Railroad Group Says Oil Shipments Hurting Passengers

A combination of bad weather and a large number of oil shipments has been severely delaying Amtrak riders in northern Plains states—and a rail passenger advocacy group is trying to do something about it.

It hasn’t been easy to be a rail passenger lately—especially if you’re traveling on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

That’s according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which says the delays on the route—which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Oregon—have become unbearable for passengers.

The cause? Heavy freight volumes from the northern Plains states, largely oil shipments. More details:

The root problem: Since 2008, when North Dakota hit what was then its pipeline limit, the state’s oil producers have relied on trains to ship oil. North Dakota is the second-highest producer of oil in the country, and the need to transport the commodity by rail has severely stressed the state’s train lines. This is despite recent investments by BNSF Railway, which operates the lines that both freight trains and the Empire Builder passenger trains run on. Recent winter weather has exacerbated rail traffic, leading to massive delays for passengers. In one case, Amtrak had to skip multiple stations, and riders were forced to take buses to their destinations, according to the Associated Press.

“Extreme inconvenience”: Last month, the National Association of Railroad Passengers reached out to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, asking him to intervene. NARP noted that the oil shipments are creating major challenges for an area of the country that is poorly served by airports. “Delays of up to eight to 10 hours have plagued the Empire Builder, inflicting extreme inconvenience—often at considerable personal expense—to literally thousands of Amtrak passengers and their families,” NARP President Ross Capon wrote in a letter to Foxx, according to The Hill. The letter asks that Amtrak and BNSF make a deal to ensure scheduling that doesn’t inconvenience rail passengers.

Could Keystone help? One outside factor that could play into this, The Hill notes, is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The Canada-to-Gulf Coast pipeline, which would cover more than 1,000 miles, could potentially solve the oil shipment problem, but the project is controversial. Many Republicans in Congress support building the pipeline, but the Obama administration has thus far refused to approve it, citing environmental concerns. A recent State Department report on the pipeline’s potential environmental impact failed to significantly change the political dynamics around the issue.

Back on the tracks, Amtrak says it’s making strides to work with BNSF—but admits that it could be months before things get better for passengers.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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