Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Empire Builder’

Chargers Pull Test Train on Empire Builder Route

February 3, 2020

Amtrak is operating a test train on three routes that is being pulled by a pair of Siemens Charger locomotives.

The consist included two SC-44 units, a P42DC locomotive, a Horizon Fleet car, three Viewliners baggage cars, a Viewliner passenger car and four Superliner cars.

The train operated from Chicago to Seattle last Tuesday and was designed to simulate the weight and length of a long-distance train.

“The purpose of this trip is to gather data,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, adding that officials from Amtrak and Siemens were on the train.

Additional tests runs are being made on the routes of the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

An online report indicated that the test train departed on the route of the Zephyr on Sunday morning and is due into Chicago on Tuesday afternoon.

Amtrak said in December 2018 that it would purchase 75 Siemens Charger locomotives for long-distance trains to replace its GE-built P40 and P42DC locomotives.

The Genesis series locomotives have been in service for more than 25 years.

The Chargers are expected to begin arriving at Amtrak in mid 2021.

Currently Chargers are in service on corridor trains in the Midwest and West.

Empire Builder Still Disrupted

January 16, 2020

BNSF was still working to reopen its Scenic Subdivision in Washington State that is used by Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

The route has been closed due to downed trees and wires caused by snowslides.

An Amtrak spokeswoman told Trains magazine on Wednesday that the carrier was providing bus service between Seattle and Spokane, Washington. Buses were also being operated for passengers traveling between Spokane and Portland, Oregon.

Olivia Irvin said Amtrak would resume operating west of Spokane when it safe to do and host railroad BNSF give the OK.

The Amtrak website showed that the status of the westbound Builder from Chicago today (Jan. 16) as unavailable due to a service disruption.

The site also shows the same for No. 7 that is scheduled to depart on Friday and Saturday.

The last Empire Builder to operate across the BNSF Scenic Sub ran on Jan. 11.

Trains that originated on or before Jan. 11 headed eastbound were subject to major delays.

No. 8 that left the West Coast on Jan. 10 was delayed for more than nine hours at Leavenworth, Washington, due to weather conditions. Irvin said there were 68 passengers on board that train.

Severe Weather Results in Empire Builder Cancellations

January 15, 2020

Some sections of Amtrak’s Empire Builder were canceled this week in the wake of severe winter weather that closed host railroad BNSF in the Pacific Northwest.

Amtrak issued a service alert that the rain that departed Chicago on Jan. 13 would turn at Spokane, Washington. The train departing Chicago on Jan. 14 was also expected to turn at Spokane.

However, a check of the Amtrak website indicated that the depart status for both of those dates was unavailable due to a service disruption.

A later update indicated that alternative service was to be provided for Empire Builder passengers between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Amtrak also said in a service alert that alternative transportation is being provided between Spokane and Seattle and Portland.

Trains 7 and 27 scheduled to depart today (Jan. 15) from Chicago have been canceled. The Amtrak website said the status for Nos. 7 and 27 for Jan. 16 to 20 through  is unavailable due to a service disruption.

An online report said Nos. 8/28 did not arrive in Chicago on Jan. 14th and will not arrive today.

A service alert said Nos. 8/28 on Jan. 16 and 17 will originate in Spokane.

The BNSF mainline across Washington State saw heavy snow trigger snowslides and downed trees.

At one point the Scenic Subdivision between Seattle and Wenatchee had more than 250 trees fall across its rails.

Empire Builder Returning to Normal

January 6, 2020

Amtrak’s Empire Builder is slowly making its way back to normal after its route reopened in Idaho.

The route had closed on Jan. 1 after a westbound BNSF train derailed near Katka, about 10 miles east of Bonners Ferry, on the Kootenai River Subdivision.

The derailment closed the route for three days and sent Empire Builder passengers riding a bus west of Whitefish, Montana.

BNSF said a rockslide caused the derailment in which there were no injuries.

On Sunday the westbound Builder reached Whitefish  more than 8 hours late because of delays on the previous eastbound run.

Trains that originated in Seattle and Portland on Sunday were on time as they were traveling to Spokane, Washington, where they combine into a single train for Chicago.

No. 8 arrived in Spokane 37 minutes early while No. 28 was 30 minutes early.

