Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Empire Builder’

Supporters of New Train Look to Next Year

July 9, 2019

Supporters of a second Amtrak train between Chicago and Twin Cities are taking a “wait ‘til next year” approach after failing this year to win state funding for development of the service.

The Minnesota legislature did not approve a request from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to pay for more environmental and design work and service planning.

“We’re kind of on life support for right now from our perspective, but we’re keeping the project moving forward,” said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Passenger Rail Office.

However, in Wisconsin the legislature did OK $300,000 to fund environmental work related to the project.

The proposed service would supplement the existing Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder that currently operates between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Supporters of the second train say the Empire Builder is delay prone, particularly headed eastbound.

“I think we finally got some momentum this legislative session,” said Mark Vaughan, chairman of the Great River Rail Commission, a group of local government officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin that supports efforts to add a second train.

Getting the second train started is projected to cost between $130 million and $140 million.

An Amtrak feasibility concluded that the service could attract 155,000 passengers annually, in addition to the existing 123,000 passengers riding the Empire Builder.

“You’d be providing an option for folks who don’t want to fly or drive, or can’t drive anymore or choose not to drive,” Krom said.

“A lot of people from Red Wing, Winona, La Crosse, Tomah, the Dells are getting on and off,” he said. “It’s providing access for people for those markets in between where there aren’t many options to fly.”

Amtrak Marks 90th Anniversary of Empire Builder

June 13, 2019

Amtrak this week observed the 90th anniversary of is Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The train was created by the Great Northern Railway with the first westbound train departing Chicago on June 10, 1929.

The train was named for James Hill, the “empire builder,” who in the late 19th century founded what became the GN.

GN and three railroads merged in 1970 to form Burlington Northern, which continued to operate the Empire Builder until May 1, 1971, when Amtrak took it over and changed the route to include Milwaukee by using what is now Canadian Pacific between Chicago and St. Paul.

In October 1979, the Empire Builder became the first overnight train to be assigned bi-level Superliner rail cars.

Amtrak said that last year 428,854 passengers rode the Empire Builder.

Funding OKed for Washington Passenger Study

June 10, 2019

The Washington state legislature has approved funding for a study of a cross-stand passenger train route.

The $250,000 study will look at using the former Northern Pacific line over Stampede Pass for the Seattle-Spokane, Washington train.

The route would pass through Yakima Auburn, Cle Elu, Ellensburg, Toppenish, and the Tri-Cities.

The study is due to be finished in June 2020 and will focus on potential ridership, station locations, equipment needs, and operator options. However, Amtrak is expected to operate the trains.

The route, if developed would be funded by the state in the same manner as those of other Amtrak corridor operations.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder currently operates between Seattle and Spokane via Stevens Pass.

The legislature also agreed to spend $671,000 for “continued analysis of the ultra-high-speed ground transportation corridor in a new study, with participation from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.

Some funding for that study is expected to come from other sources, including computer software developer Microsoft.

Wisconsin Committee Mulling Rail Funding Increase

June 6, 2019

A Wisconsin legislative commission is posed to vote on a request by the governor to spend $45 million more to increase Amtrak service.

Gov. Tony Evers has proposed the additional funding to be used to pay for three more daily roundtrips of the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service and another train that would operate between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

The funding request is before the budget committee, which is considering several requests from Evers, including some pertaining to highway funding.

Wisconsin currently funds seven Hiawatha roundtrips. Service between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, is provided by the Empire Builder, a long-distance train operating between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, Oregon.

Wisconsin rail advocates have long desired another train to supplement the Empire Builder, which they say is prone to delays, particularly eastbound.

A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers has said some Hiawatha Service trains are now standing room only during peak travel periods.

WisARP said it would be less expensive to add more trains than to attach an additional rail car or two to existing trains, because during slow periods those extra cars would be empty but still heavy.

Arun Rao of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation said his agency is talking with its counterparts in the Illinois Department of Transportation and the host railroads of Hiawatha Service about how to expand capacity in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

A proposal to add passing sidings in north suburban Chicago drew fierce opposition and IDOT recently said it would no longer support creation of sidings to enable freight trains to get out of the way of Amtrak and Metra trains.

“We would also be looking at incremental improvements. If we did a smaller subset of infrastructure, could we move up to an eighth round trip, and then ninth, and then tenth?” Rao said.

The funding for the proposed additional Chicago-Twin Cities train is needed to qualify for federal grants to help pay to develop the service.

WisDOT said that train could be operating within three to four years.

The committee considering the governor’s requests is controlled by Republican legislators whereas Evers is a Democrat.

There have already been conflicts in the legislature over other transportation spending as well as the overall state budget.

Washington to Study Cross-State Service

May 9, 2019

The transportation budget for Washington State includes an authorization to conduct a study of cross-state rail passenger service.

The proposed service would link Seattle and Spokane, Washington, via Ellensburg and Yakima.

The report is due by June 2020 and will evaluate route options, potential ridership, equipment needs, and operator options.

