel the popular Perch Express package. It had included customers traveling overnight by Amtrak train to ice fish, then returning home on an overnight train ride.
On Thursday, Dahl remained skeptical about the Amtrak changes, saying he didn’t want to chance any more lost fishing time for his clientele. “My reaction to that would be, time to prove yourself to us,” he said.
Carrie Chesnik of Grantsburg, Wis., has taken Amtrak from St. Paul to Seattle and said she understands why the trains have been delayed. She supports Amtrak in making changes — yet she also thinks many more changes are needed by the nation as a whole.
“Part of the problem is that Amtrak passenger trains are competing with trains carrying oil from the Bakken oil fields,” she said, adding that she’s against oil drilling.
Amtrak said that over the past 12 months trains on the Chicago to Seattle routes have been on time 22 percent of the time. In February, the on-time rate dropped to just 11.6 percent.
The congestion has been attributed to the oil boom in North Dakota, an overall improving economy and severe winter weather causing mechanical difficulties on trains and tracks. Some rail experts have said congestion could persist into 2015.
Coal producers have asked a federal agency to investigate BNSF’s freight delays. Some members of the Western Coal Traffic League “expect that lack of coal in the upcoming hot summer months will cause many plants to shut down,” according to the group’s petition filed Monday with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in Washington, D.C.
The petition said some utilities have “precariously low stockpiles, often dipping below 10 days” and that electric costs are rising as plants throttle back to preserve their coal.
The league asked the board to hold a public hearing to air complaints about BNSF’s service. The petition alleged that BNSF service hasn’t improved and that the railroad is operating in a “24-hour war room mentality” to address complaints.
A spokesman for the board said the petition is under consideration. The board can resolve disputes over service and has authority to order railroads to address such problems.
BNSF, in a letter to the transportation board Wednesday, said it recognized that weather, heavy volume and other factors have hurt service, but it noted that it has a recovery plan that includes investing a record $5 billion in infrastructure this year.
The railroad also said it has taken aggressive short-term actions and has been open with customers about the problems.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Joy Powell • 612-673-7750