Empire Builder Timeline

Empire Builder Timeline:


James J. Hill is born near Guelph, in what would become the province of Ontario, Canada. He moved to St. Paul, Minnesota at the age of 18, and eventually entered the steamboat business along with other partners. His finesse for business led him to become the General Manager of the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway in 1879. As this railroad expanded westward, it became the Great Northern Railway, which was completed between St. Paul and Seattle in 1893. Hill saw to it that his Great Northern was operationally superior to his competitors; The Great Northern was also most noteworthy for being privately financed and was built without land grants (though some predecessor railroads received some land grant area). It was also known as one of few transcontinental railroads never to declare bankruptcy at the end of the 19th century. Hill and his Great Northern came to eventually control rival Northern Pacific Railway (NP) and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). Hill tried to merge the GN, NP, and CB&Q, but the deal was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 (and the dream was not realized until 1970). Hill then built the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle railroad (SP&S) between Spokane and Portland, and also acquired the Colorado and Southern (C&S) and Fort Worth and Denver (FW&D) Railways to link Denver with the Gulf Coast in Texas. Hill died in 1916. Because of the substantial railroad empire he built and the vast area settled by his railroads, he became known as the “Empire Builder.”


On May 30, a Dominion Forest Park is established which would become Canada’s fourth national park, Waterton Lakes National Park.


Northern Pacific begins operation of its North Coast Limited between Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Pacific Northwest.


On May 10, Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana is established as America’s tenth national park. The Great Northern Railway lobbied for its creation, and provided much of the infrastructure used by the earliest visitors, including roads and lodging.


The Milwaukee Road launches its Olympian between Chicago and Seattle-Tacoma in competition with Great Northern and Northern Pacific.


On June 11, Great Northern launched its new premier passenger train, the Empire Builder, named for James J. Hill, with six new consists of luxurious, heavyweight equipment. Service between Chicago to Seattle trains operated with a 63-hour westbound timing (Train 1) and a 61 hour, 15 minute schedule eastbound (Train 2).

The train took advantage of significant recent route improvements in the Cascade Mountains. These included the new 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel (still the longest railroad tunnel in the United States) and the Chumstick Valley line change.

Motive power was either a P2 class 4-8-2 or S2 class 4-8-4 steam locomotive. Between Skykomish and Wenatchee, electrics handled the consist due to the lack of ventilation in Cascade Tunnel. Punctuating the train was the last car, an 89' buffet-lounge-solarium-observation with a sun room replacing the traditional open platform.

The Empire Builder operated from Chicago to St. Paul on the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, the Great Northern from St. Paul to Seattle, and the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle from Spokane to Portland.

Union Pacific (along with partner Chicago and North Western) launched the City of Portland between Chicago and Portland.


The Empire Builder posted a slightly faster running time of 58 hours, 45 minutes westbound and 56 hours, 25 minutes eastbound. Its companion train, the Oriental Limited was discontinued on March 29 with reduced passenger demand associated with the Depression.


Air Conditioning was introduced on the Empire Builder.

Union Pacific (along with partner Chicago and North Western) launched the first ever diesel-powered Chicago-West Coast streamliner, the City of Portland. The City of Portland cut the running time from Chicago to Portland from 59 hours, 20 minutes to 39 hours, 45 minutes. However, the City of Portland was only one trainset, and therefore operated from endpoints only every sixth day and without through car service to Seattle.


58-seat, semi-streamlined luxury coaches are added to the train.


With the United States entering World War II, the Empire Builder began running in sections to handle the increased passenger traffic. First sections of the trains were sleeping cars, and second sections were coach accommodations. Any additional sections were generally troop trains or "Mains".

Glacier National Park was closed during World War II.


GN and CB&Q jointly order new streamlined Empire Builder consists.


Between April and June, pairs of E7A diesel passenger locomotives arrive from EMD (Electro-Motive Division of General Motors). These would be the first available power for the postwar Empire Builder.


Glacier National Park reopens after the end of WWII.


