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“I think the increase in (freight traffic) caught us all off guard,” said Green, NARP’s Montana passenger rail advocate and a locomotive engineer for 37 years. “There’s just a lot of freight to move.”

The problems facing Amtrak were made even worse by a historically harsh winter in North Dakota and Montana that caused derailments and avalanches, which closed the rail line over Marias Pass. On the days the Empire Builder wasn’t replaced with a bus, it sometimes ran 11 or 12 hours late.

“All of those factors combined and created a perfect storm for the Empire Builder and it struggled,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak route director for the train. “When you go from being the number one on-time performance train on the entire system to being dead last, it’s a shock.”

Yet NARP vice president Sean Jeans-Gail points to another reason why the Empire Builder and other Amtrak trains have been running late.

In 2008, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act gave Amtrak the ability to penalize railroads if passenger trains were consistently late for two consecutive quarters because of freight-train congestion. The system appeared to be working and during the 2013 fiscal year, Amtrak trains were on schedule 85 percent of the time.

But in 2011, the Association of American Railroads sued the U.S. Department of Transportation, arguing that the new rule was illegal, in part, because Amtrak helped write it. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the rule, saying that Amtrak is a private company and that it could not regulate other private companies. Since then, Amtrak’s on-time, system-wide performance has dropped nearly 12 points.

In June, the Supreme Court announced it would review the appellate court decision. The case is expected to be argued late this year or early next year. Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari said although Amtrak is not part of the lawsuit, it will be watching the case with interest.

In hopes of improving the on-time performance of the Empire Builder, Amtrak changed its schedule to allow the train more time to travel from station to station. The new schedule has the train leaving Seattle and Portland three hours earlier going east. That means it arrives in Whitefish at 4:26 a.m., rather than its normal 7:26 a.m. The westbound run also arrives later, pulling into Whitefish just before 10:30 p.m. - when it’s on time.

Brzezinski, the route director, said the changes were made so the Empire Builder can meet other trains in Chicago and passengers can make their connecting trips.

But the changes don’t sit well with Dylan Boyle, director of the Whitefish Visitors and Convention Bureau. He said the visitor center has made a big push in recent years to encourage people to take the train to Whitefish, even offering a 20 percent discount during winter months to entice skiers and snowboarders to visit Whitefish Mountain Resort. The earlier and later arrivals make taking the train less convenient for visitors.

“Where can people go at 4:30 a.m. because there is nothing open at that hour,” Boyle said, adding that the train station closes at 5 a.m. “It’s not very welcoming to get off the train and find a dark town. That’s not the experience we want for our visitors.”

Boyle, citing data from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research, said the consistent delays and inconvenient arrival and departure times have resulted in fewer people coming to Whitefish by train. According to the institute, 65,000 people arrived or departed on the Empire Builder in Whitefish in 2013. From January to May of this year, there have only been 20,000 riders and it’s unclear if those numbers will catch up.

Christie Dunn, general manager of the Belton Chalet in West Glacier has seen a decline in guests coming from the train as well. She said in years past there would be a rush of guests at the front desk of the historic railroad hotel when the train arrived, sometimes requiring two staff members, but that hasn’t happened this summer.

Brzezinski said Amtrak understands that the new arrival times are inconvenient for communities in Northwest Montana and that they hope to return to the old schedule soon. When that might happen is unknown.

One thing that is clear is that the old schedule will probably not return until after the construction season. This year, BNSF Railway is spending $5 billion on infrastructure improvements across its 32,000-mile system, including $1 billion on its line across the northern part of the country throughout Montana and North Dakota. BNSF spokesperson Matt Jones said the investment would help expand capacity so BNSF’s rail lines through the region can handle the additional freight trains and, hopefully, keep Amtrak’s Empire Builder on time.

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