Posts Tagged ‘Empire Builder lateness’

Trying to Figure Out the Empire Builder Sked

June 1, 2014

If you are riding or planning to ride Amtrak’s Empire Builder this summer good luck figuring out what the schedule will be.

Amtrak’s website and the already printed national timetable to be issued on June 9 show the schedule that has been in effect until mid April, when schedules changed to reflect more realistic operating conditions in Montana and North Dakota.

Currently, the Empire Builder is scheduled to depart Seattle and Portland, Ore., respectively at 1:40 p.m. The scheduled arrival time in Chicago three days later is 3:55 p.m.

Westbound, the current schedule shows No. 7 departing Chicago at 2:15 p.m. and arriving in Seattle at 11:55 a.m. No. 27, which splits from No. 7 in Spokane, Wash., is scheduled to arrive in Portland at 11:40 a.m.

The current schedules, which went into effect on April 15, are posted at But if you click on the schedule dated June 9, you’ll get a schedule that may or may not be likely to be valid on that date.

Given the on-time problems that the Empire Builder has been having, it is anyone’s guess as to what the schedule will actually be come June 9.

The June 9 timetable, which is now available at Amtrak stations, hints that the schedule shown on that page might be “adjusted.


Empire Builder Route Cut Until June 4

June 1, 2014

Amtrak has suspended the Empire Builder between St. Paul, Minn., and Minot, N.D. until June 4 and passengers are on their own at getting between the two points.

“By request of BNSF Railway Company due to current operating conditions on BNSF’s railroad in Eastern North Dakota and Western Minnesota, Amtrak will be canceling service in both directions between MOT and MSP, with no alternate transportation, for four days,” Amtrak said in a statement.

“This is effective with these dates of origin: Train 7 of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th and Train 8 of the 31st, 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The dates are staggered so rail equipment is in the correct location to resume service eastbound on the 4th and westbound on the 5th.”

The cancellations are just the latest in a string of setbacks for the Empire Builder that have included reroutes and adjusted schedules.

Trains magazine reported that an analysis of the Empire Builder  operations since the schedules were changed in mid April found that Nos. 7 and 8 still often operates late. Additional schedule changes are expected to be made this month.

One sticking point has been on the Canadian Pacific route between Chicago and St. Paul where No. 7 has arrived late at St. Paul by more than an hour on 19 occasions when the train had left Chicago either on-time or less than 20 minutes late.

Leaving late, congestion and speed restrictions on BNSF between St. Paul and Minot, even though detouring on the shorter KO Subdivision west of Fargo, have put the westbound train into Minot an average of two to three hours late. The additional “recovery time” – Amtrak’s euphemism for schedule padding – added west of Minot to No. 8 has substantially improved its punctuality into that North Dakota city despite having to contend with track work in Montana and North Dakota

However, if the crew that took No. 7 from St. Cloud, Minn., to Minot arrived late, the eastbound Builder has had to wait at least 45 minutes past its scheduled departure 12 times since April 15 until the same crew was available following a mandatory rest period.

Slow orders and congestion delayed the eastbound train into St. Paul on average another two hours per night.

In the two weeks that the renovated St. Paul Union Depot has hosted Amtrak, eastbound No. 8 has not departed for Chicago less than an hour late, but 12 Empire Builder departures from St. Paul were more than 2.5 hours late.

In the West, there have been occasional on-time arrivals at Seattle, but the eastbound Portland section has been delayed on several occasions, causing the combined train to leave Spokane several hours late. In the meantime, Amtrak has restored the connections to the southbound City of New Orleans at Chicago and the southbound Coast Starlight at Portland.

However, the Trains analysis found that the Empire Builder-City of New Orleans connection has been broken seven times since May 7.

The Builder  that was to arrived in Chicago on May 22, did not reach the Windy City until 2:49 a.m. on Friday morning after the train developed engine trouble west of Whitefish, Mont.

The scheduled arrival time of the Empire Builder is sthe City is 3:55 p.m. whereas the scheduled departure time of the City of New Orleans is 8:05 p.m.

“Amtrak continues to work closely with BNSF and CP regarding the best efforts of the host railroads to dispatch the Empire Builder while they are improving their infrastructure,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

WB Empire Builder Begins North Dakota Detour

May 8, 2014

The route troubles saga of the Empire Builder took have taken yet another twist with Amtrak and BNSF agreeing to detour the westbound Empire Builder in North Dakota via the Surrey Cutoff throughout the summer.

That means that No. 7 will bypass stations in Grand Ford, Devils Lake and Rugby. Buses will serve passengers originating or bound for those stations, connecting with the Builder at Fargo and Minot.

The eastbound Empire Builder will continue to use the regular route via those three North Dakota cities.

Amtrak agreed to detour the westbound Builder at the request of BSNF.  The detour is expected to continue through Sept. 30.

No. 7 will use the KO Subdivision and not make any passenger stops between Fargo and Minot. Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman was set to visit the affected region this week where lengthy delays the Empire Builder has incurred will be a major topic in meetings with civic leaders.

“Local community and business leaders prize the Empire Builder and see Amtrak service as an important public transportation link,” said D.J. Stadtler, Amtrak vice president of operations.

“BNSF needs to speed repairs and upgrades in order to return the Empire Builder to its previous reliability as fast as possible. We fully expect this work to be done by the end of September — at the latest.”

It will be the second time this year that Nos. 7 and 8 have taken different routes in North Dakota. BNSF experimented with directional running of eastbound freights and the Amtrak train on the Devils Lake Subdivision while all westbounds ran on the KO Subdivision via New Rockford.

However, the stated reason for the present detour of the westbound Empire Builder is to provide track and signal crews the longest possible maintenance window each day as BNSF upgrades the Devils Lake Subdivision.

