STANLEY Keith Salsbury was waiting at the Amtrak station in Stanley Wednesday for the westbound train to take him home to his wife and kids.
It's a trip that he's made about once a month since coming to the Stanley area to work three years ago. In those three years, he's seen Amtrak activity pick up considerably.
"This past year, there's been quite a bit of people," he said.
Robert Rife, of West Richland, Wash., now living at Ross, gets a ticket Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the Minot Amtrak Depot ticket counter from station agent Doneta Skinn. The west end of the building has been serving as the temporary passenger waiting room and ticket counter since the depot resumed operation this past November.
The Amtrak train stops Wednesday in Stanley, one of the stations on the Empire Builder route that has seen tremendous ridership growth.
Statistics bear him out. Ridership at the Stanley station is up 71 percent for the fiscal year through July, compared to the same period a year ago, according to figures from Amtrak. The number of passengers getting on and off is estimated to reach 10,000 by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, up from 6,146 passengers in 2011.
Ridership at the Williston station is up 84 percent for the fiscal year so far. Passenger numbers are projected to reach 55,000 by the end of September, a jump from 29,920 passengers in 2011.
Williston, which has been the 11th most active station on the Empire Builder line, is expected to become the sixth busiest. Stanley is on a rise from about 40th place to 24th, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, Chicago.
In Williston, the depot waiting area was doubled in size to accommodate more passengers, Magliari said. Passengers with reservations receive automated messages prior to their departure date to remind them to allow extra time for boarding. Williston has had a slight increase in staff, but there are no plans to staff the Stanley station, which currently doesn't employ any Amtrak agents.
The focus for Minot's depot is reconstruction after damage from the 2011 flood. The temporary closing of the station due to flood damage last year negatively affected ridership. Through July this year, ridership is at 31,286 passengers. The peak year was 42,801 passengers in 2008.
Amtrak advises people to book early to ensure seats and save on fares. Even with the amount of summer travel, though, a recent check of August availability showed it was possible to get next-day coach seats.
Federal stimulus money helped Amtrak make room for passengers by taking about 100 cars out of storage and putting them into service, although those cars are spread out around the country
"We don't have a fleet of cars sitting around waiting for assignment, especially in the peak travel season," Magliari said. "We have been able to add to the fleet, but in terms of a dramatic increase in the size of the trains, I don't believe there's been one."
Amtrak's biggest challenge hasn't been passenger numbers but keeping trains running on schedule.
During July, the Empire Builder had an on-time rate of just 13.2 percent, which compares to 63 percent as a 12-month average. A train is considered late if it misses the schedule by 30 minutes.
The unusual summer heat, which affects the condition of the tracks, contributed to delays associated with track maintenance and repairs, Magliari said.
"More than half the delays were caused by train interference and work going on with the track and rails to maintain the infrastructure," he said.
Track and signal issues, including reduced speeds, contributed to 28.3 percent of delays in July. Train interference due to multiple uses of the track accounted for 21.9 percent, and passenger issues made up 18.3 percent. Passenger issues include connection delays, assisting ill or injured passengers or passengers needing boarding help.
Oil activity in the Bakken Field has affected Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad as it has other businesses operating in western North Dakota. However, railroad officials don't see that extra rail activity interfering with Amtrak service.
BNSF runs about 31 to 36 trains a day through Minot, said spokeswoman Amy McBeth, Minneapolis.
"Train counts have been fairly consistent for the last several years so we have the capacity now to certain meet the business needs of our customers and the current Amtrak service. Rail volume is still below the peak that the freight industry saw in 2006," McBeth said. "We absolutely have the capacity to meet current business on those tracks and certainly expand business as well."