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Service reduction planned for Amtrak

By Staff | Jun 26, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Signs at the Rugby Amtrak depot welcome visitors.

A decision last week by Amtrak to reduce scheduled runs by long-distance trains such as the Empire Builder, which serves North Dakota communities including Rugby, has caught the attention of a former Rugby city official.

Amtrak announced it would reduce runs on the Empire Builder to three days per week beginning Oct. 1.

Dale Niewoehner began advocating for Amtrak service in Rugby in 1987. He said there have been times over the years when government and Amtrak officials considered eliminating service to Rugby and other communities along the route of the Empire Builder, which runs from Seattle, Wash. to Chicago, Ill.

Niewoehner served for several years on the Rugby City Council and held the office of mayor from 2002-2009.

Niewoehner said he understood the reasons for Amtrak’s current schedule reduction.

“This (reduction of train service) is due to COVID, and people aren’t riding very much because of the disease,” Niewoehner said.

Niewoehner said throughout three decades he has met not only government officials such as former Senators Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and former Representative Earl Pomeroy in his work to keep Amtrak service in Rugby but he’s also kept in touch with Amtrak officials.

“The strategy of the train has changed,” Niewoehner said, describing Amtrak’s current decision.

“The sleeping car people get boxed lunches. The coach passengers have to go to the bar car to get cold sandwiches. “There’s no dining car as I know it right now on the train because of COVID. I was told they were going to lay off 5,000 or more employees because of changes in passenger flow,” Niewoehner added. “They just can’t afford it.”

Niewoehner said he hoped Rugby residents served by Amtrak would stay alert to changes after the schedule returns to normal.

“Maybe when things clear up with the world, this (full service) will come back,” Niewoehner said.

“But at the same time,” he added, “We have to be very vigilant (and tell Amtrak) that we don’t think this (schedule) is good enough for this route. This route goes from Chicago to Seattle and we’re highly fortunate to be on this route and that it stops here. But we have to pay attention so (the present reduction) doesn’t become permanent.”

“I haven’t done very much political stuff since I left office,” Niewoehner added. “I try to stay neutral about things. There were some meetings (in Washington, D.C.) a few years ago that somebody from Rugby should’ve been at.”

Niewoehner said staying in touch with Amtrak officials and North Dakota government representatives “is the most important thing. All these communities (served by Amtrak) have to be vigilant to make sure this doesn’t become permanent.”

“They’ve tried all sorts of things: (altering the route) from Chicago to Minneapolis and running another train from Seattle to (Montana), leaving off this middle chunk of the nation,” Niewoehner recalled. “They tried this some years ago. But this is so important to everybody here in this state and this region where we live that this train comes through.”

“We’ve got to pay attention,” he added.

Niewoehner said Amtrak service to Rugby is “important for people going places. It’s important for visiting people. It’s important for those seeking medical care. For example, the Mayo Clinic has a bus that picks up people who get off at the Redwing (Minn.) stop and takes them to Rochester. It’s important for people going to weddings and funerals and on vacations.”

“With the International Music Camp (at Dunseith), there are hundreds of students who come on the train here, and staff from the music camp come down here to pick them up,” Niewoehner noted. “It’s so convenient.”

“I think the music camp is canceled this year. Things like that represent a loss of income and a loss of passengers. That’s why they have to curtail some of this service, unfortunately,” Niewoehner added.

Still, Niewoehner urged Rugby residents to let their representatives in government know how they feel about Amtrak service.

“By writing letters to members of Congress and the governor, this is how these things are done,” he said.

Niewoehner said he and his wife, Marilyn, have traveled on Amtrak trains throughout the United States. He said he’s been to Washington, D. C., to advocate for local service, traveling there by train.

“It’s not the fastest way to travel, but you see what’s on the ground, and it’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

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