WB Empire Builder Begins North Dakota Detour

The route troubles saga of the Empire Builder took have taken yet another twist with Amtrak and BNSF agreeing to detour the westbound Empire Builder in North Dakota via the Surrey Cutoff throughout the summer.

That means that No. 7 will bypass stations in Grand Ford, Devils Lake and Rugby. Buses will serve passengers originating or bound for those stations, connecting with the Builder at Fargo and Minot.

The eastbound Empire Builder will continue to use the regular route via those three North Dakota cities.

Amtrak agreed to detour the westbound Builder at the request of BSNF.  The detour is expected to continue through Sept. 30.

No. 7 will use the KO Subdivision and not make any passenger stops between Fargo and Minot. Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman was set to visit the affected region this week where lengthy delays the Empire Builder has incurred will be a major topic in meetings with civic leaders.

“Local community and business leaders prize the Empire Builder and see Amtrak service as an important public transportation link,” said D.J. Stadtler, Amtrak vice president of operations.

“BNSF needs to speed repairs and upgrades in order to return the Empire Builder to its previous reliability as fast as possible. We fully expect this work to be done by the end of September — at the latest.”

It will be the second time this year that Nos. 7 and 8 have taken different routes in North Dakota. BNSF experimented with directional running of eastbound freights and the Amtrak train on the Devils Lake Subdivision while all westbounds ran on the KO Subdivision via New Rockford.

However, the stated reason for the present detour of the westbound Empire Builder is to provide track and signal crews the longest possible maintenance window each day as BNSF upgrades the Devils Lake Subdivision.

“The train count fluctuations are short term as a result of fewer merchandise trains and some rerouting that was occurring for maintenance windows,” said BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

BNSF is investing about $400 million in North Dakota to expand, replace, and maintain its infrastructure, and for the implementation of positive train control.

The project involves installation of three sidings between Grand Forks and Minot, and four sidings between Fargo and Grand Forks.

Other work involves installation of new turnouts, high speed surfacing/shoulder ballast cleaning, replacement of ties, rail relay, and signal upgrades. A Trains magazine analysis of timekeeping since slower schedules were implemented on April 15 shows that Nos. 7 and 8 have consistently lost at least two to three hours westbound and usually an hour eastbound between St. Paul and Minot running on their regular route.

Westbound, 35 minutes of recovery time had been added compared to previous schedules between the two points, while 1 hour, 40 minutes had been added eastbound, but this has proved insufficient in light of numerous slow orders and capacity constraints.

When the westbound train arrives late, No. 8 has been delayed up to an hour or more waiting for an operating crew to take the train back its base at St. Cloud, Minn.

On the first day of the detour, No. 7 arrived at Minot a half-hour early despite leaving Fargo almost an hour late. Not all of the timekeeping issues can be attributed to BNSF.

On Canadian Pacific tracks between Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., the westbound train’s arrival into the Twin Cities’ Midway station has been more than an hour late 45 percent of the time after departing Chicago on time over the past 20 days.

Schedules were adjusted slightly when the Empire Builder began using St. Paul Union Depot on May 7.

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2 Responses to “WB Empire Builder Begins North Dakota Detour”

  1. Brett Aamot Says:

    What are the reasons that Amtrak will not allow a stop in New Rockford, North Dakota (on the Surrey Cut-Off Line) during the temporary re-route?

    • csanders429 Says:

      Probably because there are no station facilities located there and given that the detour will last only through September neither Amtrak or anyone else wants to pay to establish them.

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