Tardy and detoured, Amtrak struggles to serve

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It should have come as no surprise last week when the long-awaited return of passenger train service to Union Depot in St. Paul arrived more than an hour late.

After all, the Amtrak Empire Builder linking Chicago and the Pacific Northwest through Minnesota has run on schedule barely one-fifth of the time over the past year, and even less most recently. For one scary example, the daily eastbound train did not arrive in Fargo, N.D., on time even once from late April 2013 through last February.

Such chronic unreliability has cost the nation’s most popular long-distance train significant ridership even as Amtrak’s overall revenue and boardings hit record highs last year. And those losses may mount according to media interviews with once-loyal passengers.

“It’s cheaper than flying, easier than flying and more comfortable than driving,” Jean James told KSTP news. “I’m pretty angry and I probably won’t go Amtrak again — even though I know it’s not Amtrak’s problem.”

Of 15 people waiting for another late Empire Builder last week at Union Depot, only two or three said it wasn’t a problem. “The others said they’ll think twice before taking the train again,” KSTP reported.

Passenger train delays plaguing the Upper Midwest have typically been blamed on greatly increased traffic of Bakken crude oil and bumper crop grain over shared tracks. But BNSF Railway, which owns nearly all the right-of-way traversed by the Empire Builder, said most of its surge in freight volume has been consumer goods amid our recovery from the Great Recession.

Regardless, though, it’s a far cry from the days when travelers ruled the rails and nine different passenger trains served Union Depot. Now Amtrak, probably not reluctantly, has agreed to detour the westbound Empire Builder through September to assist BNSF’s $400 million in track improvements in North Dakota. “BNSF needs to speed repairs in order to return the Empire Builder to its previous reliability as fast as possible,” Amtrak’s DJ Stadtler said in a news release.

Travelers to and from Amtrak’s regular stops in Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby, N.D., are being shuttled by bus from Fargo and to Minot during the disruption. The eastbound train is not affected.

As our nation strives to restore passenger train service to the standards enjoyed in the rest of the world — the $243 million restoration of Union Depot is just one example — this seems like a heckuva way to run a railroad.