RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And that booming oil business we've been talking about in North Dakota is creating some big headaches for Amtrak travelers. Trains on the popular Empire Builder route between Chicago, Seattle and Portland are often delayed for hours.
One reason is the congestion caused by the huge number of trains hauling crude oil across the northern plains. The delays are becoming so bad that a passenger group now wants the U.S. Transportation Secretary to intervene.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Say you want to go ice fishing. No, really, you do. And the place you'll want to go ice fishing is Devils Lake, N.D.
KYLE BLANCHFIELD: We have some of world's finest perch fishing.
SCHAPER: That's Kyle Blanchfield, who owns the Woodland Resort on the shores of Devils Lake. And he says the ice fishing this winter has been better than it's been in 20 years. If only he had better luck getting his customers to the lake.
BLANCHFIELD: An awful lot of our groups have been stranded in Fargo, N.D., which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive for us.
SCHAPER: That's because they've been taking Amtrak as part of Blanchfield's Perch Express package deal. It includes all the ice fishing gear; a heated shelter; a fishing guide; and a train ride from Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis to Devils Lake.
But this winter, Blanchfield says Amtrak's service has become completely unreliable, either detouring the trains at Fargo or delaying them for up to 18 hours.
BLANCHFIELD: Valuable customers of ours, folks that we've spent a lot of effort to market to and to perfect a very good package and a good trip for, get here very grumpy.
BLANCHFIELD: And you don't blame 'em, you can't blame 'em.
SCHAPER: So Blanchfield's been giving out a lot of refunds these days and he's canceling all future Perch Express packages. The train delays, he says, are killing a big part of his business.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says he feels the entrepreneur's pain.
MARC MAGLIARI: It's a great concern to us.
SCHAPER: Magliari says the Empire Builder is Amtrak's most popular overnight route, carrying more than half a million passengers a year between Chicago and Portland and Seattle, but he says the delays are hurting ridership.
MAGLIARI: Arriving here in Chicago, delays of several hours, causing people to miss their connections to eastern trains or Midwestern trains, have become very common.
SCHAPER: In fact, on this day, the Empire builder, due here at Chicago's Union Station a little before four in the afternoon, is more than 13 hours behind schedule - 13 hours - but Magliari says it's not Amtrak's fault.
MAGLIARI: The primary reason the Empire Builder has been running behind schedule is problems on the host railroad.
SCHAPER: That host railroad is BNSF, and more often than not, the problem is a traffic jam of freight trains, locomotives pulling oil-filled tank cars stretching far as the eye can see.
Russ Capon, president of the National Association of Rail Passengers, says BNSF is giving oil priority over moving people.
RUSS CAPON: The result of that is passengers are left out in the cold.
SCHAPER: And Capon fears the chronic delays will give Amtrak a black eye.
CAPON: If you are running, you know, a service that looks like a sad joke for an extended period of time, you're going to start to lose business and then the people on Capitol Hill, who don't believe these trains should exist anyway, are going to smell blood and go in for the kill.
SCHAPER: Capon's group is calling on Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to intervene.
A BNSF spokeswoman acknowledges the railroad is disappointed in its service to all of its customers in the region, but she says oil shipments alone are not responsible for delays. In an email, the spokeswoman says volumes of many other kinds of freight increased significantly last year, too.
The railroad is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand capacity but that track work slows trains, and the spokeswoman says extreme cold has exacerbated delays.
SCHAPER: In the meantime, Amtrak may just adjust its timetables and build the chronic delays into its schedule, so at least passengers will have a better idea of what they're in for.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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