If Amtrak’s Empire Builder train is your favorite way to get across the northern United States, the North Dakota oil boom has thrown an oil-industry-sized wrench in things.
NPR and KUOW radio this morning reported regular, extraordinary delays — sometimes up to 18 hours — on the popular route between Portland, Seattle and Chicago, with at least partial blame falling on track congestion caused by huge new trainloads of crude oil being transported from North Dakota to refineries across the nation. See or hear the story here.
The Empire Builder crosses North Dakota, including a stop in Williston, the epicenter of the oil-industry frenzy. A check of Amtrak’s online train-status reporting tool showed that the Empire Builder scheduled to arrive in Seattle Thursday morning at 10:25 was running 10 hours and 55 minutes late. New projected arrival time? 9:20 p.m.
Cold weather and ice on the tracks can also contribute to delays at this time of year. In addition to North Dakota, the route crosses Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana and Idaho. At Spokane, westbound Empire Builder trains split to follow different tracks to Seattle or Portland.
I’ve seen evidence of new oil trains in my own back yard. From Shilshole Bay Marina recently I watched a train of spotless, brand-new black tanker cars — not a single spray-paint of graffiti marking one of them — heading north, possibly to refineries at Anacortes or Ferndale. The train stretched on and on, with nothing but tanker cars. I didn’t count, but there were clearly more than 100, possibly hundreds. I’ve lived within view of that main north-south rail line for 12 years and seen nothing like it before.