NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Greetings from the Empire Builder!

Good morn­ing from the prairies of North Dako­ta!

Though Net­roots Nation 2011 may have end­ed on Sat­ur­day evening, our adven­ture to Min­neapo­lis and back has not. After spend­ing a full day explor­ing greater Min­neapo­lis yes­ter­day, we made our way to Mid­way Sta­tion last night to board Amtrak’s Empire Builder for the trip home to Wash­ing­ton State.

Patrick and I opt­ed to return to the Ever­green State by train so we could enjoy the jour­ney (as the Amtrak slo­gan goes) and because we want­ed to stop in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park along the way. (We’ll be there on the longest day of the year!)

We are cur­rent­ly on our way to Rug­by, hav­ing left Dev­ils Lake less than an hour ago. If you’re a rail buff, you may know that Empire Builder ser­vice has been dis­rupt­ed recent­ly due to flood­ing at Dev­ils Lake.

Had Net­roots Nation been held one week ear­li­er, we would have been affect­ed and forced to change our plans. Luck­i­ly for us, ser­vice resumed the day we got to Min­neapo­lis, and the Empire Builder pulled out of Min­neapo­lis on sched­ule last night.

Around the same time that Amtrak was resum­ing full ser­vice between Chica­go and Seat­tle (the east and west ter­mi­nus­es of the line, respec­tive­ly), a deal was struck in the Dis­trict of Colum­bia to rebuild track­way at Dev­ils Lake, which is sus­cep­ti­ble to flood­ing. The Dev­ils Lake Jour­nal reports:

The state and fed­er­al coali­tion, along with Amtrak and BNSF Rail­way offi­cials, met Wednes­day in Wash­ing­ton and have appar­ent­ly agreed to split the costs of a near­ly $100 mil­lion project  to rebuild a 17-mile stretch of track and two bridges near Churchs Fer­ry.

BNSF and Amtrak appar­ent­ly each agreed to pay a third of the cost while state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments will pay the oth­er third, said Sen. Kent Con­rad, who arranged the meet­ing.

Dev­ils Lake May­or Dick John­son and Ram­sey Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Joe Belford were at the meet­ing. John­son was unavail­able for com­ment ear­ly today but Belford was will­ing to speak.

“It’s good news,” he said. “All the main peo­ple were there and they all were will­ing to work and main­tain the rail lines. It’s not offi­cial yet, but there was kind of an agree­ment to pay one-third apiece and we were assured they were all com­mit­ted to mak­ing it work. I think we won.”

Burling­ton North­ern San­ta Fe (BNSF) made a deci­sion in 2009 to reroute its freight trains through a dif­fer­ent sub­di­vi­son due to the per­sis­tent flood­ing prob­lems, and it has offered to let Amtrak use the same tracks.

But Amtrak has con­tin­ued to run the Empire Builder through Dev­ils Lake, in part because North Dako­ta’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion (includ­ing Kent Con­rad) does­n’t want exist­ing cities on the line to lose ser­vice.

It’s all well and good that mon­ey has been found for track work at Dev­ils Lake. But it’s regret­table that mon­ey nev­er seems to be avail­able for this kind of project until there’s a seri­ous prob­lem that jeop­ar­dizes ser­vice. Amtrak trains would have much bet­ter on-time per­for­mance if we were not in the bad habit of defer­ring track work, sta­tion upgrades, and acqui­si­tion of new rolling stock.

Though it’s true that Amtrak has ben­e­fit­ed from the Amer­i­can Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act, most of the ARRA dol­lars seem to have been spent on main­te­nance and improve­ments that should have been made years ago.

Speak­ing of sta­tion upgrades, with­in the next two years, Amtrak will like­ly be aban­don­ing the out-of-the-way, unre­mark­able sta­tion build­ing that we depart­ed from last night in favor of St. Paul’s Union Depot, which is being restored to its for­mer splen­dor. In addi­tion to get­ting the Empire Builder in 2012, the depot will begin to be served by Metro Tran­sit’s new light rail line start­ing in 2014, which will make it a true rail hub once more.

As many read­ers know, Seat­tle has under­tak­en sim­i­lar restora­tion projects. Union Sta­tion was restored a decade ago to become Sound Tran­sit’s head­quar­ters, and is served by Cen­tral Link. King Street Sta­tion, which sits across 4th Avenue South, is being care­ful­ly restored so it looks like its design­ers intend­ed it to again.

While the ren­o­va­tions are ongo­ing, King Street con­tin­ues to serve as a ter­mi­nus for Sounder com­muter rail and Amtrak’s Empire Builder and Coast Starlight. (It is also, of course, a key stop for Amtrak Cas­cades).

It is very reas­sur­ing to see these projects tak­ing place. We made a cost­ly mis­take decades ago when we destroyed much of our rail sys­tem at the behest of car com­pa­nies and oil com­pa­nies. Street­car sys­tems were torn up, his­toric old sta­tions were demol­ished, and ser­vice to many com­mu­ni­ties was end­ed.

Amtrak took over the most pop­u­lar inter­ci­ty pas­sen­ger routes (and oper­ates thir­ty-four in total at present), but it has been under­fund­ed since its incep­tion.

Revers­ing these bad deci­sions has cost us a huge amount of mon­ey. While Amtrak strug­gles just to get Con­gress to pro­vide it with the fund­ing it needs to keep trains like the Empire Builder run­ning, Europe and Asia have invest­ed in mod­ern high speed rail net­works that pro­vide clean, fast, and reli­able ser­vice.

It’s time we fol­lowed their exam­ple.

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