The Amtrak waiting room in Whitefish is a busy place these days, especially when the Empire Builder is more than 11 hours late, as it was on Jan. 30. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the delays are common now because of a ‘logjam’ of freight traffic in North Dakota and Montana.
The passenger rail advocacy group sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx on Jan. 28 asking that the federal government work with Amtrak and BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks, to improve the passenger train’s on-time performance. The letter, penned by NARP president and CEO Ross Capon, said an increase in crude oil traffic is a big factor in the delays. According to Amtrak, the train had a 14.9 percent on time performance rate in December. The eastbound train, which runs between Seattle and Portland and Chicago, had a zero percent on time rate.
“Crude oil is being given priority over people,” Capon said. “We’re asking the secretary to use the power of his office to convene the concerned parties and work out a better solution. The current situation is intolerable and is depriving thousands of American citizens their basic right to access to adequate public transportation.”
The Empire Builder route is 2,256 miles long between Chicago and Portland and was Amtrak’s most popular long distance train in 2013, carrying 536,400 passengers.
Spokesperson Marc Magliari told the Associated Press that Amtrak has met with BNSF about the delays, but the freight company said it could be months before the situation improves. A BNSF spokesperson told the Beacon that the biggest immediate impact on Amtrak and freight trains has been the weather.
“BNSF service is being impacted by extreme cold and winter weather conditions across the Midwest,” said Matt Jones, adding that it is routing eastbound and westbound freight trains on different routes in North Dakota to alleviate the congestion. “We will continue to work with Amtrak as our network recovers.”
While the passenger advocacy group blamed North Dakota oil trains for the delays, Jones said that crude oil is a small part of the problem. According to Jones, BNSF also saw large jumps in intermodal, automobile, industrial products and grain traffic in 2013.