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Kyle Potter, Published September 10 2013

All aboard for late-night wait: Amtrak trains rarely on time through Fargo

FARGO - The train is late.

Again.

It’s 2:30 a.m. on a Friday, and the Amtrak train that hauls passengers east was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago.

Seventeen minutes, actually, if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing.

Fifteen people, spread among rows of plastic chairs inside Amtrak’s station in downtown Fargo, busy themselves with the kind of chatter that surfaces when strangers spend time together waiting. The heat and its impact on this year’s harvest. Daughters, sons and grandkids. Two men discuss Montana’s amateur boxing circuit from the ’60s and ’70s.

A whiteboard behind the counter cautions that the train heading west, through Minot and Williston to the Pacific Northwest, isn’t expected until 4 a.m. – 30 minutes behind schedule.

The train heading east is even worse. It won’t be in until 5 a.m.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which connects Chicago with Seattle and Portland, Ore., is scheduled to arrive daily in Fargo in the dead of the night. But its actual time of arrival more often creeps close to dawn.

Delays in Fargo, long and often, have made the station and others on the Empire Builder a particular concern for Amtrak, which has struggled for years with delay times on its 15 long-distance tracks.

The eastbound train has not been on time in more than four months and just three times so far this year, according to Amtrak records. It’s been six or more hours late twice as often as that in 2013.

Three times since 2008, it has arrived in Fargo a full day late. The average delay since 2008 is 114 minutes, according to an analysis of the company’s records.

Spokesman Marc Magliari said ongoing track maintenance that requires trains to travel slower has been a big factor, including a major, two-year project to protect the railroad from Devils Lake flooding. He hopes the route will be on-time more often when that work is complete, possibly by November.

But the reason behind the long waits may be immaterial, Magliari said.

“If the passengers are delayed, they don’t have much interest in ‘Is it reason A, B or C?’ ” he said. “They just feel the delay.”

3:05 a.m.

The train is 52 minutes late.

Several people have walked in the station to peer at the whiteboards, grimace at the delay and leave, retreating to their hotels, homes or cars.

After debating whether he should bother the Amtrak staffer behind the window who “looks like he needs some sleep,” a man waiting inside the station decides a candy bar is worth the trouble. He trades in a bill for $1 in quarters.

Moments after draining a bottle of Mountain Dew, Tina Larson cracks open a can of the breakfast drink Mountain Dew Kickstart as her two boys, Trevor and Wyatt, halfheartedly attempt to sleep in their plastic chairs. They’re restless.

The unmistakable dinging of a railroad crossing begins nearby, and Wyatt Larson’s head perks up.

“I hear the train!” he says.

It’s from a freight train down the street. The 8-year-old’s head sinks back into his hands.

Lucky for the Larson family, they’re heading west: a five-hour ride back home to Minot. They waited at the Minot station for four hours Sunday to catch the train to Fargo to visit Larson’s grandmother in the hospital.

Though far from perfect, westbound trains are more likely to be on time in Fargo than the eastbound route, Amtrak data shows.

Through July, the Empire Builder has been on time 43 percent heading west out of Fargo in 2013. The average delay since 2008 – about 44 minutes – is 70 minutes shorter than the average wait for eastbound trains.

Magliari, from Amtrak, attributes that to construction, both in Devils Lake and throughout North Dakota. A train heading west into Fargo hasn’t hit that slow stretch yet.

Wear and tear on the tracks has forced conductors to slow down since at least 2009, adding two hours or more to trip times from Minneapolis to Minot, said DJ Mitchell, BNSF Railway vice president for passenger operations. Trains that ran at nearly 80 mph once are running below 60 mph.

Amtrak pays BNSF to use its rails, including a bonus – generally a few thousand dollars – if a train is on time at some stops.

“Recently, we have not been able to do that,” Mitchell said.

It’s unclear what impact freighters carrying oil out of the Bakken region has had on BNSF rails and Amtrak delay times. On paper, Amtrak’s passenger trains have priority over freight cars. But the increased freight traffic is one factor driving the need for maintenance.

Bakken oil carried by train increased from close to zero barrels a day in early 2010 to about 700,000 barrels a day this spring, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

BNSF rails carry about half of the region’s crude oil, spokeswoman Amy McBeth said, but the Empire Builder route isn’t the BNSF’s only set of tracks in North Dakota. It also owns a line that slices through the lower half of the state.

Mitchell said he thinks Amtrak delays will improve after crews finish replacing railroad ties and resurfacing rails this fall. McBeth said BNSF is doing more than $220 million in work in North Dakota this year.

3:45 a.m.

The train is an hour and 32 minutes late.

Mohamud Abukar has been sitting in his cab parked outside the Amtrak station for almost an hour. He waits for a fare here on slower nights, even though the trains run so late.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to deal with,” he says.

Most nights, he reads a book as he waits for a sure fare. Tonight, it’s YouTube videos on his phone.