The post-war edition of the Empire Builder is inaugurated February 23, with five consists of 12 streamlined cars each built by Pullman. The trains operated on a 45-hour schedule between Chicago and Seattle. The trains boasted an eye-popping Omaha Orange-, Pullman Green-, and Gold-stripe all the way from the locomotives to the “River” series observation cars and became known as the "Empire Builder scheme" which was the standard for GN passenger trains for the next 20 years.

UP received new equipment and upgraded other cars to enable the operation of a daily City of Portland streamliner starting February 15, 1947, only eight days before Great Northern (and SP&S) launched the new streamlined Empire Builder. With the daily operation of the City of Portland, the Portland Rose shifted to a Denver-Portland operation with through cars to and from Chicago being conveyed in other trains at Green River, Wyoming, such as the Gold Coast and Pony Express. In 1954, the Portland Rose became a Kansas City, MO-Portland train.

Milwaukee Road’s Olympian was replaced with the Olympian Hiawatha, with mostly streamlined equipment. The secondary train on the route, the Columbian, continued to operate with heavyweight cars.


E7 diesel passenger locomotives on the Empire Builder experience overheating problems in the mountains. They are replaced by an A-B-A set of EMD F units (F3s and F7s). Great Northern modified these units into "Passenger Fs" with higher gearing for greater speed and boilers for steam heat.

Great Northern inaugurates streamliner service on the Internationals between Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver, BC, connecting with the Empire Builder – and later the Western Star – at Everett or Seattle with three roundtrips daily. GN promoted travel via the Internationals and Empire Builder (and connections at Chicago) as the fastest way to travel via rail between Vancouver, BC and Eastern Canada (compared to that offered by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific). GN could make this claim until the launch of the legendary Canadian by Canadian Pacific in 1955, which offered much faster service that its predecessor, the Dominion.


Only four years after the inauguration of the streamlined Empire Builder in 1947, Great Northern stuns the railroad industry and completely re-equips the Empire Builder with new 15-car consists built by Pullman and American Car and Foundry. These consists became known as the "Mid-Century” Empire Builder.

This edition of the Empire Builder introduces the tall-windowed Mountain-Series observation cars and famous "Ranch Cars", a western-themed lounge-café car featuring the G-Bar-N brand as its trademark. Meant to emulate a western chuck wagon (complete with pinto leather seats and huge coffee pot), these quickly become the most popular car on the train.

On June 3, the Oriental Limited (the secondary train to the Empire Builder on much of the same route) is retired is and replaced with the Western Star which used the equipment from the original 1947 postwar Empire Builder. This cements the Great Northern as the premier rail passenger carrier between the Midwest and Pacific Northwest fielding two bona fide streamliners, the only railroad to do so. Great Northern is so confident in the appeal of both its streamliners on the route, that only the Western Star directly serves Glacier National Park (at the Glacier Park and Belton stops; the nearest Empire Builder operates non-stop through Glacier Park between Cut Bank and Whitefish).


Early in 1952, GN streamlined the Gopher and Badger, which each operated a round trip daily between St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Duluth (connecting with the Empire Builder at Minneapolis or St. Paul). The streamliners were unique for the Great Northern in that both trains had square-end observation cars (rebuilt from heavyweight cars into café-parlor-observation cars).

With the upgrade of the Gopher and Badger, as well as the Winnipeg Limited, GN establishes itself as the preferred rail passenger carrier between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports, as well as between the Twin Cities and Winnipeg due to faster service and/or much superior amenities compared to competitors Northern Pacific and Soo Line. Much like the Internationals between Vancouver, BC and Seattle, the fine service provided on short-haul GN trains push additional patronage to GN “transcontinental” trains like the Empire Builder and Western Star.

