By James MacPherson
BISMARCK, N.D. — The ice fishing in northeast North Dakota is the best it’s been in two decades, but some anglers can’t make it because trains handling freight and crude from the state’s oil patch are displacing Amtrak passenger service.
Steve Dahl, owner of the Perch Patrol guide service, said he spent the past week calling hundreds of customers who had made reservations to fish at Devils Lake and stay in its namesake city.
“The conditions are perfect but I’ve had to explain to them about this dumb train thing,” Dahl said. “For some of them who had their heart set on this, I would have rather told them I ran over their dog.”
The federally funded rail corporation, which uses BNSF Railway Co. lines, said the “severe freight train interference” is causing long delays along its Chicago-to-Pacific Northwest Empire Builder route. In North Dakota,
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Amtrak trains are bypassing the cities of Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. Passengers in those cities are being bused to either Minot or to Fargo to reconnect to westbound or eastbound trains.
The detours are expected to continue through February, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson said the track congestion hurts the city’s economy and residents’ ability to travel, especially the elderly who routinely take trains to hospitals in Minnesota. The city of about 7,500 has no scheduled bus or flight service.
“We depend on Amtrak as a key part of our public transportation service. We are crippled and landlocked without it,” Johnson said. “But oil and freight is taking priority over people, that’s pretty much a given.”
BNSF said in a statement it has been “disappointed in our service” but that oil trains are not solely responsible for the delays because other freight volumes also have been increasing. Severe winter weather also “has significantly impacted our efforts to make service improvements for both Amtrak and all freight customers.”
Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF is part of Warren Buffett’s Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Magliari said Amtrak has an operating agreement in place with BNSF that sets rates Amtrak must pay and incentives for BNSF to ensure Amtrak’s “on-time delivery of trains.”
“The single, largest thing is trains’ punctuality,” Magliari said. “The mix of traffic volume is affecting our ability to run reliably in North Dakota.”
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BNSF is the biggest player the rich oil fields of Montana and North Dakota, hauling the bulk of the crude out of the region and the inbound freight that supports oil drilling.
“There are oil trains, grain trains, trains hauling automobiles and lumber and a lot of each of them,” said Dale Niewoehner, who owns a funeral home in Rugby and is a former mayor of the city that bills itself as the geographical center of North America.
He and Stephanie Armstrong, a funeral director in Devils Lake, said the lack of Amtrak service not only is hurting passenger service but also the ability to move human remains by rail. The funeral homes typically use Amtrak to ship bodies because of the convenience and low cost.
“We shouldn’t be so naive to think that oil from the western part of the state isn’t going to affect us here too,” Armstrong said.
Scores of workers moving to and from North Dakota’s rich oil fields have made the Empire Builder route one of Amtrak’s most popular long-distance overnight trains. It runs from Chicago to Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
The number of people getting on and off the trains at the route’s seven stations in North Dakota has jumped from 111,000 in fiscal 2011 to 154,800 in fiscal 2013.
Oil from North Dakota began being shipped by trains in 2008 when the state reached capacity for pipeline shipments. The state is now the nation’s No. 2 oil producer, behind Texas.
BNSF said it plans to invest $5 billion in its railroad this year, including $900 million to expand capacity where crude oil shipments are surging. Its 2014 spending plan is about $1 billion more than last year.
“The good news is that there is nothing systemically wrong with the system that cannot be corrected,” the railroad said in a statement.
That’s of hardly a salve for Kelly Arnoldink of Allendale, Mich., who along with three of his buddies recently cancelled their ice fishing trip to Devils Lake because of the lack of train service. The drive was too far and the plane ride was too expensive, he said.
Fishing for jumbo perch, walleyes, and northern pike in the bitter cold and on the frozen ice of Devils Lake was a dream vacation, he said.
“I’d been planning it for more than a year and hopefully I can come back,” he said. “But what’s going up there now is just ridiculous.”
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