‘Extreme Freight Congestion’ Cancels Amtrak Trips Through Montana

By Beacon Staff

Cold weather and “extreme freight congestion” forced Amtrak to cancel five runs of its Empire Builder passenger train through Montana and the Flathead Valley this month. According to spokesperson Marc Magliari, the suspension of service was done in hopes of having the train on time the week before Dec. 25.

During the disruption there was no passenger train service between Spokane, Wash., and St. Paul, Minn. Passenger service continued to operate between Portland and Seattle and Spokane as well as St. Paul and Chicago, using either shortened train consists or buses. Magliari said normal service would resume on Dec. 15 out of Chicago and Dec. 16 out of Portland and Seattle.

“We certainly regret that we have to do this, but we’re trying to make sure we’re ready for the holidays,” Magliari said. “If the train is greatly delayed reaching its end point, there is no train to bring back until it has been serviced.”

Servicing includes cleaning the cars and stocking the train with food and water, as well as completing any additional maintenance that may be needed. Magliari said additional passenger cars will be arriving on the Empire Builder route after the new year.

Magliari said it was the first time Amtrak had to cancel the Empire Builder because of extreme and perpetual lateness. He said passengers who had reservations on the five trips that were canceled, three eastbound runs and two westbound runs, were notified of the disruption and were able to reschedule their trip.

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 rate during the same period. In November, the train was on-time 44.5 percent of time, while its eastbound train had a 3.3 percent on-time record. The Empire Builder is among the latest trains in the Amtrak system.

The reasons for Amtrak’s perpetual lateness through the Flathead Valley is because of booming freight business on BNSF Railway’s line through Montana and North Dakota.

According to railroad spokesperson Matthew Jones, more oil is coming out of the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota, which means more trains. But Jones said other trains are also 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 is an average of 38 freight trains a day. That’s 18 more trains than the daily average in 2008, at the height of the economic downturn, and one more train than the previous average record set in 2005.

“We are working hard to improve the performance of both Amtrak and our freight trains along the northern corridor,” Jones said.

The cold weather that hit Montana last week also added a new challenge for railroaders along BNSF’s tracks. Air break systems can be impacted by extreme cold and trains can experience additional delays because of it.