BNSF Idaho Derailment Disrupts Empire Builder

January 4, 2020

Operations of Amtrak’s Empire Builder were disrupted this week due to a derailment of a BNSF freight train in Idaho that closed the carrier’s route to the Pacific Northwest.

The westbound manifest freight derailed on Wednesday evening on BNSF’s Kootenai River Subdivision near Katka, about 10 miles east of Bonners Ferry.

Three locomotives and six cars left the tracks with the lead unit landing in the Kootenai River.

Rescue workers had to use ropes to rescue the crew, but otherwise there were no injures.A rockslide is thought to have caused the derailment.

Amtrak’s Chicago to Seattle Train No. 7 was turned on Thursday at Whitefish, Montana, after it received serving in the BNSF yard.

That included restocking the dining car with food from local grocery stores.

Passengers were taken west of Whitefish on chartered buses.

Trains 8 and 28 were expected to depart Seattle and Portland respectively on Friday as normal. The train that departed Chicago on Thursday was to be held in Whitefish on Friday until BNSF reopens the line.

Remembering The Empire Builder’s 70th Anniversary

January 3, 2020

For the 70th anniversary of the Empire Builder in 1999, Amtrak commissioned artist J. Craig Thorpe to create a design that would appear on a commemorative menu cover to be used aboard the train.

I rode No. 6 to Chicago in 1999 when those menus were being used. I asked the dining car steward if I could have one but she said no.

So the reproduction above was scanned from a menu that I later purchased from Amtrak.

Back then the Empire Builder even had its own magazine, which was published twice a year.

In a piece written for the National Park Traveler, Thorpe noted that he had created paintings of the Empire Builder in various settings at the eastern end of Glacier National Park and ridden the train to and from the park.

He describes his work in illustrating the Empire Builder in the park in the article, which can be found here:

The Empire Builder has since celebrated its 80th and 90th anniversaries and although Amtrak did mark it occurred in a more muted way.

A news release noted that passengers departing Chicago on the 90th anniversary of the Empire Builder received commemorative certificates. Sleeping car passengers received a wooden train whistle.

The online Amtrak store had for sale prints of some of Thorpe’s paintings of the Empire Builder along with other merchandise. But there was no special menu cover.

Given the view that the current Amtrak management has toward long-distance trains and its emphasis on saving every possible dime, it seems unlikely that we’ll see menu covers like the one above again anytime soon.

Senator Presses Amtrak to Restore Ticket Agents

January 3, 2020

Montana Senator Jon Tester has asked Amtrak to restore ticket agents to two stations in his state as soon as possible.

Tester made the request of Amtrak President Richard Anderson in the wake of congressional approval of a fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill that included a policy rider that Amtrak restore ticket agents to some stations where they have been removed in recent years.

In Montana that includes Wolf Point, Havre and Shelby, all of which are served by the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

The policy rider directs Amtrak to restore agents to sell tickets and provide customer service to stations that lost agents in 2018 if those stations served an average of 25 or more passengers a day. That would include Havre and Shelby.

In his letter to Anderson, Tester emphasized the importance of ticket agents at rural stations, saying they do more than sell tickets. They also help passengers board, handle baggage and provide information about their communities.

Amtrak policy requires that unaccompanied minors can only board an Amtrak train at stations with a ticket agent.

Amtrak said it removed ticket agents at some stations as a way to cut costs and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

The passenger carrier has said that most of its passengers purchase tickets online.

In place of ticket agents, Amtrak has contracted with people who act as station caretakers who open the waiting room in advance of train time and keep it clean.

Amtrak has been loath to replace caretakers with ticket agents even in the face of a congressional resolution approved earlier.

Instead, Amtrak has argued that caretakers meet the requirements of congressional intent of having someone at a station who provides customer support but not the sale of tickets or the handling of baggage.

In some communities, volunteers provide information to passengers although they are not authorized to sell tickets.

Illinois Gov. Meets With Opponents of Adding Holding Tracks to Enable Expansion of Hiawatha Service

December 16, 2019

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker met last week in Glenview with a group of residents who are opposed to a plan to build a holding track for freight trains in the north Chicago suburbs.

The track is a component of a plan being pushed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to expand the number of Hiawatha Service trains from seven to 10.

Canadian Pacific has insisted on the holding track before it will agree to consider hosting additional Amtrak trains in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

The private meeting was between Pitzker and Glenview and Lake Forest municipal leaders, state representatives and senators, a Cook County commissioner and an activist from Glenview’s Alliance to Control Train Impacts on Our Neighborhoods.