NP’s streamlining of its North Coast Limited has been completed, and the train has its schedule reduced by over 12 hours; its schedule is but 90 minutes more than the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle. At the same time, NP launched a second St. Paul-Seattle train (with through cars to and from Chicago via CB&Q), the Mainstreeter. The Mainstreeter operated on the previous, longer North Coast Limited schedule. Never considered a streamliner, the Mainstreeter departed Chicago over 12 hours before the North Coast Limited, but was often scheduled to arrive in Seattle less than an hour before.


Budd-built "short" dome cars - three to each consist – are introduced. October of the same year, the Budd-built full-length dome lounges for first-class passengers arrive (also one for each consist). Great Northern refers to all dome cars – regardless of type - as “Great” domes. With 150 seats under glass, the Empire Builder offers more dome seats than any other American streamliner.

The 1955 edition of the Empire Builder represents the zenith of the train's evolution on the GN. To pull the heavier consist, the train is assigned 4 EMD F units (Passenger Fs) arranged in A-B-B-A configuration. The schedule is reduced to 43 hours, 50 minutes westbound and 44 hours, 30 minutes eastbound.

Because of the added first-class lounge space afforded with the Great Dome full-length lounge cars, former River-series observation cars (from the 1947 Postwar Empire Builder) are remodeled into “Coulee” series observation cars with additional sleeper accommodations. The Mountain series observation cars are assigned to the Western Star.

Great Northern’s Fast Mail was the primary conveyance for U.S. Mail between the Twin Cities and Pacific Northwest, though passengers could be accommodated in its rider coach. In late 1955, GN consolidating the Fast Mail with the Western Star over portions of the Western Star’s route. By the end of the 1950s, the Fast Mail has disappeared from the GN timetable, but it frequently ran as a second section of the Western Star through the mid-1960s during peak travel times, such as summer and the Christmas holiday.

In a harbinger of things to come, in early 1955, the secondary companion to Milwaukee Road’s Olympian Hiawatha, the Columbian, was discontinued in segments west of Aberdeen, South Dakota.


On April 29, the Empire Builder is operated on Great Northern as trains 31 and 32 (instead of 1 and 2).

With the installation of a massive ventilation system Cascade tunnel electrification ends July 31, and the Empire Builder operates from Chicago to Seattle with diesel-electric locomotive power.


Beginning in February, the Coulee-series observation cars are removed during the “off” season.

The schedule of the Western Star is speeded significantly (as Great Falls and Grand Forks are served by connecting trains rather than directly), but continue to be the sole passenger trains serving Glacier Park.

Running times between St. Paul and Seattle in the late 1960s are (westbound):

  • Empire Builder, 35 hours, 30 minutes
  • Olympian Hiawatha (MILW), 38 hours, 8 minutes
  • North Coast Limited (NP), 38 hours, 15 minutes
  • Western Star, 40 hours, 15 minutes
  • Mainstreeter (NP), 48 hours, 35 minutes

Running times between Seattle and St. Paul in the late 1960s are (eastbound):

  • Empire Builder, 36 hours, 50 minutes
  • Olympian Hiawatha (MILW), 38 hours, 22 minutes
  • North Coast Limited (NP), 39 hours, 10 minutes
  • Western Star, 40 hours, 20 minutes
  • Mainstreeter (NP), 46 hours, 33 minutes


Competitor Olympian Hiawatha (Chicago to Seattle/Tacoma via Milwaukee Road) is discontinued. (A stub train actually continued between Minneapolis and Deer Lodge, Montana until 1964.)


The “simplified scheme” appears on the Empire Builder's Passenger Fs (as well as future orders for freight engines). Designed to save a day's time painting, it features orange on top, green on the bottom and no gold stripes. Passenger cars retain the traditional orange/green/gold stripe Empire Builder paint scheme.


Though combined with the Afternoon Zephyr (westbound) and North Coast Limited (eastbound) between Chicago and St. Paul on CB&Q in previous years, beginning in the fall of 1966, Empire Builder is combined with the North Coast Limited between Chicago and St. Paul on a regular basis until Amtrak day 1971.

