CHICAGO - A group that advocates for train and rail transit passengers says a massive increase in rail shipments of crude oil from the northern Plains is partly to blame for disruptions to an Amtrak route linking Chicago and the West Coast.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx this week urging him to intervene.
Amtrak's Empire Builder service runs along a BNSF Railway route that has seen an increase in oil shipments from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.
Winter weather has exacerbated several months of disruptions. Westbound Amtrak trains this week have had to bypass several stops stretching across much of North Dakota, forcing the railroad to use buses to get passengers to those destinations. Delays have reached up to 10 hours.
A sugar company based outside Fargo, N.D., is also complaining about disruptions on the BNSF line. American Crystal Sugar Co. officials said this week they're worried that a slowdown in rail service could cost the company millions of dollars if it continues to disrupt production. American Crystal Sugar said it plans to scale back on output at three of its plants because it's running out of storage space waiting for rail cars.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said severe weather was to blame for the most recent impacts. To try to reduce congestion from increased freight volumes, she said the railroad invested more than $200 million in North Dakota last year and plans more improvements this year that will benefit all rail users.
As far as the Amtrak disruptions, the passenger rail service and BNSF and have had discussions on ways to resolve the issue, but the freight railroad has advised Amtrak not to expect improvements for months, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said.
"While severe weather has played a contributing factor, the delays are in large part due to the logjam of rail congestion caused by hundreds of additional freight trains transporting crude oil extracted in North Dakota to refineries in other parts of the U.S.," said the letter from the National Association of Railroad Passengers to Secretary Foxx.
Ross Capon, president of the rail passenger advocacy group, calls the situation intolerable.
"Crude oil is being given priority over people," Capon said.
Amtrak's Empire Builder service is its most popular long-distance overnight train. It runs from Chicago to Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash.
Oil from North Dakota began being shipped by trains in 2008, when the state reached its then-capacity for pipeline shipments. North Dakota is now the nation's No. 2 oil producer, behind Texas.