It has been a terrible year for the Empire Builder. On-time performance over the last 12 months is hovering around 10-15%, and delays have frequently been 5-12 hours or more. Service has been either truncated or canceled outright over 50 times so far in 2011. While collisions with vehicles, our epic mudslides, and an Idaho rockslide have all disrupted service, the heart of the problem is flooding in the Devil’s Lake Basin of North Dakota. As an endorheic (closed) basin, Devil’s Lake has continued to rise over the past decades as precipitation has increased, increasingly submerging the railbed and 2 key bridges. (BNSF has not operated through freight service between Grand Forks and Minot for over a year). Amtrak, however, limps onward on the troubled segment. On June 15, BNSF and Amtrak agreed in principle to split the $100m cost of rebuilding 17 miles of the corridor, raising the railbed and rebuilding the bridges.
My personal opinion is that this amounts to doubling down on a short-to-medium term solution. Bypassing Devil’s Lake may be the better long-term choice. While those in and around Grand Forks would lose service, using the direct line between Fargo and Minot would be faster, more direct and significantly more reliable. Politically, however, it’s a non-starter.
It is beyond frustrating that rainfall in North Dakota means that Seattle passengers can’t get to Spokane, etc… Though famously subsidized, Amtrak operates without a shred of redundancy, so when things go wrong, they tend to do so spectacularly. With sufficient equipment and crew, Amtrak could (and should) operate segments of the line when service is disrupted, especially between Seattle-Spokane and Minneapolis-Chicago. Perhaps these problems will someday bring about state support for Eastern Washington service that is independent of the long-distance network.
In normal times the Builder is perhaps the premier long-distance train in North America, offering unrivaled scenery, a lifeline to the northern plains, and quality onboard amenities. It’s a shame to watch the service degrade into chaos without the ability for Amtrak to adapt quickly.