“The train count fluctuations are short term as a result of fewer merchandise trains and some rerouting that was occurring for maintenance windows,” said BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

BNSF is investing about $400 million in North Dakota to expand, replace, and maintain its infrastructure, and for the implementation of positive train control.

The project involves installation of three sidings between Grand Forks and Minot, and four sidings between Fargo and Grand Forks.

Other work involves installation of new turnouts, high speed surfacing/shoulder ballast cleaning, replacement of ties, rail relay, and signal upgrades. A Trains magazine analysis of timekeeping since slower schedules were implemented on April 15 shows that Nos. 7 and 8 have consistently lost at least two to three hours westbound and usually an hour eastbound between St. Paul and Minot running on their regular route.

Westbound, 35 minutes of recovery time had been added compared to previous schedules between the two points, while 1 hour, 40 minutes had been added eastbound, but this has proved insufficient in light of numerous slow orders and capacity constraints.

When the westbound train arrives late, No. 8 has been delayed up to an hour or more waiting for an operating crew to take the train back its base at St. Cloud, Minn.

On the first day of the detour, No. 7 arrived at Minot a half-hour early despite leaving Fargo almost an hour late. Not all of the timekeeping issues can be attributed to BNSF.

On Canadian Pacific tracks between Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., the westbound train’s arrival into the Twin Cities’ Midway station has been more than an hour late 45 percent of the time after departing Chicago on time over the past 20 days.

Schedules were adjusted slightly when the Empire Builder began using St. Paul Union Depot on May 7.

Thaw Had Amtrak Trains Operating on Time

March 11, 2014

March 6, 2014, marked a watershed of sorts for Amtrak in Chicago. Every Midwest Corridor train departed on time. That had not happened for several weeks as Amtrak had to deal with the effects of severe cold and snow.

On that same day, six of the 28 daily departures were delayed a total of 3 hours, 6 minutes. All of those were long-distance trains whose substitute passenger car options have been  hindered by a depleted pool of Superliner equipment that has been raided to provide a sixth set of cars and locomotives for the Empire Builder.

Last week, though, winter weather returned to Chicago and 16 of the 28 Amtrak trains departed on time. The 12 delayed trains posted delays of 21 hours, 12 minutes.

Among the problems were locomotive traction motor failures caused by  snow ingestion and ground faults, delays to inbound trains, and limited indoor facilities with inspection pits.

In a letter placed on seats of Midwest Corridor trains, Amtrak’s Chicago Deputy General Manager Morrell Savoy said that the “service failures are unacceptable.”

The letter went on to say “there were unseen successes, such as improvements that we made in the past four years that enabled the Amtrak terminal facility to be more robust, …our efforts were insufficient to provide the reliability we seek and both you and the state transportation departments expect.”

Long distance general manager Mark Murphy, who was once master mechanic at Chicago, told Trains magazine “We have a truck that makes continuous round-trips to [the] Beech Grove [Heavy Maintenance Facility in Indianapolis] to try to keep a spare pool of traction motors on the floor at all times, but we’ve had to make any number of unscheduled repairs on a daily basis geared to traction motor change outs, to dry them out and to get the grounds to disappear enough to make service.”

Murphy said Chicago needs a four-track, covered inspection facility.

The Empire Builder was incurring severe delays due to the need to bus passengers twice. Once was around an avalanche in Montana between Shelby and Whitefish, and again into Seattle from Everett, Wash., around a blockage on that mudslide-plagued trackage.

The busing is a BNSF Railway-imposed precaution as trains are again being deadheaded through the threatened areas, principally to avoid delays to the eastbound Builder departing Shelby while waiting for inbound train No. 7’s equipment to arrive.

WB Empire Builder Back on Regular Route

March 3, 2014

The westbound Empire Builder returned to its regular route on Saturday, March 1.

Increased rail traffic and a severe winter season had prompted BNSF to detour Chicago to Seattle/Portland No. 7 bypass the North Dakota stations of Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby. The eastbound train still served those points but westbound passengers were bused to and from Fargo and Minot.

At a meeting with BNSF snior officials, North Dakota officials pressed the railroad to return the Empire Builder to is regular route. BNSF CEO Matt Rose said the railroad has made a sizable investment in locomotives and crews to improve Amtrak and freight service.

BNSF Promises Action on Empire Builder Route

February 15, 2014

BNSF officials told North Dakota’s congressional delegation that the railroad is committed to adding more crews and equipment to address congestion that is delaying its freight and Amtrak’s Empire Builder.

An oil boom combined with a harsh winter has caused delays of hours for he Builder. BNSF promised to add 5,000 crewmembers system wide, with 250 temporary workers in North Dakota.

Also, BNSF will send 5,000 rail cars and 125 locomotives to the area within the next few weeks.

The railroad committed to end the directional running of the Empire Builder in North Dakota by month’s end, which forced westbound passengers onto buses for Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Rugby.

Empire Builder Directional Running to Continue

February 8, 2014

The westbound-only detour of the Empire Builder between Fargo and Minot, N.D., will continue through March 1 and perhaps beyond.

The Chicago to Seattle/Portland train uses the former Northern Pacific mainline from Fargo to Casselton, and the ex-Great Northern Surrey Cutoff between Casselton and Minot.

BNSF instituted directional running in North Dakota in January in an effort to relieve traffic congestion stemming from weather related woes and increased freight business. Much of the latter has been crude oil trains.

Amtrak has been busing Empire Builder passengers originating at Grand Forks, Devils Lake and Rugby, N.D., to Minot to board the train. The eastbound Builder has continued to run on its regular route.

What’s Behind Empire Builder Troubles? Plenty

December 16, 2013

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.