What’s Behind Empire Builder Troubles? Plenty

There as a time when the Empire Builder had one of the best on-time records of Amtrak’s long-distance fleet. But then an oil boom happened and that combined with a bountiful harvest in the plains to cause rail freight traffic to skyrocket. Further complicating matters has been severe winter weather.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland trains got caught in the middle and the results were not pretty. The Builder often operated hours late.

Amtrak last week annulled complete operation of the Empire Builder on select days in an effort to “reset” its equipment pool.

It hopes that it will be able to position equipment and staff so that the train can adequately serve holiday travelers over its 2,200 mile route.

Trains magazine reported last week that Amtrak does have enough equipment to originate a section of the Builder in every instance in which the train doesn’t arrive at a terminal in time for a quick turn-around.

The Chicago and Seattle terminals have some spare “protect” equipment that can be assigned to the next outbound train if mechanical problems develop, but only Chicago normally has enough Superliners to create an entire train.

Operating crew assignments are designed for crew base along the route, but there are a limited number of “extra board” conductors and engineers available to fill in at each location.

On-board service employees are based in Seattle, but the Portland coaches, lounge, and sleeper are staffed from the Chicago crew base.

If the westbound Empire Builder is delayed more than five hours, it is short-turned at Spokane and buses transport passengers west of there. This is done to enable the eastbound train to depart Spokane on time.

No. 8 could incur up to 14 hours of delay and the equipment would still have time in Chicago for servicing. However, the staffing assignments would be severely disrupted.
Winter storms in early December further delayed the Empire Builder and exhausted the Chicago base of extra cars

But winter weather is just one piece of the puzzle that Amtrak must deal with in getting the Empire Builder over the road in a timely manner.

The crude oil boom in North Dakota’s Bakken formation has led to increased freight traffic on the BNSF’s Hi Line and stretched the capacity of the track to the limit.

BNSF is expanding the route’s capacity, but the freight demand has outstretched those efforts.

At times, virtually every siding on the route has been filled with mile-long freight trains awaiting crews and/or power. This has deprived dispatchers of the operating flexibility needed to move trains.

No. 8 is scheduled to arrive into Chicago at 3:55 p.m., which provide ample time for passengers to connect to the Cardinal, Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited and City of New Orleans as well as the Midwest corridor fleets of trains bound for Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Carbondale, Ill.; Quincy, Ill.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Port Huron, Mich.

The average delay for the Empire Builder has reached 310 minutes, or a little over five hours. At the same time, ridership on the Empire Builder has risen and it is often booked full.

In recent weeks, No. 8 has pulled up to the bumper post at Chicago Union Station at such times as 4:05 a.m., 9:33 p.m., 12:20 a.m., and 3:30 a.m.

Hence, Amtrak’s decision to cancel the Empire Builder between Minneapolis and Spokane in mid December while still operating service between Chicago and the Twin Cities, and between Spokane and Seattle.

Full daily operation of the Empire Builder was to resume on Dec. 15 westbound and Dec. 16 eastbound.

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One Response to “What’s Behind Empire Builder Troubles? Plenty”

  1. unclemikey Says:

    Thank you for summarizing what’s going on in one place. I’ve been following the news ahead of an upcoming trip (and out of general interest in the EB, as the only train that serves the Twin Cities).

    I think the EB is in for a rough couple of years, honestly, while BNSF actually gets its infrastructure up to snuff. It’s frustrating that BNSF has been slow to see the need. Granted they don’t care all that much about the EB, per se, but their own traffic is clearly suffering as well!

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