The study was pushed by All Aboard Washington, which had sought but failed to win authorization of the study last year. The study is expected to cost $250,000.

Neither Ellensburg or Yakima is currently served by Amtrak although they’ve had service in past year from either the Empire Builder or the discontinued North Coast Hiawatha.

Landslide Results in Cascades Suspension

April 10, 2019

Buses have temporarily replaced Amtrak Cascades service north of Seattle today and Thursday.

In a service advisory, Amtrak said the service suspension was triggered by a landslide along the BNSF route used by Amtrak.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder is not affected by the landslide near Bellingham, Washington, and all Cascades service continues to operate normally south of Seattle.

The chartered buses will operate between Seattle and Vancouver,  British Columbia, and make all scheduled intermediate stops.

Amtrak said it will rebook passengers without fare penalty on other trains if they need to change their reservations.

2nd Chicago-Twin Cities Trains Hinges on Funding

April 5, 2019

The rail manager of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation sounded an upbeat note about the prospects of launching a second Amtrak train in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor, but cautioned that it still hinges on whether the Wisconsin legislature appropriates the money to pay for it.

Arun Rao spoke at a meeting in Portage, Wisconsin, called by the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers.

He said the Federal Railroad Administration has granted WisDOT an exemption for completing the second phase of an environmental study after deciding the state had done enough already.

“This is very good news because it saves a lot of time and money,” Brown said. “It shortens the timeline, but the state budget is still the main thing to watch right now.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is seeking $45 million for passenger rail, although his proposal does not specify how much, if any, of that funding would be used for the Chicago-Twin Cities train.

Amtrak currently serves the route west of Milwaukee with the daily Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

South of Milwaukee Amtrak operates seven daily Hiawatha Service roundtrips, which are funded in part by Wisconsin.

“What we’ve heard, unofficially, is that some of the money would be used for the [Chicago-Twin Cities]train, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Terry Brown of WisARP.

WisARP has estimated that it will take $10 million to complete preliminary studies being conducted jointly by WisDOT and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Advocates of the train have argued that it would provide more reliable service than the Empire Builder, which is subject to delays.

The final design work for the Chicago-Twin Cities train has not yet been completed so such issues as capacity, equipment and scheduling are pending.

An earlier Amtrak study of the route concluded that a second Chicago-Twin Cities train would handle 155,000 passengers annually.

The route between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities has not had multiple daily train frequencies since the Chicago-Duluth, Minnesota, North Star, was discontinued between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 25, 1981.

Ready For the Dinner Crowd

March 29, 2019

A table in the dining car of the westbound Empire Builder is ready to accept passengers for dinner as they view the passing countryside in Wisconsin.

Napkins and silverware are in place, and menus have been set at each of the four seats. Water glasses have been filled and dinner checks are waiting on the edge of the table.

Although this image was made long before the most recent downgrading of on-board meal service on Amtrak’s eastern long-distance trains, it still reflects a certain level of austerity.

The water is served in plastic cups, for example, although the napkins and table covering are still cloth. That won’t be the case for lunch and breakfast.

Images such as this are ingrained in the imaginations of those who ride trains and/or advocate on their behalf.

Study Finds Economic Benefit of Chicago-St. Paul Train

March 4, 2019

The Railroad Passengers Association issued a research note last week that argues that a second daily train between Chicago and the Twin Cities would generate a $47 million annual economic benefit in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Of that, $25 million would benefit Minnesota. The train would divert 90,000 people from car travel to rail travel.

RPA said the economic benefits to Minnesota would be eight- to 10-times Minnesota’s annual net spending to support the potential new service, which is an estimated $2 to $3 million.

The association said its work was a follow-up to a study conducted by Amtrak in 2015.

It noted that the Amtrak study was confined to assessing the feasibility of adding a second train in addition to current Empire Builder.

RPA said its study looked at the total economic benefits of running a second train.

The RPA research note can be viewed at:


SW Chief, Builder Have Rough Weekends

February 27, 2019

Heavy snow and a freight train derailment hindered operations this week of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and Empire Builder.

The Empire Builder in both directions was delayed more than 10 hours after a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed near Tomah, Wisconsin, on Sunday.

No. 8 was already seven hours late when it was held another seven hours in La Crosse, Wisconsin, until the derailment could be cleared. It finally reached Chicago after 9 a.m. on Monday.

No. 7 was held at Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. By the time it passed the derailment site it was 11 hours behind schedule.

The Empire Builders that were to originate on Monday in Chicago and on the West Coast were canceled.

Heavy snow that fell in Flagstaff, Arizona, didn’t lead to any cancellations of the Southwest Chief, but Nos. 3 and 4 encountered delays of two hours fighting their way through the conditions.

Flagstaff received three feet of snow, which officials said was a record for the most snowfall in a single day.

Although not related to the Arizona storm, mechanical issues delayed the departure of No. 3 Friday Chicago on Sunday for 7.5 hours.