Home owners along the tracks used by CP, Amtrak and Metra commuter trains have argued that freight trains might sit for long periods of time and cause noise and air pollution.

The residents also argue their property values would be adversely affected.

CP trains might have to sit on the holding track before being permitted onto a Union Pacific line that CP uses to reach its yard in Bensonville.

The acting Illinois Secretary of Transportation had written in a May 2019 letter to State Sens. Laura Fine  and Julie Morrison that the Illinois Department of Transportation no longer supports construction of the holding track.

IDOT and WisDOT fund Hiawatha Service, which is operated by Amtrak.

The Hiawatha expansion plan dates to 2012. Various plans have been presented that called for creating holding tracks between Willow Road and West Lake Avenue in Glenview and holding track in Northbrook, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Rondout and Bannockburn.

Some of those planned sidings have been dropped, but the sidings in in Glenview and Lake Forest remain under discussion.

Glenview officials have been particularly outspoken against creating the holding tracks and have challenged a preliminary environmental assessment on the grounds that it failed to adequately take into account such issues as air pollution, noise, vibration and traffic impacts.

The village of Glenview has approved spending $400,000 for additional studies and lobbying efforts.

Glenview officials have also called for Amtrak to add additional passenger cars to existing Hiawatha trains rather than increasing the number of trains operating in the Chicago-Milwaukee corridor.

WisDOT officials have said the additional trains are needed because of crowding aboard existing trains and expected passenger growth in the corridor, which also hosts the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder.

Glenview is a station stop for all Amtrak trains operating between Chicago and Milwaukee, including the Empire Builder.

Village officials have also expressed the view that Amtrak its state partners could acquire rail cars with additional capacity, a move that WisDOT and IDOT are making by buying new cars that are expected to go into service as early as 2020.

Amtrak Handled Heavy Loads During Thanksgiving

December 3, 2019

Amtrak trains ran most full with many selling out during the Thanksgiving travel period.

A survey conducted by Trains magazine found there were numerous sell-outs or near sell-outs on Sunday between New York and Boston.

Winter weather may have helped boost travel on Sunday in the East. Weather related delays were mostly minimal in the Northeast Corridor, averaging about 30 minutes.

In the Midwest, Trains found that all Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Michigan trains sold out on Wednesday and Sunday.

Some seats were available on other Midwest trains, many of which had additional coaches for the travel period.

Long-distance trains leaving Chicago on Sunday were mostly sold out although some coach seats were available on the California Zephyr and Lake Shore Limited.

Winter weather caused delays into Chicago of long-distance trains of about three hours. An exception was the California Zephyr, which arrived at Union Station seven hours late.

On Friday the Empire Builder was eight and a half hours late arriving in Chicago.

No trains were canceled due to the winter weather conditions.

Another Glimpse Into the World of Richard Anderson

November 21, 2019

A Bloomberg News reporter has given another glimpse into the worldview of Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson.

It’s a small examination yet a revealing one.

Anderson is not a sentimental man. For him everything is about business.

OK, so you probably already knew that, right?

Still, consider this comment from Anderson in response to a question about how his father, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, used to take the family on train trips to Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I didn’t come away with some huge love for trains, just like I don’t have some huge love for airplanes,” Anderson said. “They’re machines that you build a business around.”

Just machines? If you think about it that’s the response you might expect from a chief executive officer who spends his day looking at financial reports and making financial decisions.

It’s just that his predecessor as Amtrak president, Charles “Wick” Moorman, did have a passion for trains and that’s something that makes railroad enthusiasts feel better.

The Bloomberg portrait of Anderson doesn’t contain much more of his thinking that hasn’t been reported in other articles or he hasn’t said during occasional speeches and congressional testimony.

My key takeaway from the article was a better understanding of how Anderson got to be president and CEO of Amtrak and why.

I’ve long argued Anderson is not a rogue operator or a Trojan Horse who has surprised those who hired him.

Anderson may get most of the criticism but one of the lesser discussed elements of the many changes that have been made at Amtrak in the past two years is that Anderson was hired by a board of directors who would have spent considerable time with him before offering him the job.

They would have asked questions about his vision for Amtrak and his philosophy about transportation generally.

