Track Work, Increased Freight Traffic Means Late Trains For Amtrak

By Beacon Staff

More freight than ever is traveling across BNSF Railway’s tracks in North Dakota and Montana, according to a company spokesperson. While that’s good news for the bottom line and reflects a strengthened economy, it’s bad news for passengers aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Chicago and Portland and Seattle.

In October, the passenger train had an overall on-time performance rate of 41 percent. However, the eastbound train had a zero percent on-time performance during the same time period. The Empire Builder’s on-time performance was among the worst on the Amtrak system.

“It has certainty been a concern of ours, of BNSF Railway and of our passengers,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari.

Earlier this year, Amtrak issued a temporary service delay on the Empire Builder route because the train was experiencing delays of two or more hours while traveling through Montana and North Dakota.

According to BNSF spokesperson Matthew Jones, one of the primary reasons for the delays are track improvements being made on the railroad’s northern route between the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Earlier this year, the railroad estimated it would spend $115 million on track improvements in Montana and $220 million in North Dakota. In Montana, the project included resurfacing 2,300 miles of track, replacing more than 100 miles of rail and about 310,000 ties. The railroad is also working on updating its signal system so it can implement the new federally mandated positive train control system in the coming years. All of that work can lead to delayed trains.

“It’s like highway construction in the summer, but we’re wrapping things up and hopefully that will ease pressure on the system,” Jones said.

Besides track work, there are also more trains running across the Hi Line, according to Jones. Thanks to the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota and eastern Montana, more and more oil trains are traveling east and west. But Jones said it’s not just oil trains that are fighting for space on the main line. Domestic intermodal, industrial products and grain traffic have all seen major increases this year. And trains carrying new automobiles have increased by 10 percent over last year. On the tracks between Glasgow and Minot, there are an average of 38 freight trains a day. That’s 18 more trains than the daily average in 2008, at the height of economic downturn, and one more train than the previous average record set in 2005.

But now that the annual track improvement projects are done, Amtrak and BNSF hope the Empire Builder will be able to enhance its on-time performance.

“We’re expecting improvement soon,” Magliari said.