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ND train depot booms with oil patch passengers

James Macpherson, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Armies of workers migrating to and from North Dakota's rich oil fields have made Williston's train depot the busiest Amtrak stop in the state and the fastest-growing station in the nation, the railroad said.

The once-sleepy little train station in western North Dakota where the sole ticket agent knew passengers by name is now overflowing with oil workers, Amtrak regional manager Dan Valley said.

"Now it's strangers from the oil field," Valley said. "You can walk in and smell the petroleum."

Not that the federally funded rail corporation is complaining. The spike in ridership at the Williston depot helped offset losses the railroad suffered last year due to heavy spring flooding in North Dakota and other parts of the upper Midwest.

The number of people getting on and off Amtrak's Empire Builder trains at the seven stations in North Dakota dropped 10.6 percent in fiscal 2011, to about 111,000 passengers, compared with the previous fiscal year. However, at the stations in the heart of the oil patch, Williston and nearby Stanley, ridership increased despite several months of disruptions due to flooding and track damage.

Williston's ridership grew by more than 5,330 people in the last fiscal year, and it served nearly 30,000 passengers. Stanley depot served 6,146 passengers, or nearly 1,600 more than it did during the previous 12 months, railroad records show.

In Minot, which is on the fringe of the oil patch, passenger service was interrupted for five months last year due to flooding. The number of riders who passed through the station dropped from 40,360 in fiscal 2010 to 29,179 in fiscal 2011.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the Williston stop on Empire Builder is on track to be among the busiest along the Chicago-to-Pacific Northwest Empire Builer route, surpassing ridership in passing through stations in some bigger cities, such as St. Paul, Minn.

Some 4,500 people got on or off the train in Williston in January, which were the latest figures available. Magliari said the railroad expects the numbers to climb as oil production increases.

Ridership on the Empire Builder from October to February was jumped more than 10,000 passengers to 207,417 compared to the same period a year earlier, Magliari said.

The 5.1 percent ridership increase on the line — much of it attributed to oil patch passengers in western North Dakota — compares to a 3.2 percent rise in ridership nationally, Magliari said.

North Dakota's oil rush is boosting ridership all along the railroad's network as itinerant oil workers travel by train to the state and head back home during time off, Valley said.

"Even stations that are nowhere close to Williston, the impact is still there," Valley said. "It's not going to die down anytime soon."

Valley, who has been with Amtrak for 25 years, said the railroad has never seen such explosive growth in such a short time.

"Williston, North Dakota," he said. "Who would have thought?"

Amtrak is in the process of hiring a second fulltime station worker at Williston to help keep pace with passengers, Valley said.