Riding through the floods Part 2: What do you do when train cancellations put you inside the story you’re covering?

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Monday, July 25, 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).

Part Two

After fierce rain pummeled North Dakota, my routine Memorial Day trip on Amtrak's Empire Builder turned into a rare-mileage opportunity (see Part 1), and a 336-mile detour that put us into Minot, N.D., my destination, at 2:30 a.m., 18 hours late.

Because I had paid for a motel room 60 miles from Minot in Rugby, N.D., Monday night, I was fortunate that the Rent-A-Wreck agent was able to work out a way for me to pick up the car, a 2007 Buick Riviera, without having to sign paperwork. Driving across U.S. 2 through one of the heaviest sustained rainstorms ever encountered, I arrived at the motel at 4:45 a.m. 

A few hours later, though, it was time for breakfast in Rugby with funeral home businessman and former mayor Dale Niewoehner, who has been a vocal Amtrak supporter since the 1990s when he made a big deal of then-president Tom Downs refusing to step off the eastbound Builder after it had been cut back from daily to four times per week. Love the guy! 

Then we visited Amtrak station agent Duane Veach, who confirmed that only local BNSF freights had been using the line through Rugby before flooding closed it. 

Veach told a woman whose sister was going to Williston that the Builder would be running through Rugby again by Friday after one day of detours and two of outright cancellation west of St. Paul while equipment was being repositioned. Meanwhile, over at Churchs Ferry, a ballast regulator was tamping the roadbed across the causeway, fighting high winds amid whitecaps where 4-foot waves had stopped service the previous day. Hard to believe that this had once been fertile farmland.

I e-mailed the shot back to Trains Associate Editor Andy Cummings from a motel in Devils Lake and we had it on the NewsWire that afternoon. 

Thankfully, Wednesday dawned with abundant sunshine, so I drove back to chronicle how the flooding had disrupted the countryside and just how high the water was at the Churchs Ferry bridge even on a calm day. The tracks had been cleaned up and the line looked ready for trains. At least I could get a photo of the westbound morning Builder Friday before driving back to Minot to catch the eastbound.

But not so fast. Over a lunchtime burger and onion rings at a Bob Evans in Devils Lake, the cell phone rang. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was calling to explain that the Souris River at Minot was projected to flood the tracks in front of the station there by the next day, making resumption of the Empire Builder through the area impossible.

As he was talking, an Amtrak reservationist was leaving a voicemail saying that my train back to Chicago on Friday had been canceled and there was no alternate transportation.

Much more serious flooding from the Souris - or as locals have named it, the Mouse River - would force extensive mandatory evacuations later in June, damage over 4000 homes, and knock out movement on all BNSF and Canadian Pacific lines through Minot.

In addition to daily Chicago-St. Paul service, trains 7 and 8 from Seattle (with a bus connection to and from Portland, Ore., filling in for trains 27 and 28 at Spokane) would make a same-day turn at Havre, Mont., for almost a month. The first Builder passed through Minot on July 18, but damage to the station and its platform from floodwaters precluded it from stopping there.

What now? I suddenly had to get the car back to Minot that afternoon before roads became impassable (Rent-A-Wreck wouldn't let me drive it to another location). But with intercity buses no closer than Bismarck in the middle of the state, the only public transportation out of Minot would be to Minneapolis on Delta Airlines - assuming there were any high-priced, last-minute seats available.

The situation illustrates just how dependent the area is on Amtrak's daily Empire Builder, and the significant disruptions that occur when the train is not running.

Next time: Will Bob Johnston get home? An improvised "Plan B" finds him heading across the border to Canada.

Related posts:
Part 1

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