As the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited were previously (since 1952) combined on SP&S between Pasco and Portland, the Empire Builder is slowed some 90 minutes between St. Paul and Portland to match the slower running time of the North Coast Limited to allow consolidations at St. Paul and Pasco.


May 11 is the beginning of the "Big Sky Blue" era. Passenger equipment begins to receive the blue, gray and white paint scheme replacing the traditional Empire Builder scheme.

Coulee Series observation cars are permanently removed from the Empire Builder (and are later rebuilt into coaches).

More powerful SDP40 (1966) and SDP45 passenger locomotives are received from EMD to replace the tired Passenger Fs.

In September, most RPO (Railway Post Office) cars are terminated by the Post Office, signaling a significant loss of revenue to most passenger trains nationwide. Following the loss, Union Pacific and Northern Pacific petition to discontinue the Portland Rose and Mainstreeter on several occasions prior to the start of Amtrak, and are denied each time. GN’s Western Star, however, is not petitioned for discontinuance as it continues to carry large volumes of express and storage mail cars in the Fast Mail tradition.


Owing to the longer running time (per the schedule change in fall of 1966) and declining patronage, the Empire Builder begins stopping during the summer season at Glacier Park and Belton, and also assumes operation of the Glacier Park tourist sleeping cars, previously were handled by the Western Star.

Experimental Cascade Green paint schemes begin to appear on some GN passenger equipment (a harbinger of the upcoming Burlington Northern merger).


Seattle-Vancouver International service was reduced to one round trip daily in June, resulting in a seven-hour layover for Vancouver, BC passengers from the westbound Empire Builder. (Eastbound passengers still enjoyed a direct connection at Everett.)


In February, 1970, GN’s Winnipeg Limited was discontinued between St. Paul and Grand Forks becoming a daytime Grand Forks-Winnipeg train which connected with the Western Star in Grand Forks. This ended a direct (though middle of the night connection) between the Winnipeg Limited and Empire Builder at Fargo.

GN (Great Northern), (NP) Northern Pacific, (CB&Q) Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, (SP&S) Spokane, Portland, and Seattle, and Pacific Coast railroads merge on March 2 to form Burlington Northern, which assumes operation of the Empire Builder.

On October 30, 1970, President Nixon signs legislation creating Railpax, designed to rid railroads of loses operating intercity passenger trains.

On November 30, 1970, the initial route endpoints are announced. Included is Chicago to Seattle (with a stipulation that the train must operate via Minneapolis/St. Paul), but with no other specific information.


Railpax announces its exact routes and stops between each city pair on March 22. The Chicago-Seattle route includes: Milwaukee Road between Chicago and St. Paul; Burlington Northern Empire Builder route between St. Paul and Fargo; Burlington Northern Western Star route between Fargo and Minot; Burlington Northern ex-GN between Minot and Sandpoint; Burlington Northern ex-NP between Sandpoint and Seattle. The route chosen is due to higher existing ridership than alternate routes, and in addition, due to lack of other public transportation across Northern North Dakota and Northern Montana.

Participating railroads (including Burlington Northern) post required 30-day notices of discontinuance for their passenger trains by April 1.

Railpax is renamed “Amtrak” on April 19, from the words AMerica, TRavel, and trAcK.

On April 24, Burlington Northern’s Pacific Zip makes its initial run, scheduled for 50 hours from Chicago to Seattle, but often making the trip in 45. The train handles mostly Trailer-On-Flat-Car (TOFC) equipment, but also some of the storage mail and express handled by the Fast Mail component of the Western Star, on a route much like the pre-Amtrak Empire Builder. Assigned BN train numbers 3 and 4 (once the numbers for GN’s Western Star), which continued into the BNSF era. Today, the trains are known as BNSF trains Z-CHCSSE/Z-SSECHC.

Amtrak begins operation on May 1, 1971 in spite of numerous legal challenges in the works up to the previous day. About two-thirds of America’s intercity passenger trains are discontinued including the Western Star, the North Coast Limited, the Mainstreeter, the City of Portland, and the Portland Rose. The lone survivor of the Midwest-to-Pacific Northwest haul was the Empire Builder.

