Amtrak will reduce passenger train through Fargo to three days a week

FARGO — Long-distance train travel will be less convenient for North Dakotans and those across the country starting in October.

Amtrak is cutting the daily schedule to three days a week for many of its long-distance trains, including the Empire Builder, which passes through North Dakota on its Chicago-to-Seattle run. 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 FY21,” said Amtrak’s public relations manager, Olivia Irvin. “We expect 32% fewer frequencies on the North East Corridor, 24% fewer for our state-supported service and plan to reduce most long-distance trains to three days a week, effective October 1, 2020. Our aim is to restore daily service on these routes based on demand, potentially by summer 2021.”

Dan Krom, director of freight and railroads for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said he had heard about the reduction informally for several weeks, and it was no surprise to him that Amtrak was reducing its services at the moment.

“Their ridership has gone down tremendously because of COVID-19,” Krom said. “Attendance is down. Revenues are down. So they try to pressure as much as they can. It is not the first time. They have reduced service when they have had financial problems in the past. I can’t say it’s unexpected. It’s unfortunate.”

Amtrak’s cut comes less than a year after a group called All Aboard Minnesota met in Moorhead to lift support for a daytime passenger train between Fargo and Minneapolis.

Brian Nelson, the nonprofit group’s president, and Francis Loetterle, a passenger train planner for MNDOT, spoke with area officials and brought together about 60 local residents advocating for a train line that would leave Fargo at 7 a.m. and would arrive in Minneapolis at 11:25 a.m. and depart Minneapolis at 6 p.m. and arrive in Fargo at 10:30 p.m. The Empire Builder passes through Fargo at approximately 3 a.m.

Krom says there has still been no official planning for such a train line and any attempts at expansion are on hold for the time being as the pandemic has strained their budget.

“Even if we had done all the planning work, it would take two to three years to make sure we had the infrastructure,” Krom said.

“It’s a personnel problem and a demand problem. I know Empire Builder doesn’t move from Fargo to the Twin Cities at the most opportune times. We would like to see how we could try to have a better option.

Empire Builder is named after the Empire Builder train operated by the Great Northern Railway, which was the first passenger train between St. Paul and Seattle. It is named after James J. Hill, nicknamed “The Empire Builder”, who founded the Great Northern Railway.

Jose P. Rogers