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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published March 01 2014

Devils Lake to get restored air, rail service

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – A century ago, a local newspaper, the Devils Lake World, boasted of the community’s connections with places far and wide.

While that may have been something of an exaggeration, people living in the Devils Lake Basin today might welcome such optimism, because connecting with the rest of the world has become a major logistical and economic headache.

Devils Lake has been without passenger airline service for the past month and likely will not get it back until June. And service had been spotty, at best, for the past six or eight months or more.

Meanwhile, people headed here on Amtrak’s Empire Builder have faced frequent delays and detours. Since late January, Amtrak has used buses to shuttle westbound passengers to stops between Fargo and Minot, one of them being Devils Lake.

“It’s a one-two punch, one in each eye,” said John Nord, Devils Lake Regional Airport manager.

Amtrak’s scheduling problems are a result of a BNSF Railway decision to switch all trains to one-way traffic between Fargo and Minot as a way to handle a large increase in business.

Eastbound trains travel on the northern route and continue to stop in Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Rugby. Westbound traffic travels from Fargo along the New Rockford line, which runs diagonally between the two cities, bypassing the three regular stops.

Amtrak’s regular Empire Builder was expected to resume its normal schedule today, according to its website.

Shuttling soldiers

The National Guard’s Regional Training Institute at Camp Grafton, south of the Devils Lake, has been one of the hardest hit.

“It has really affected the schoolhouse,” Command Sgt. Maj. Alan Grinsteinner said.

RTI has been shuttling soldiers between Camp Grafton and Grand Forks International Airport rather than flying in and out of Devils Lake, he said.

The institute serves about 2,000 soldiers, with fewer than 2 percent from North Dakota. They come across the country and beyond, including Guam.

But getting those soldiers to Devils Lake has been a logistical nightmare since Great Lakes Airlines took over air service here about two years ago.

Because of computer communication issues between Great Lakes and connecting flights with Delta, Grinsteinner said, there was no guarantee soldiers traveling to or from Devils Lake could make connections at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“As commandant, I have to make sure soldiers are going to get here in a timely manner,” he said.

So, the National Guard decided in 2012 to use the Grand Forks airport.

“We normally train about 170 soldiers a month, so we’re coming over to Grand Forks for all those students to pick them up,” Grinsteinner said.

Camp Grafton personnel make as many as four round trips a day to Grand Forks, the commandant said. For some who already spend 10 hours teaching, that could mean 15- to 16-hour days.

8-hour delays

The Amtrak detour forced Woodland Resort, the largest resort on Devils Lake, to halt its Perch Express winter fishing packages about a month ago.

The packages, which Woodland has promoted since the 1990s, offer discounts through Amtrak to bring anglers here from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and other points along the route.

“About 30 percent of our business is in the wintertime,” said Woodland owner Kyle Blanchfield. “We’ve had a locked in discount rate with Amtrak for 18 years. We’ve stuck a lot of money into it.”

The resort normally gets 300 to 500 anglers a year via Amtrak.

This year, travel delays hampered the resort for the first six weeks of the ice-fishing season, he said. But the travel delays and disruptions became too difficult to overcome, he said.

“When we made the decision, we had to call people, many of them friends who come year after year, and tell them they had to make other plans,” he said. “Some of them were on the train, or ready to leave home.”

Those who made the trip anyway have faced frequent delays, with shuttle buses not arriving on time and other issues, Blanchfield said. The standard delay had been eight to 18 hours, he said.

“That’s a long time, especially when you’re making a long trip for a two- or three-day package,” he said.

Clearing skies

Great Lakes Airlines ended its flights into Devils Lake at the end of January.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program has granted its next two-year contract to serve Devils Lake to SkyWest Airlines, a Utah-based regional carrier that will provide daily round-trip service to Denver.

SkyWest, which will fly 50-passenger jets in partnership with United Airlines, will begin the transition next week at the Devils Lake airport, according to Nord, the airport manager. Airline officials have said travelers should be able to book flights out of Devils Lake on United’s website within a week or two.

Actual flights will start in June.

“If we can last through it, it’s going to be really good for us,” Nord said. “The prospect of going to Denver is really exciting. There’s a lot more people happy about going there.”