The initial Amtrak Empire Builder stops are: Chicago, Glenview, Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah, La Crosse, Winona, Red Wing, Minneapolis, Willmar, Morris, Breckenridge, Fargo, Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Minot, Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Havre, Shelby, Glacier Park, Belton, Whitefish, Libby, Troy, Sandpoint, Spokane, Pasco, Yakima, Ellensburg, East Auburn and Seattle.

The former Great Northern Station in Minneapolis was designated as the sole Amtrak stop for the Twin Cities.

Not a stop in the original Amtrak route plan, Cut Bank, Montana becomes the first stop added along the route of the Amtrak Empire Builder in June. Malta, Montana was added in November.

Owing to political pressure from Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, Senate Majority Leader, Amtrak added service in June along the former North Coast Limited route between Minneapolis, Butte, and Spokane on a tri-weekly basis, being combined with the Empire Builder west of Spokane and east of Minneapolis. The train was unnamed in the Amtrak timetable until the November 14 edition when it (the train through Southern Montana) was named North Coast Hiawatha, a nod to both Hiawatha (between Chicago and the Twin Cities) and North Coast Limited (between the Twin Cities and Spokane) heritage. Also on November 14, the North Coast Hiawatha began operating as a separate train between Chicago and Spokane (daily Chicago to Minneapolis, and tri-weekly Minneapolis to Spokane), where it was combined with or split from the Empire Builder.


The Empire Builder began stopping in Browning, Montana in February, and started a unique season rotation where Amtrak trains stop at Glacier Park station (East Glacier) during the summer Glacier Park season only and at Browning the remainder of the year.

The North Coast Hiawatha began operating as a completely separate train from the Empire Builder in June 1973; between Spokane and Seattle, it used the pre-Amtrak Empire Builder route via Wenatchee. The North Coast Hiawatha operated daily during the summer and Christmas holiday periods.

The Empire Builder carried 363,100 passengers in 1973.


The Empire Builder carried 385,300 passengers in 1974.

To accommodate an expected glut of passengers because of Expo ’74, the World’s Fair in Spokane, Amtrak operated a daily train between Seattle and Spokane on the pre-Amtrak Empire Builder route via Wenatchee. The train lasted only 4 months as patronage did not materialize as planned as running time as dictated by BN was an hour more than the 7.5 hours Amtrak requested. The site of Expo ’74 in downtown Spokane included Havermale Island in the Spokane River, the site of the former Great Northern station (the clock tower remains) and Empire Builder stop prior to Amtrak.


The Empire Builder carried 324,639 passengers in 1975.


The Empire Builder carried 311,376 passengers in 1976.


Amtrak begins operating the Pioneer between Salt Lake City, Portland, and Seattle on June 7, 1977. The train connected with the Chicago-Oakland San Francisco Zephyr in Ogden, Utah, allowing Chicago-Pacific Northwest travel.

In September, because of a shortage of operable aging equipment, the frequency of the Empire Builder is reduced from daily to four days per week. The other three days per week, Chicago-Seattle service is the North Coast Hiawatha, providing – between the two trains – daily service between Chicago and Minneapolis and at Sandpoint, Spokane, and Seattle. Starting in the late fall, the Empire Builder/North Coast Hiawatha began operating overnight between Chicago and the Twin Cities and across Montana, which proved to be unpopular. The trains reverted to a their more-classic scheduling with a new timetable in April of 1978.

The Empire Builder carried 297,180 passengers in 1977, a drop partially due to operating four days per week most of the last four months of the year.

The period from 1977 to 1979 inclusive is one of great tumult at Amtrak due to a desire to eliminate trains to cut perceived losses. All the long distance trains operating to and from the east to the Pacific Northwest – Empire Builder, North Coast Hiawatha, and Pioneer – are candidates for discontinuance due to budget concerns and politics.


