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Published May 04, 2014, 11:35 PM

Amtrak: Chronic delays result in passenger decline

Spokesman cites freight train congestion on BNSF tracks
GRAND FORKS – A decline in Amtrak riders on the Empire Builder can be blamed on BNSF Railway, an Amtrak spokesman said.

By: Ryan Bakken, Forum News Service, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS – A decline in Amtrak riders on the Empire Builder can be blamed on BNSF Railway, an Amtrak spokesman said.

From October through March, Empire Builder ridership was down 15 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. During that six-month span, the number of passengers fell from 255,642 to 216,435.

The decline in passengers, he said, can be pinned on chronic delays.

“The rider decline is a result of the on-time performance,” he said.

Over the past 12 months, the Empire Builder has been on time 20.4 percent of the time. Performance dropped further in March with on-time performance at 17.4 percent. Data for other years were not immediately available.

The top two causes of Amtrak’s delays are interference by other trains (39.3 percent) and repair of infrastructure such as tracks and signals (22.2 percent). The vast majority of the Empire Builder’s route is on BNSF tracks.

“It’s all about freight congestion,” Magliari said. “(Amtrak) winds up on the side track while the longer freight trains go through because of the bigger volumes they have.”

Amy McBeth, spokeswoman for BNSF, said her company has been growing rapidly as it has absorbed half of all rail volume increases. But all of the blame can’t be placed on hauling oil or agricultural products. The most volume comes from transporting consumer products moved by trailer or container, McBeth said.

“Both freight service and passenger service have been impacted by growth and the effects of harsh weather conditions,” she said. “A late, compressed harvest also created a late grain surge for us.”

She said her company is spending a record $5 billion on improvements this year, including $900 million on expansion and maintenance in the northern corridor.

“As more increased capacity comes online, all traffic will benefit,” McBeth said.

Magliari said a change in Amtrak schedules made earlier this month should improve the situation for rail passengers on the Empire Builder, which goes through North Dakota on a route that stretches from the West Coast to Chicago.

Magliari said Amtrak should have fewer delays because of revised scheduling of the passenger trains that started April 15.