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Amtrak service to Rugby in jeopardy

By Staff | Jan 25, 2010

The familiar sight and sound of an Amtrak passenger train stopping daily at the Geographical Center could be a thing of the past.

The days of Amtrak service to Rugby may be numbered as there is a real possibility the national rail service will be forced to move its Empire Builder route from Burlington Northern-Santa Fe’s (BNSF’s) current north line to BNSF’s KO Subdivision, more commonly referred to as the Surrey Cutoff.

If that happens, Amtrak will bypass Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks, ending passenger rail service which has been in place since 1972 to those communities.

There appears to be no viable long term option to keep Amtrak service on the current rail line owned and maintained by BNSF due to the need for significant repairs to a section of track in the Devils Lake basin.

“It’s a very serious situation,’ said Rugby Mayor Dale Niewoehner, who has been a longtime advocate of passenger rail service for the community. “Our three members of Congress are doing what they can and I’ve been in contact with Ray Lang, of Amtrak, relaying our concerns about the possible change.”

Continued rising waters near Churchs Ferry threatens the stability of a section of BNSF’s railroad track. There is currently only four inches between water and the bottom of one of the railroad bridges near Churchs Ferry, according to BNSF.

The railroad no longer runs freight on the 19-mile stretch of the rail line between Devils Lake and Churchs Ferry, opting to shuttle its trains along its other line, the Surrey Cutoff. Amtrak is currently the only regular service on the rail line.

One cost estimate to raise one bridge and sections of an embankment that currently are partly submerged by rising Devils Lake waters is about $100 million, about $55 milllion to raise the bridges and embankments and another $45 million over the next five to 10 years to replace the track.

BNSF has indicated it is not going to fund the repairs, and it would be up to public appropriations to cover those costs. BNSF has agreed to reroute Amtrak along the Surrey Cutoff.

Earlier in January North Dakota’s Congressional delegation met with Amtrak and BNSF representatives to discuss the concerns with that section of track and the possibility of rerouting Amtrak service.

Whether public funds can be appropriated for the needed repairs remains to be seen. For now, an agreement was reached to continue to operate Amtrak on BNSF’s northern line.

Rising Devils Lake waters have caused problems with BNSF’s track before. In 2001, bridges were raised to enable train service to continue.

However, further raising of bridges would also require raising the embankments, increasing the costs significantly.

Over the past several years the train has had to halt service to Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks from time to time due to flooding on sections of track in the Devils Lake basin. And last year, flooding in the Red River Valley, forced the Empire Builder to run a few weeks along the Surrey Cutoff between Fargo and Minot.

While train service to Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks would discontinue, a new station may be added in New Rockford.

That would enable Amtrak to recapture some of the potential lost ridership numbers from Devils Lake. There would be, however, up- front costs including a new station in New Rockford.

The loss of Amtrak service to Grand Forks would likely require arrangements to establish a bus connection between that city and Fargo.

For Rugby, passengers would more than likely go to Minot to board the train.

According to Amtrak, ridership at Rugby (5,700), Devils Lake (5,500) and Grand Forks (17,300) totaled about 28,500 in fiscal year 2009.

The proposed new route for the Empire Builder through the state would be (heading west) Fargo to New Rockford to Minot to Stanley and Williston and reverse itself when the train heads eastward. The Empire Builder runs daily between Chicago and Seattle-Portland.

Over the years Rugby and other stations across the state have fought to continue Amtrak service which was often found on the Congressional chopping block due to the high costs to operate, especially the long distance train routes. Train service was going to all but stop in Rugby in 1987, but the efforts of city leaders and the community helped to keep it going.

Rugby has deservedly earned its reputation as a big supporter of the service, through its letters and correspondence to Amtrak officials and to North Dakota’s Congressional delegation.

Those efforts have enabled the train service to continue to stop at one of the smallest stations in the country.

Ridership numbers from Rugby reveal that a good number of area residents choose to take the train.

“Rugby has been very privileged to have Amtrak stop here as well as have a depot agent,’ Niewoehner said.

The potential loss of the train service will take one more asset out of the community.

Amtrak officials don’t want to cut out three stops along its Empire Builder route, but the rising water and track troubles pose safety concerns, Niewoehner said.

“We understand that and hopefully something can be worked out to keep the route going, but the costs to make those repairs are quite high. We’ll see what can be done.”

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