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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