FARGO — Long-distance train travel will be less convenient for North Dakotans and those across the country starting in October.
Amtrak is reducing the schedule from daily to three days a week for many of its long-distance trains, including the Empire Builder, which passes through North Dakota on its route from Chicago to Seattle. The Empire Builder stops in Fargo, Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Rugby, Minot, Stanley and Williston. It is the only passenger train between Fargo-Moorhead and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
"Due to the long-term impact of COVID-19 on ridership, Amtrak has made the decision to operate with reduced capacity through fiscal year 21," Amtrak public relations manager Olivia Irvin said. "We are planning 32% fewer frequencies on the Northeast Corridor, 24% fewer for our state-supported service and plan to reduce most long-distance trains to three days per week, beginning October 1, 2020. Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021."
Minnesota Department of Transportation freight and rail manager Dan Krom said he had heard about the reduction informally for several weeks, and it was no surprise to him that Amtrak was cutting back on its services for now.
“Their ridership has been down tremendously because of the COVID-19,” Krom said. “Ridership is down. Revenue is down. So they are trying to press on however they can. This isn’t the first time. They’ve reduced service when they’ve had financial problems in the past. I can’t say it’s unexpected. It’s unfortunate.”
The Amtrak reduction comes less than a year after a group called All Aboard Minnesota gathered in Moorhead to raise support for a daytime passenger train between Fargo and Minneapolis.
Brian Nelson, the president of the nonprofit group, and Francis Loetterle, a passenger train planner for MNDOT, spoke with area officials and gathered about 60 local residents advocating for a train line that would leave Fargo at 7 a.m. and arrive in Minneapolis at 11:25 a.m. and leave Minneapolis at 6 p.m. and arrive in Fargo at 10:30 p.m. The Empire Builder passes through Fargo around 3 a.m.
Krom says there still has been no official planning done for such a train line and any attempts at expansion are put on hold for the time being as the pandemic has strained their budget.
“Even if we had all the planning work done, it would take two to three years to make sure we had the infrastructure,” Krom said.
“It’s been a staffing issue and a demand issue. I know Empire Builder doesn’t come through from Fargo to the Twin Cities at the most convenient times. We would like to look at how we could try to have a better option.”
Empire Builder takes its name from the Empire Builder train run by the Great Northern Railway, which was the premier passenger train between St. Paul and Seattle. It is named after James J. Hill, nicknamed “The Empire Builder,” who founded the Great Northern Railway.