The Empire Builder began serving the new "Midway" station in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 1 and all passenger service ends at the former Great Northern Station in Minneapolis, which had been in use continuously since 1913. The former GN station in Minneapolis was demolished in 1978 and replaced with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.


October 1: The North Coast Hiawatha and several other Amtrak trains are discontinued in a major downsizing of the long-distance Amtrak system. The frequency of the Empire Builder is further reduced to just three days per week (its all-time low). The train is rerouted off its ex-GN route between the Twin Cities and Moorhead, MN to an ex-GN/NP route between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, and ex-NP route between St. Cloud and Moorhead (Fargo). The Empire Builder begins serving St. Cloud, Staples, and Detroit Lakes; service to Willmar, Morris, and Breckenridge is discontinued.

October 28: The Empire Builder becomes the first long-distance train to be given the new bi-level Superliner equipment. At this time, the Superliner lounge cars have yet to be placed into service and the train runs with as few as two coaches, a diner, and one sleeping car on a tri-weekly schedule; certainly, the lowest point of available passenger-carrying capacity.


Through coach service from Chicago through Portland to Seattle begins via the San Francisco Zephyr and Pioneer connection at Ogden in April 1981. Through sleeping car service begins in October 1982.

Owing to a desire by Burlington Northern to downgrade the former NP main line between Pasco and Auburn in Washington State, the Empire Builder resumes its pre-Amtrak and ex-GN routing between Spokane and Seattle via Wenatchee, Everett, and Edmonds, and for the first time as an Amtrak train, receives a Portland section from Spokane via Pasco, Wishram, and Bingen-White Salmon. The faster routing between Spokane and Seattle allows a major schedule change and improved connections in Chicago and Portland.


The Empire Builder (operating tri-weekly since 1979, except during most summer and holiday seasons) begins a seasonal daily operation over the Christmas 1981 and New Year's 1982 holiday period, but in January 1982, Amtrak announces that the train will not revert to a tri-weekly operation and will remain daily. Reasons for the upgrade in service were given as good patronage (helped by the new routing and Portland section implementation a few months previously), securing a mail contract, and influence by Senator Mark Andrews of North Dakota, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Amtrak dedicated a new station in Grand Forks, North Dakota on December 16 that eliminates the need for the Empire Builder to back out of the downtown station. (Actually, this backup move had been eliminated some months earlier with the train stopping in "West Grand Forks" – on the wye west of the University of North Dakota - and passengers bused to the ex-GN/Amtrak station downtown.)


The host freight railroad for the Empire Builder between Chicago and the Twin Cities became the Soo Line Railroad (whose majority owner was the Canadian Pacific Railway) which purchased the bankrupt Milwaukee Road railroad in early 1985 with the actual merger culminating at midnight December 31, 1985. The Empire Builder continued to see delays on the ex-Milwaukee Road Soo Line route through the end of the 1980s as Soo Line worked to upgrade the quality of the track. While track speeds eventually were increased to the maximum 79 MPH, Soo Line also removed large sections of second main track west of Milwaukee in favor of long sidings, which later became a detriment to adding additional Amtrak service between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.


Citing a budget crunch, and in a move reminiscent of 1977, Amtrak reduced the frequency of the Empire Builder on February 1 from daily to four times per week west of St. Paul, in spite of being Amtrak’s best-patronized long-distance train in 1994 (with 453,000 riders). On the days that the Empire Builder does not operate, the Pioneer (started by Amtrak in 1977) runs on its tri-weekly schedule between Chicago and Seattle via Omaha, Denver, Laramie, and Boise (more or less on the ex-UP City of Portland route), creating one daily train between the endpoints of Chicago and Seattle.


The Empire Builder Interpretive Guides program is started sponsored by the Great Northern Railway Historical Society through the 2000 season. These guides ride the Empire Builder from Edmonds to Shelby informing passengers about local history, flora, fauna, and geology of the route.


