LINCOLN, Neb. – Disruption caused by Midwest flooding has inundated Amtrak with delays and extra expense this summer while dampening the spirits of passengers traveling popular routes, forcing them in some cases to hop off the train and onto chartered buses.
Amtrak's Empire Builder, its most popular cross-country route, normally takes travelers from Chicago through the Rocky Mountains before heading to the Northwest. But for several weeks, westbound riders have gone no further than St. Paul, Minn.
Riders on the California Zephyr fare better, but eastbound riders stopping at Omaha on the San Francisco-to-Chicago line must hop off in Lincoln and ride a bus for an hour.
"These are the worst weeks of disruption I've seen in my 10 years at Amtrak," said Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based regional spokesman. "It's the longest I can recall routes ever having this kind of service interruption. I've seen flooding, but never for this long."
Some good news arrived Thursday: The full eastbound Empire Builder route will re-open Sunday, after more than a month of service suspensions. Westbound trains will leave Chicago for Portland and Washington starting Monday.
But passenger losses have still eaten into an otherwise strong year.
June ridership on the Empire Builder was down to 23,721 passengers, a 53 percent drop compared to ridership in June 2010, Amtrak statistics show. California Zephyr ridership from Chicago to San Francisco fell more than 19 percent last month, to 30,450. Overall ridership on Amtrak's long-distance lines grew more than 4 percent in the same period.
Amtrak says its overall projected ridership is expected to exceed 30 million passengers, a new all-time high, when its fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Flooding around the Empire Builder line forced a 1,000-mile stretch of track to close between St. Paul, Minn., and north-central Montana. The full line runs from Chicago to Washington, then forks into Seattle and Portland. Without the Empire Builder, any passenger wanting to ride from Illinois to Montana would get rerouted — through California.
In a statement, Amtrak General Superintendent Daryl Pesce said no one within the train service could remember as much flooding or disruption in the line's 82-year history. Amtrak said the route was restored after Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the line, repaired tracks damaged by the flood. The station and boarding platform at Minot, N.D., remain closed.
Magliari said Amtrak is shouldering the costs of employee overtime and charter buses. He said the federally owned rail corporation expects an undetermined amount of financial losses.
Flooding along the Missouri River has disrupted routes in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. To the south, Magliari said, the regional Missouri River Runner has suspended round-trip service and now skips five cities between St. Louis and Kansas City.
Amtrak's line through Nebraska and Iowa, the California Zephyr, has chartered buses for Omaha-bound passengers since a Missouri River flood barrier forced the route to close last month. Eastbound riders are boarding the bus in Lincoln, and westbound passengers switch rides in the southwest Iowa town of Creston.
Jack Pycior rolled into Lincoln at 3:57 a.m. Wednesday aboard an Amtrak train that should have arrived around midnight. The ride left Chicago's Union Station at 2 p.m. the previous day.
"The delays are usually a couple hours," Pycior said, dragging his suitcase toward the parking lot. "But not four hours."
Neil Blomquist and his wife, Monica, arrived at an Amtrak station in Grand Junction, Colo., last month expecting a low-stress train ride to a late-night dinner in Salt Lake City. Then the vacationing couple got some bad news: Midwest flooding had delayed their ride at Omaha. The train was running 10 hours late.
Blomquist said he canceled their tickets and rented a car. His wife, who had happily anticipated a scenic ride, cried when she learned the news.
"We ended up being able to do it, but we had to scramble," Blomquist said. "It was no longer a non-stressful trip."
Flooding has created an "unprecedented challenge" for Amtrak and caused congestion on many of the nation's rail lines, said Sean Jeans-Gail, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Association of Railroad Passengers. Jeans-Gail said flood-induced track closures this summer likely will continue to cause delays, but "there's nothing Amtrak really can do about it."
Private freight rail services said they, too, were confronting flood-induced line closures. But transportation experts say the freight lines have greater flexibility, because corporate customers often stockpile inventory and supplies.
Flooding "is just one of those things," said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. "Railroads are savvy at moving things. We're a 140,000-mile outdoor assembly line. We deal with weather issues all the time."
Businesses that rely on the rail line for summer travelers welcomed Thursday's news, even though the closures dug into one of their busiest tourism months.
The Good Medicine Lodge in Whitefish, Mont., lost 26 of its 190 scheduled room reservations in June, said Woody Cox, who owns the bed-and-breakfast with his wife. Cox said some visitors canceled trips, while others flew or drove.
One of his guests, Rick Brannen of Des Moines, made it to Whitefish before the track closed, but ended up in a one-way rental car for the trip home.
"The whole way out I was thinking, 'My God, am I going to be able to get back?'" Brannen said. "But I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again. Part of the adventure was getting there."
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