Chronic Delays Took Their Toll on Revenue, Ridership in FY 2015 of Amtrak’s Empire Builder

Amtrak ticket sales on its 15 long-distance routes dropped by $13 million in fiscal year 2015 and one of the biggest “losers” among them was the Empire Builder.

Ticket revenue for the Chicago-Seattle/Portland train fell by $4 million to $50.5 million, which was a 7.3 percent decline.

Empire Builder ridership fell by 3 percent to 438,000 passengers. That was the seventh fastest drop among the 15 lines on the national network.

Petroleum was at the center of the woes of Nos. 7 and 8 in the former of cheaper gasoline prices that enticed some to drive who might have taken the train.

Another factor was delays caused by freight congestion that was triggered by rising traffic carrying crude oil on the BNSF route used by the train.

“We’ve had some tough operating years,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “There was a lot of freight congestion in 2013, 2014.

Of course the oil boom also benefited the Empire Builder. Minot and Williston, North Dakota, both located in the heart of the oil fields, were second only to Chicago in origins and destinations for passengers beginning or ending their journey in Minnesota.

But ridership along the Minnesota and Twin Cities portion of the line has been off substantially.

Since 2008, a year of severe spikes in gas prices, Minnesota ridership has fallen from nearly 200,000 to 136,000 in 2014. In the Twin Cities alone, ridership dropped from 138,000 to 90,000 during that same period, even as hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in St. Paul Union Depot.

Overall, Amtrak ridership dipped slightly from 30.92 million passengers in FY 2014 to 30.88 million in FY 2015.

Amtrak’s Magliari said the Empire Builder has started to see better days.

“We’ve started to see improvements, but our on-time performance is still not what we’d like it to be, though it’s better than it was,” he said. “We had strong gains in the last few months of the fiscal year as we had a more reliable, better product, and we expect to improve even more.”


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