Empire Builder train times changing at Sandpoint – Sandpoint Train Station (Sandpoint Train Depot)
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Empire Builder train times changing at Sandpoint

Amtrak Empire BuilderEffective April 15, the schedule for Amtrak’s Empire Builder is changing.  Westbound, train 7/27 for Seattle and Portland is scheduled to stop at Sandpoint at 119 AM (instead of 1149 PM), and eastbound train 8/28 for Chicago is scheduled at 1135 PM (instead of 235 AM).

The winter of 2013-2014 has been exceptionally harsh on the Northern Plains with much snow, but also much cold weather.  When temperatures get well below zero (Fahrenheit), railroad operations are negative affected.  Rails can contract in the cold, causing them to break; trains whose brakes are released by compressed air from the train’s locomotives must be much shorter during very cold weather, resulting in needing to run more trains with fewer cars and increased cost.

Trains delayed for cold weather often result in the crews operating them to expire their hours of service (a crew can only work 12 hours), resulting in increased usage of relief crews, and in cases of inclement weather, the inability to transport crews to relieve these trains when roads are closed.  In other words, that delays can “snowball” is very appropriate when contemplating railroading during severe winter weather.  Such was the scenario for freight train operations along the route of the Empire Builder across the Northern Plains for much of this past winter.  In addition, the train also experienced numerous service interruptions between Seattle and Everett due to mudslides.

As a result of the weather, and freight train interference caused by the weather, the Empire Builder has endured significant delays on nearly every trip.  And, if the weather in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota was not enough, the route includes the Bakken oil boom area of Northwestern North Dakota and Eastern Montana.  BNSF Railway has seen a spike in business over the past 5 years and can originate and terminate as many as 20 unit crude oil trains daily at facilities along the Empire Builder route.  In addition, there is increased freight traffic to this area hauling materials necessary to support the oil boom, such as chemicals, pipe, and fracking sand.  The infrastructure in place could not handle this much additional demand n such a short time.  Couple this with winter weather, and it created a recipe for long delays to the Empire Builder.

Passengers Boarding Train in Sandpoint Idaho

As a result of these recurring delays, Amtrak has suspended most connections to the Empire Builder, including all connections in Chicago, except for the Lake Shore Limited (to New York and Boston, a 5.5 hour connection).  It has also broken the guaranteed connection in Portland from the Empire Builder to the Coast Starlight (for California).  As a result of very late trains and broken connections, Empire Builder ridership dropped 20% in January of 2014 and 24% in February.

In order to reinstate a semblance of reality to the schedule, effective April 15, Amtrak will operate trains 8 and 28 from Seattle and Portland three hours earlier from origin through Sandpoint to Stanley, North Dakota, where there will be incremental schedule padding additions to St. Paul, Minnesota where the train keeps its pre-April 15 schedule through to Chicago.  This may result in the reestablishment of more guaranteed connections with other Amtrak trains in Chicago.  Westbound, train 7/27 will operate its same schedule from Chicago to Rugby, North Dakota, and west of there will see incremental schedule padding of 90 minutes to Shelby, Montana, and will operate 90 minutes later west of there, including at Sandpoint.

BNSF is working to add capacity to the Empire Builder route and has already done so, but all the capacity enhancements likely will not be complete before the end of 2015.  In 2013, BNSF added three new sidings between Williston and Minot, as well as additional crossover tracks in existing doubletrack sections of the route.  This year, about 50 of the 90 miles of railroad that is not doubletrack from Minot to Williston will receive a second main track, with the remainder to be doubletracked in 2015.  Between Minot and Fargo, the Empire Builder actually uses a secondary main line via Grand Forks (whereas most BNSF freight trains use a route via New Rockford); BNSF is planning to add or upgrade 10 sidings on its route through Grand Forks this year, effectively creating two main line routes between Minot and Fargo.  All told in 2014, BNSF is planning to spend nearly $250 million in infrastructure enhancements in North Dakota alone.  This is a synopsis of the upgrades:

The railroad plans to spend:

  • $162 million to double track its line from Minot, N.D., to Glasgow, Mont., to help address major congestion issues for westbound traffic to Pacific Northwest destinations;
  • $26 million to add sidings to address congestion from Fargo to Grand Forks, N.D., in the Hillsboro subdivision;
  • $14 million to add sidings to address congestion from Bismarck, N.D., to Glendive, Mont., in the Dickinson subdivision;
  • $13 million to add sidings to address congestion from Minot to Grand Forks in the Devils Lake subdivision;
  • $13 million to add sidings and an interchange track to address congestion from Canada into the United States through the Port of Pembina in the Noyes subdivision;
  • $11 million to install Centralized Traffic Control to improve service from Bismarck to Fargo in the Jamestown subdivision; and
  • $8 million to add sidings and conduct signal work along track from Fargo to Minot in the KO subdivision.

The $247 million is part of BNSF’s record-setting $5 billion capital spending budget for 2014.The bullet points that are italicized are part of the Empire Builder route, or would directly affect the Empire Builder route.  This is the bulk of the spending.

The Empire Builder schedule change is currently only planned from April 15 to May 31, but since extensive trackwork will continue until late fall, it is likely to be extended or changed.

While the delays to the Empire Builder are frustrating, it’s also important to remember that it relies on infrastructure provided by private sector freight railroads which must balance the cost of such expenditures with the demands of stockholders and freight customers. This is in stark contrast to other modes of transportation which simply wait for the government to build additional roads and airports, largely with tax dollars, such as the truck bypass around Williston, making US85 four lanes from Williston to Belfield, and construction of a new airport terminal in Minot.  Amtrak is held in disdain by some for being “subsidized”, but the reality is that much of the infrastructure it uses is provided and maintained by the private sector, something trucking firms, airlines, and barge operators couldn’t even consider.

Amtrak Website

Amtrak's Website

For further updates with regard to the Empire Builder schedule, consult Amtrak at www.Amtrak.com

The Empire Builder schedule effective April 15 is at:http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/954/441/Empire-Builder-Schedule-041514.pdf

Posted in Amtrak, BNSF, In the News, Station Status.

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