MN: Amtrak Wraps Up Unexpected Suspension of Runs Between St. Paul, Minot

June 05--Passenger train service between St. Paul and Minot in far northwest North Dakota was unexpectedly suspended for parts of five days until Thursday because of the aftereffects of a severely cold winter, an Amtrak spokesman said.

Eastbound service on the Empire Builder from Minot to St. Paul was suspended starting Saturday and resumed Wednesday, while westbound between the two stations was halted Sunday and resumed Thursday, said Amtrak's Marc Magliari.

The interruption was needed to allow for maintenance on the tracks, which are owned by the freight carrier BNSF, because of "this awful winter, this awful spring and the temperatures swings a week or so ago that were forcing all this water up and out of the ground and onto their railroad," Magliari said.

The decision to suspend the runs was made May 28, and passengers were notified the same day that rebooking would be necessary.

There are times when Amtrak service interruptions are covered by buses, but Magliari said that the great distance between Minot and St. Paul ruled out that option.

"That would not be a very humane thing to do," he said, noting all the local stops in between and the prospect of a long overnight bus ride.

Magliari said the repair crews "got a lot of work done that otherwise wouldn't be done" without the service suspension.

The crews "were seeing things they've never seen before, like mud boils," as the water surged from below, he said.

This disruption comes after many months of long and chronic delays throughout the Empire Builder route, which runs from Chicago, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and ends in the Pacific Northwest.

Much of the trouble has been pinned on heavy freight traffic because of the North Dakota oil boom, an overall improving economy as well as severe winter conditions straining track equipment. BNSF has said its recovery plan includes investing a record $5 billion in infrastructure this year.

In mid-December, Amtrak canceled five runs of the Empire Builder between St. Paul and Spokane, Wash., citing lengthy delays for hundreds of passengers attributed to the freight traffic. The cancellations were an attempt to get the schedule "back on cycle," Amtrak said at the time.

In mid-April, Amtrak adjusted its Empire Builder schedule in hopes of giving passengers a better chance to arrive on time amid the chronic congestion.

The most recent suspension of service came just a few weeks after the opening of the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul and with it a new Twin Cities home for Amtrak, as well as being a connecting point for light rail, buses and taxis.

"Certainly, it is a challenge for the customers of Amtrak," said Deborah Carter McCoy, spokeswoman for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.

Whenever travelers are waylaid, Carter McCoy added, "we try to make their customers feel welcome and have opportunities to connect in the downtown community ... or have a nice space [in the depot] to be."

Paul Walsh -- 612-673-4482

Copyright 2014 - Star Tribune (Minneapolis)