Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Empire Builder’

Another Montana County Joins Rail Effort

June 23, 2020

Another Montana county has joined the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which is seeking to restore Amtrak service to the former route of the defunct North Coast Hiawatha.

Dawson County joined with Missoula County in the agency thus enabling it to meet Montana law that provides that at least two counties must join an organization for it to have agency status.

Dawson County, with its county seat in Glendive, voted on June 16 to join the Big Sky agency.

Officials are seeking to entice other counties to join the effort to restore rail passenger service to Montana’s southern tier.

The North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in early October 1979 as part of a massive Amtrak restructuring effort that resorted in the discontinuance of several long-distance trains.

Amtrak’s only service to Montana is provided by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Construction Limits Access to Grand Forks Station

June 8, 2020

Passengers boarding Amtrak’s Empire Builder are being urged to use caution when using the station at Grand Forks, North Dakota, during construction.

Work got underway last week to replace the boarding platform and remodel the restrooms to make them ADA compliant.

Normal access to the station is limited by fencing around the station and platform.

Work will be done in two phases, with access to the station limited during both. Portable restrooms have been installed next to the station building.

The project is estimated to be completed in six months.

Hiawatha Service Restoration to Begin June 1

May 26, 2020

Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee was will be gradually restored starting June 1 with one roundtrip.

Additional weekday service will return on June 29. Amtrak suspended Hiawatha Service in favor of a Thruway bus on April 24.

Starting June 1, Train No. 332, which departs Milwaukee at 8:05 a.m. will resume along with No. 339, which departs Chicago at 5:08 p.m.

On June 29 Amtrak will restores Nos. 330, 332, 338 and 342 southbound, and Nos. 329, 331, 337 and 339. Nos. 330 and 329 will operate Monday through Friday only.

The Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder, which uses the same route as the Hiawathas, will continue to stop at all stations served by Hiwathas through June 29.

Effective with that date Nos. 7/27 and 8/28 will cease stopping at Sturtevant and the Milwaukee Airport stations.

Hiawatha tickets will no longer be honored aboard the Empire Builder effective June 29.

Reservations will be required for travel on all trains and passengers must weak a fabric mask.

Amtrak’s April Ridership Was Bad, But Bookings for Long-Distance Trains is Looking Promising

May 23, 2020

Amtrak ridership data for April was released this past week and it showed a sharp plunge compared with a year ago.

In April 2020 Amtrak handled 120,000 passengers compared to 2.7 million who rode in April 2019.

The ridership drop is attributed largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northeast Corridor handled 19,000 passengers, a drop of 97.5 percent from a year earlier. It was the steepest ridership plunge system wide on a percentage basis.

Amtrak lost 87 percent of its passengers on the San Joaquin route in California.

Ridership of state-funded corridors fell 96 percent while the long-distance trains saw ridership fall 86.8 percent.

Year-to-date ridership is down 21 percent and revenues has fallen by 19 percent.

Amtrak expects those figures to grow and they might have been larger than they were but for strong ridership and revenue performances earlier in the year before social distancing measures were imposed.

In a related matter, the Amtrak vice president who oversees long-distance trains said the use of prepackaged meals for sleeper class passengers on Western trains will continue for at least another month.

Larry Chestler told the Rail Passengers Association that Amtrak has begun to see some early signs of recovery on many routes.

However, he cited safety and continued lagging ridership for waiting to restore traditional dining car service to the Western trains.

Chestler said the carrier will evaluate ridership data in late June and determine at that time whether to restore traditional dining car service.

The prepackaged meals have been served to sleeper class passengers on Eastern long-distance trains since June 2019 and were extended to all of those trains last October.

Although the long-distance trains have seen steep ridership drops, Chestler said those declines have been smaller than on other routes.

A recent rise in bookings for long-distance trains have given Amtrak some hope that higher demand is coming, Chestler said.

“Whether that means there’s more demand for summer it’s too soon to say,” he said.

In particular, bookings are trending upward for Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief with some growth also starting to show for the California Zephyr and Empire Builder.

Chestler said bookings are coming back “from the bottom of the bottom,” which Amtrak reached during the period of mid April to early May when it averaged 3,000 passengers a day nationwide.

Since then Amtrak ridership has doubled that, but it’s still well below what it would otherwise be at this time of year.

Some of the ridership of long-distance trains has occurred in regions where corridor trains have been suspended or reduced in frequency.

An example would be the Empire Builder between Chicago and Milwaukee where Hiawatha Service was suspended in favor of a once a day Thruway bus.

Before the pandemic, Amtrak operated seven daily roundtrips between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Chestler said Amtrak management considered continuing into the summer the reduced consists that began operating during the pandemic.

But management elected to move from what he termed “a kind of quasi-minimum” to restoring capacity for the summer.

“Had we reduced to the May levels [for the summer] we would have had a number of trains where we would have been essentially sold out already” in coach, Chestler said.

That doesn’t mean all of the seats would have been occupied because Amtrak for now is selling only half of the capacity of each coach assigned to a train in order to maintain social distancing.

“On the [Southwest] Chief and the [California] Zephyr and the [Empire] Builder there’s more sleepers [and] typically one more coach,” he said.

“We’ve balanced the use of baggage coaches and other kinds of cars to put an appropriate amount of capacity” in place “to capture demand signals from customers,” Chestler said.

Amtrak management is mindful that reducing capacity also could dampen the return of demand because the seats aren’t available.

