Riding through the floods Part 1: Bob Johnston’s Empire Builder notebook

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guest blog series from Bob Johnston

Covering the passenger rail beat is always a challenge, but sometimes you stumble across more opportunities than you bargained for.

That was especially true this past May and June, when massive flooding turned a train trip to North Dakota into a week-long rail adventure that had me riding trains in two different countries, going hundreds of miles out of the way. My discretionary train-riding soon gave way to booking trips of necessity, as travel options quickly shrunk in the weather-ravaged region.

Here's a blow-by-blow account of a week-long adventure that contributed to the research behind two stories in the September 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, the monthly Passenger column (page 18) and a News story (page 8).

Flooding disruptions had been on my radar as a column topic for almost a year, but there was no way to know how serious it would ultimately become during the summer of 2011 when I booked a roomette in the Empire Builder's Portland sleeper leaving Chicago on Sunday, May 30, to Minot, N.D.

The idea was to take photos out the rear window of the Builder as it crossed the Devils Lake Subdivision on Memorial Day morning, have a good breakfast in the full service diner ("eggs over easy, please"), rent a car in Minot from Rent-A-Wreck (downtown location), stay overnight at Rugby, N.D., and scout photo locations so I could capture the next morning's train as it passed over threatened bridges at Churchs Ferry, where water from the Devils Lake Basin had been lapping at the supporting beams.

Because of numerous slow orders between Grand Forks and Minot, the train wouldn't be hard to chase. After two mornings of shooting - the light should be good this time of year - I would drive to Canada to photograph both triweekly Toronto-Vancouver Canadians on Thursday, the only day both trains pass each other in daylight across Manitoba. Then back to Devils Lake that night and over to Minot Friday afternoon to return the car and wait for the eastbound train that evening back to Chicago. A good plan, right?

First, the bad news: Two private cars headed to Portland, Ore., were coupled to the back of the westbound Builder at Chicago, blocking the rear window view from sleeper 2720.

Now, the good news: The rear car was the brass-railed, open platform observation Caritas owned by Clark Johnson. After a brief conversation before the train left Chicago, he agreed to let me board at Grand Forks the next morning and take pictures into Minot. As it turned out, his gracious hospitality would last more than 20 hours.

Memorial Day dawned with rain splattering fiercely against the roomette window. The train was about 90 minutes late leaving Grand Forks after BNSF shop forces at Dilworth yard (Fargo) attended to a pesky main brake reservoir valve on lead P42 locomotive No. 141. 

The Devils Lake Subdivision out of Grand Forks was peppered with long sections of jointed rail and at least four stretches of 25- to 30-mph of slow orders. Aside from local freights serving industries east of Devils Lake and west of Churchs Ferry, where a BNSF branch diverges to the north, Amtrak 7 & 8 are the only trains on a line whose block signal system would allow 79-mph speeds if the tracks were good enough to support it.

BNSF Railway is obligated to maintain the track and signals, but has insisted publicly that it doesn't need the Devils Lake Sub for its through freights, which use the more direct KO Subdivision, or "Surrey Cutoff," between Fargo and Minot.

Although skies began to clear as the train approached Devils Lake two and a half hours late, the radio in the Caritas crackled with an ominous advisory: We would hold there until further notice. 

That early morning rainstorm had packed 60-mph winds, which kicked up standing water all across the Devils Lake Basin, causing 4-foot waves to crash onto the railroad causeway and bridge at Churchs Ferry. With standing water obscuring the rails, preventing a hi-rail inspection of the tracks to check for debris and assess the route's condition, BNSF officials closed the line just before the Builder got to Devils Lake. 

Passengers were informed of the situation and allowed to get off the train while strategists at Amtrak's Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) in Wilmington Del., weighed their options. Waiting for another BNSF inspection of the line and hoping for a reopening was quickly rejected. (Indeed, the line west of Devils Lake - with other flood-related complications looming - would not see another Empire Builder until July 18). Amtrak officials at CNOC decided the train should backtrack 160 miles to Fargo so it could then proceed west again to Minot over the KO Subdivision on the only available detour route.