With Chicago at one end and Seattle and Portland at the other, Fargo is just one of the destinations on the Empire Builder line. Nearly 543,000 passengers rode the route in the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2012.

At 2,200-plus miles, it’s among Amtrak’s longest routes. It is not the least timely Amtrak long-haul route, but it’s far from the best. In its 2012 fiscal year, it arrived at its final destination on time 60.7 percent of the time – third-worst among the 15 long-distance routes, according to an Amtrak report to Congress. That was up from 44 percent the year before.

In each of the last 10 fiscal quarters, the Empire Builder has failed to meet the federal standard of 80 percent for being on time.

In Fargo, the longest delay so far this year was July 28, when the eastbound train rolled in at 3 p.m. – nearly 13 hours late.

The worst night Abukar can remember was a few months ago, when the train didn’t arrive until 11 a.m. But he wasn’t there to see it. His shift ended at 7 a.m.

4:05 a.m.

The train is one hour and 52 minutes late.

The good news? The train bringing the Larson family west to Minot is here.

“Yay! We only had to wait a half-hour,” Tina Larson says as she gathers her children and bags.

But the eastbound train’s arrival time has been pushed back. Bad news for Moorhead resident Sandra Bailey, who is picking up a friend from Oregon.

“Now they changed it to 5:15 a.m.?” she says, incredulous, after glancing at the whiteboard inside.

Bailey says she picked up another friend from the Fargo station last summer, again from Oregon, and it came right on schedule. No such luck this time. A passerby speculates the train may come in at 6 a.m.

“He might be thumbin’ it somewhere if it gets to be 6 a.m.,” she says as she waves goodbye to the Larsons.

4:23 a.m.

The train is two hours and 10 minutes late.

With the westbound passengers gone, a still quiet has set in inside the station. A baby’s cough and chairs creaking punctuate the hum of vending machines.

Outside, Mike Bartnick leans against the side of the building as he waits. He got to Fargo last night via bus and will start the trip back home to Flint tonight. He hasn’t slept in two days.

“If it comes right down to it, I can sleep standing up,” he says. “Yessir.”

Bartnick worries that the projected three-hour delay will make him late for his connecting train ride home.

“I don’t want to go by bus, man. All the way back to Flint?” he says.

The train’s poor performance has hit Amtrak in more than just bad average times and lower customer satisfaction, Magliari said. If a passenger misses a connection, the company foots the bill for chartered buses or vans. Sometimes it has to put passengers in hotels for the night to catch the next day’s train.

Late trains also mean more overtime pay for employees, he said.

After mulling it over, Bartnick decides it’s not the end of the world if he has to hop on a bus back to Flint.

“You gotta go with the flow,” he says.

4:47 a.m.

The train is two hours and 44 minutes late.

After a short nap in mom’s van, Cassidy Williams, 4, and her brother Cayson, 2, race toy trucks and motorcycles along the brick walls of the Amtrak station in downtown Fargo.

Grandma, mom and the two kids are starting the long trek to Indiana to visit family. After the 1½-hour drive from Jamestown, they’ve been in the parking lot since 1:30 a.m. – an hour early for a train running more than three hours late.

Their mother, Nicole Collazo, says it will be their second train trip together. The first trip, in May, was just a few minutes behind.

The eastbound train’s performance dropped precipitously in 2011, when it made it to Fargo on schedule just six times – its worst year. But after increasing from 83 minutes in 2010 to 204 minutes in 2011, the average delay has held between 100 minutes and 200 minutes since then.

Collazo calls the late-night wait a “field trip” for her daughter, Cassidy, who she’s beginning to homeschool. “Learning about patience,” she says.

5:15 a.m.

The train is three hours and two minutes late.

The whiteboard now tells weary passengers the train will arrive about 5:30 a.m.

Magliari from Amtrak encourages all passengers to use the company’s website, smartphone app and call-in number, each of which provides updates on the status of a train. But Harvey Lee had taken the old-school approach.

When Lee boards the train – he’s on his way back to Nashville after a six-month stint driving Budweiser trucks across North Dakota – it will be his fourth Amtrak ride. Each train has been at least an hour late, he says. So he stopped by the station earlier and came back when the whiteboard first guessed the train would arrive: 4:45 a.m.

Despite the wait, Lee says he’d pick train over a bus or plane any day.

“Riding the train, you meet some interesting people,” he says in his thick Southern drawl. “You hear some tall tales.”

5:30 a.m.

The train is three hours and 17 minutes late.

But it’s here.

Harvey Lee and Mike Bartnick get their tickets scanned by a conductor and hop aboard the train.

So do Nicole Collazo, her two children and their grandmother.

Sandra Bailey greets her friend with a hug, and the pair walks off to the parking lot.

Mohamud Abukar grabs a passenger’s bags, throws them in his van, and pulls away.

The conductor walks alongside the train. As the doors close shut, he shouts the two long-awaited words:

“All aboard!”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502