Minnesota Lawmakers Haggle Over Bonding Bill

May 16, 2020

Political wrangling in Minnesota has complicated efforts to institute a second Amtrak train between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Minnesota lawmakers were haggling over bonding authority in the waning hours of their current legislative session and have until Sunday night to finish their work.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is seeking $10 million in bonding authority for track and signal improvements to the route of the second train, which would supplement the Empire Builder, a long-distance train that operates west of the Twin Cities to Seattle and Portland.

The bonding authority is needed for Minnesota and Wisconsin to commit $25 million in local matching funds in order to qualify for $50 million in federal money from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program.

Wisconsin lawmakers have approved $10 million in bonding and landed a $12.6 million in federal start-up grant for the first three years of operation of the train.

Amtrak has agreed to pay $5 million toward the new train.

The standoff in the Minnesota legislature is in part a fight between the state’s Democratic governor and Republican members of the House over the governor’s use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rail Passengers Association reported on Friday that some supporters of the second train proposal believe the threat by GOP lawmakers to block the bonding bill has abated because Senate Republicans disagree with their colleagues in the House about bonding issue strategy.

Gov. Tim Walz proposed the $10 million bonding authority for MnDOT for the Chicago-Twin Cities second train.

A House bonding bill includes $40 million that would also include the proposed Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth, the second Chicago-Twin Cities train, and an expansion of Northstar commuter service

A Senate bill has proposed proposed $15 million for the second Chicago-Twin Cities train and the Northern Lights Express.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, said earlier this week that the fact that Walz is allowing his stay-at-home order to expire on May 18 and to allow more businesses to reopen while observing safety guidelines might be enough to break the bonding bill deadlock.

RPA contends that a second Chicago-Twin Cities train will not adversely affect Empire Builder ridership.

The rail passenger advocacy group said many of the riders for the new train would be former bus passengers or new patrons who are not riding Amtrak.

New Chicago-Twin Cities Train Seen as Possible Within 2 Years if Funding Falls Into Place

May 15, 2020

Additional Amtrak service could be operating within two years but it faces a big if.

Proponents of the service need to find $25 million in funding from the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin to make the service happen by that timeline as well as land another federal grant.

Wisconsin recently received a $12.6 million federal grant to be used to help pay the startup cost for the service. Amtrak has agreed to pay another $5 million.

The service would operate on the same route of the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder between Chicago and St. Paul.

The federal grant came from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Restoration and Enhancement grants program.

The $25 million from Wisconsin and Minnesota would be used as the local match for another federal grant, this one for $50 million, that the Great River Rail Commission is seeking through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has asked the state legislature for $10 million to pay for track and signal improvements.

That authority, if approved, would match $10 million in bonding authority from Wisconsin.

The Chicago-Twin Cities train would make all of the same stops made by the Empire Builder but add the Milwaukee’s airport and Sturtevant, Wisconsin, stops that are skipped by Nos. 7 and 8.

Track Work Disrupts Empire Builder

May 15, 2020

Track work being performed by BNSF is disrupting operations of the Empire Builder through May 27.

On Monday through Friday No. 7 will terminate in Spokane, Washington, with alternate transportation being provided to the missed intermediate stations of Edmonds, Everett, Leavenworth, Wenatchee and Ephrata.

Thruway Bus 3007 will operate from Spokane to Seattle connecting from No. 7 at Spokane.

Train No. 8 will originate at Spokane with alternate transportation being  provided to Ephrata, Wenatchee, Leavenworth, Everett and Edmonds.

Bus 3008 will operate from Seattle to Spokane connecting with Train 8 at Spokane.

There will be no track work on Saturdays, Sundays or May 25 (Memorial Day).

FRA Awards Grants for Passenger Rail Projects

May 7, 2020

The Federal Railroad Administration announced this week that it has awarded more than $22 million in grant funding to three passenger-rail projects affecting eight states.

The money from the Restoration and Enhancement Grant Program is aimed at projects to “initiate, restore or enhance intercity passenger-rail service around the country,” FRA officials said in a news release release.

The grants will help fund a possible expansion of Amtrak service between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, a possible restoration of Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast and improving CTrail Service in Connecticut.

The Southern Rail Commission received $5.45 million to be used to implement Amtrak service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation received $12,569,200 toward the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger-Rail Service Project.

The project calls for adding a second daily roundtrip train between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, to supplement Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The additional train would provide more convenient travel times and serve 12 stations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation received $4,395,616 for the CTrail-Hartford Line Rail Enhancement Project.

That project envisions two additional weekday trains between New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts.

The additional service will allow for more connections with MTA Metro-North Railroad and Amtrak trains.

Empire Builder in Portland

April 28, 2020

The Empire Builder is well known as a Chicago-Seattle train, but it also has a section that splits at Spokane, Washington, and operates to Portland, Oregon.

In the photo above Train No. 27 has arrived at Portland Union Station and discharged its passengers.

The equipment will be turned, cleaned and restocked before going out later today as Train No. 28.

P42DC No. 1 not only led No. 27 into Portland but it also will lead No. 28 out. At Spokane, No. 1 will become the lead unit for the combined Empire Builder all the way to Chicago.

No Stopping in Sturtevant

April 25, 2020

Amtrak’s eastbound Empire Builder blasts past the former Milwaukee Road passenger station in Sturtevant, Wisconsin, in May 2006.

Although Sturtevant is scheduled stop for Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service trains, the Empire Builder just passes through.