But nothing on this adventure would turn out to be easy. Back-to-back locomotives 141 and 4 couldn't simply run around the train because the lone passing siding at Devils Lake was blocked with freight cars. Those of us on the Caritas were convinced that the best option would be to back the train "as is" about 24 miles east to a wye at Lakota, N.D. That could be done immediately without breaking the head-end power connections and give us a ringside seat during the back-up move! But that was a long back-up move, and no one could confirm the condition of the track on the lightly used wye. A derailment in rural North Dakota on Memorial Day? No thanks.

Amtrak operating management will wisely never take a chance on bad track. So the next two hours were consumed by manipulating the locomotives into the siding one by one so that 141 would now trail and 4 would lead, requiring cables to be detached and plugged in again between both P42s and the train, being careful not to keep the head-end power down for too long.

Passengers cooled their heels on the platform and the crew served lunch in the diner as scheduled, but the now-eastbound Builder didn't leave until 1:06 p.m. The train had to wait for a Shelby, Mont., relief operating crew to arrive by van from Minot (they had been scheduled to take the train west). But those Amtrak conductors and engineers were qualified only between Minot and Whitefish, Mont., and the St. Cloud, Minn.-based crew that had taken the train as far as Devils Lake had worked the federal maximum hours-of-service limit of 12 on-duty hours, so BNSF pilots also had to be called. Time for a nap in roomette 7 after lunch while raindrops again clicked against the window.

"The wine and cheese tasting for sleeping car passengers has been cancelled," intoned dining car lead service attendant Magan Walker. (I wrote: this must be what it had been like on the Titanic), "so that we can bring everyone into the dining car for a complimentary dinner. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience." She later told me, "I was just promoted to LSA and had heard about service disruptions but never encountered one before. There's always a first time!" 

This one was a doozy. Because the Builder would take a shortcut at Fargo for fueling at a remote location west of town, passengers would not be allowed off until Minot because there was no platform available to safely detrain them.

The on-board service crew's upbeat demeanor helped keep most of the 200-plus travelers satisfied that they were victims of a natural disaster beyond Amtrak's control 

After the fuel truck departed, the train threaded its way out of Fargo and onto the Surrey Cutoff at 6:03 p.m. GN's Empire Builder was carded on this route at 3 hours, 44 minutes, from Fargo to Minot in 1966, but our train would take almost 8.5 hours, pulling into Minot at 2:30 a.m. 

Although today's detour route is slightly longer because most trains avoid an unsignaled portion of the old GN main as far as Nolan, N.D. (dubbed the "Turkey Trail" by local railroaders), the primary reasons for our turtle-like progress were the combination of slow orders and freight congestion. We followed a freight all the way to Minot, while meeting opposing trains stashed in virtually every siding. Usually, we would wait on the main while an eastbound stack, coal, grain, or ethanol train moved into the passing track around the westbound freight we were following. Once in the clear, the Builder would shuffle forward. 

An unrelated half-hour delay occurred near Page, N.D., at 6:53 p.m., when a passenger became unruly after being caught smoking and was detained by the conductors. The crew called the state police, but 20 minutes after the call, while waiting for the officers at a rural grade crossing, the passenger bolted from the train and onto the right-of-way, walking up to the crossing. He disappeared as a diminishing speck on the highway, a testament to the enduring power of nicotine. Another 10 minutes was lost while the crew waited for permission to proceed. 

We threaded a half-dozen speed restrictions through areas where water collected behind riprap dumped next to the tracks. Still, the incredible congestion witnessed on the Empire Builder's detour makes it clear that the BNSF is in denial - at least publicly - of the need to divert some traffic back over the longer Devils Lake route (longer by 55 miles than the cutoff). Of course, sending even one through freight via Devils Lake would nullify the railroad's "we don't need it, so we don't want to pay for improvements" argument. 

Despite this stance, in June BNSF Railway president Matt Rose did announce a commitment to contribute at least a third of the $100 million estimated cost of line improvements necessary to bolster flood-prone areas and upgrade trackage on the Devils Lake Sub. Given that pledge and now that the line through Devils Lake is open again, maybe the railroad will reconsider its operating plan.

Next time: When flooding cancels his return train home, Bob Johnston heads for the border, and an improvised "Plan B" return on VIA Rail's Canadian.

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