They knew what they were getting: A former airline CEO, yes, but also a former prosecutor.

Leonard described Anderson as having the cerebral demeanor of a senior college professor.

The reporter quoted a former boss, Texas prosecutor Bert Graham, as saying Anderson was one of his office’s best trial lawyers. “He had a way of seeing through bullshit,” Graham said.

Amtrak board members might have thought Anderson’s no nonsense approach was exactly what the passenger carrier needed.

He had the personality to do what previous Amtrak presidents had been unable or unwilling to do.

In that sense, the Amtrak board might have been like the parent of a spoiled child who hopes a teacher will do what the parent failed to do in imposing discipline.

Jim Mathews, president of the Rail Passengers Association, indirectly touched on that point when he observed that Anderson was hired to operate Amtrak like a profit-making company such as Delta Air Lines, where Anderson served as CEO between 2007 and 2016.

“He looked everybody in the eye and said, ‘OK, are you guys ready for this? We’re going to break some stuff.’ And everyone said, ‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And then he started breaking stuff. And people were like, ‘Wait, hold up. Stop! What?’ ”

And that is the crux of why Anderson is so unpopular with many passenger train advocates. He broke too many of their favorite dishes and was unapolegetic about it. He didn’t even pretend to regret it.

Anderson knows that, telling Leonard, “Most of the critics are the people who yearn for the halcyon days of long-distance transportation.”

Leonard wrote that Anderson started to lose his cool when asked if he was trying to kill Amtrak’s long-distance routes as many of his detractors have contended.

No, he answers, Amtrak will continue to operate those routes as Congress has directed and will spend $75 million next year refurbishing passenger cars assigned to long-distance service and spend another $40 million on new locomotives.

But Anderson also reiterated a point he’s made numerous times. He wants to break up some long-distance routes into shorter corridors and transform other long distance trains – he specifically mentioned the Empire Builder and California Zephyr – into experiential trains.

Anderson said he planned to ask Congress next year to authorize an “experiment” of breaking up some long-distance routes, citing the tri-weekly Sunset Limited as one Amtrak would like to address.

He knows that won’t play well with many. “Part of the problem is that the people that are the big supporters of long distance are all emotional about it,” Anderson said. “This is not an emotionally based decision. They should be reading our financials.”

Anderson can be confrontational and doesn’t mind, as the Bloomberg piece noted, throwing an elbow or two against a critic or competitor.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing because at his level the competition can be cutthroat as companies and organizations look to further their own interests.

The article noted that in an effort to confront the host freight railroads that handle Amtrak trains in most of the country Amtrak instituted quarterly report cards that grade how well they dispatch Amtrak trains on time.

Confrontation may be a useful tactic but it also has a price.

Knox Ross, a member of the Southern Rail Commission, discussed that with reporter Leonard as they rode a two-hour tardy Crescent through Mississippi toward New Orleans.

Ross said he has talked with managers at Amtrak’s host railroads who hate those report cards.

Those host railroads may not be so keen about cooperating with Amtrak to implement Anderson’s vision of corridor service between urban centers that airlines no longer serve.

The SRC has been pushing for the creation of a corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.

Federal funding has been approved and the states of Mississippi and Louisiana have agreed to contribute their share of the funding. But Alabama thus far has balked.

And, Ross, said, CSX, which would host the trains, doesn’t want them.

No date has yet been announced for when the New Orleans-Mobile route will begin and Ross sees the obstacles to getting that corridor up and running as a preview of what Anderson and Amtrak will face if the passenger carrier seeks to create the type of corridor services it has talked about creating.

In the meantime, Anderson continues to look for ways to cut costs as he works toward his goal of making Amtrak reach the break-even point on its balance sheet from an operational standpoint as early as next year.

Then Amtrak can take the money it now spends underwriting operating losses and use it to buy new equipment and rebuild infrastructure.

If you want to read Leonard’s piece, you can find it here:

But be forewarned that he has bought into the conventional wisdom of how the Northeast Corridor is profitable and the long-distance routes and state-funded corridors are not.

The piece is also heavy on the nostalgia angle, particularly in regards to the recent changes in onboard dining services and the historic role of passenger trains in America.

Yet if you can adopt even a little bit of Anderson’s “just the facts mam” personality, you will see where he’s coming from and have a better understanding as to why he has been doing what he’s done.