MN: Amtrak, Rail Lines Look to Address Delays

May 09--Amtrak's Chicago-bound Empire Builder rolled into Ramsey County's renovated Union Depot transit hub on Thursday at 12:54 p.m., five hours and four minutes behind schedule.

The passenger train's scheduled 7:52 a.m. arrival was thrown out of whack by freight congestion at various points along the BNSF Railway tracks between the Twin Cities and North Dakota, according to Amtrak and BNSF officials.

"We had several trains along our route that were contributing to the congestion," said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

It wasn't the first time that Amtrak has been sidelined for hours by heavy freight traffic, especially on its eastbound routes, which Amtrak and freight rail officials acknowledge have been dogged by heavy disruptions since 2013. Amtrak's inaugural visit to the Union Depot the night before provided a bit of foreshadowing.

On Wednesday night, with dozens of gawkers and rail enthusiasts gathered to catch sight of the first passenger train to greet visitors at the St. Paul rail depot in 43 years, the West Coast-bound Empire Builder arrived just before 11:15 p.m., about 70 minutes behind schedule.

Wednesday's delay was blamed on freight congestion along Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. The company owns the freight track that Amtrak shares from Chicago to St. Paul. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the station move from Midway Station on St. Paul's Transfer Road, which no longer receives passengers, to the Union Depot had no impact on the arrival time.

"CP is responsible for us being late last night going (west)," said Magliari, noting that the 70-minute time loss built gradually across several station stops. "That train kept losing 5, 10 minutes."

BNSF owns the freight track from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, which has been congested at times by shipments of crude oil and other commodities, especially coming out of oil-rich North Dakota. McBeth said that that the railway is well aware of the delays and working to solve them.

Earlier this year, BNSF announced it would commit a company record $5 billion toward improvements throughout its freight track network in 2014, including new side tracks so freight trains can pull off parallel to the existing track. The work includes side track extensions in some areas, and replacing old rail and ties.

Last week, BNSF said $1 billion of its capital effort would be devoted to its Northern Corridor from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, which will help Amtrak and customers in the Twin Cities. Last year, the company devoted a record $4 billion toward track improvements throughout its network.

"We have a historic relationship with Amtrak, one that we're committed to," McBeth said. "We're committed to restoring their service to levels they expect."

BNSF maintains that its trains accounted for 50 percent of the growth in major U.S. railroad shipments last year, including crude oil, consumer products and a late grain harvest. Frigid winter temperatures and snow accumulations didn't help.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for CP Railway, said that "CP shares Amtrak's concerns. Railroads in general are experiencing transportation delays through Chicago. We're working closely with Amtrak officials to address their service needs."

The Northstar Commuter Rail from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake, Minn. also experienced delays last winter, but Metro Transit officials say they were mostly the result of ice and snow.

"The Northstar situation was related to winter weather and has since March been returned to normal operation," said John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit.

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.

Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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