After a dismal winter for its Empire Builder passenger train, Amtrak is modifying the schedule between Chicago and Seattle and Portland to deal with increased freight congestion in Montana and North Dakota. The new schedule goes into effect on April 15 and will see the train travel through Northwest Montana earlier in the morning and later in the evening.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs east and west everyday through the area, making stops in Libby, Whitefish, West Glacier, Essex and Browning. In recent months it has been consistently late due to increased freight traffic on BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks. In January, the National Association of Railroad Passengers likened the congestion to a “logjam” and blamed the massive increase in crude oil coming out of the Bakken region. Oil trains are now traveling every day through the Flathead Valley.
Besides freight congestion, derailments and avalanches on Marias Pass this winter also put a dent in the Empire Builder’s on-time performance. In February, the westbound train, No. 7, was on-time 3.6 percent of the time. During that same period, train No. 8, the eastbound train, was never on time. In the last year, the entire service, including eastbound and westbound trains, has been on schedule 22 percent of the time.
By modifying the schedule, Amtrak hopes to get passengers to their destination on the advertised time, not hours later. Starting April 15, trains leaving Seattle and Portland will depart three hours earlier at 1:40 p.m. That will put the eastbound train through Libby at 2:26 a.m., Whitefish at 4:26 a.m., West Glacier at 5:16 a.m., Essex at 5:55 a.m. and Browning at 7:10 a.m. Also, starting on April 27, the train will stop in East Glacier Park instead of Browning, to accommodate passengers visiting Glacier National Park. The westbound train will also run later, arriving in Whitefish at 10:26 p.m., more than a hour later than it usually does. According to Jim Brzezinski, route director for the Empire Builder, the passenger railroad hopes to return to its normal schedule sometime in June.
“We are working closely with BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks and controls the dispatching of the Empire Builder trains between St. Paul, Minn. 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 to the Beacon, BNSF spokesperson Matt Jones said the freight railroad values its partnership with Amtrak and hopes that capacity added to its system in 2014 will benefit both passengers and freight customers.