Citing a continued shortfall of operating funds and operable equipment, Amtrak announces the discontinuance of tri-weekly Chicago-Seattle Pioneer May 10. Amtrak immediately restores the Empire Builder to a daily operation over the entire route. The Empire Builder again becomes the sole remaining Chicago-to-Seattle/Portland passenger train.


The National Park Service Trails and Rails partnership with Amtrak takes over Empire Builder Interpretive Guides program.


Empire Builder celebrates its 75th Anniversary, June 11 with celebrations along the entire length of the route. The Empire Builder from Chicago June 11 has Amtrak’s lone remaining dome car, an ex-GN Empire Builder full length car which was named “Ocean View” in the Great Northern version of the train.

The Empire Builder regains its title as the most-patronized Amtrak long distance train with 437,191 riders, eclipsing the Coast Starlight.


The Bush administration proposes no funding for Amtrak. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer counters with a whistle stop tour on the Empire Builder from Glasgow to Whitefish. Hundreds turn out to show their support of Amtrak service.

Amtrak announces refurbished equipment and upgraded amenities on board the Empire Builder. Ridership soars in the next three years.


The Empire Builder continues as Amtrak’s most-patronized long-distance train, carrying 497,020 riders.


The Empire Builder continues as Amtrak’s most-patronized long-distance train, carrying 504,977 riders.


Ridership for FY2008 on the Empire Builder is 554,266 – a gain of nearly 117,000 riders since 2004, and nearly half-again as many as the second most-patronized train the Silver Star, and over 200,000 more than is handled by the Coast Starlight.


The Empire Builder continues as Amtrak’s most-patronized long-distance train, carrying 515,444 riders.

To provide additional service for the 2010 Winter Olympics in and around Vancouver, BC, Amtrak begins a second Amtrak Cascades train in August operating to and from Vancouver, BC. The train allows same day through train service between Portland and Vancouver, BC. The new service allows same day connecting service from Vancouver, BC to the Empire Builder in Seattle, albeit with fairly lengthy layover times. Due to VIA Rail Canada lengthening the schedule of their tri-weekly Vancouver-Toronto Canadian (their only transcontinental service), a trip on Amtrak from Vancouver to Toronto via the daily Empire Builder, Lake Shore Limited, and Maple Leaf is actually faster than the VIA service, a throwback to the early 1950s when Great Northern touted the fastest service between Vancouver and Eastern Canada via its Internationals and Empire Builder.


The quadrupling of size of Devils Lake threatens the Empire Builder. The lake has no natural outlet, and increased precipitation in the area is causing the lake to rise where it will eventually be higher than the railroad right-of-way between the city of Devils Lake and Churchs Ferry. BNSF claims it does not need the route, and runs all its traffic on a route to the south via New Rockford. By the end of 2011, however, Amtrak, BNSF, and federal grants create sufficient funding to raise the track higher than the highest possible lake level. Work to raise the track was done in 2012 and 2013, securing the route for the Empire Builder. By 2014, BNSF upgraded the entire route from Fargo to Minot via Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Rugby with new rail, new ties, added sidings and a new signal system (removed an antiquated ABS system and replaced it with CTC). The route from Fargo to Minot via Grand Forks then began known as a second main line (along with the route through New Rockford) for BNSF freight traffic.


Ridership explodes in Western North Dakota where the Empire Builder is nicknamed “The Bakken Streetcar.” Ridership tops 10,000 at Stanley and 54,000 for FY2012 at Williston. But there is a cost. Rail freight traffic also exploded (handling pipe, chemicals, sand, and machinery inbound, and loaded trains of crude oil outbound) causing severe delay to the Empire Builder.


Amtrak Long Distance Ridership, FY2007 to FY2013:












Empire Builder









Coast Starlight









Silver Star









Lake Shore Limited









California Zephyr









Silver Meteor









Southwest Chief









Texas Eagle


















Auto Train









City of New Orleans









Capitol Limited



























Sunset Limited









Various amenities, such as wine and cheese tastings, travel kits, and chocolates are removed for sleeping car passengers.

The schedule of the Empire Builder is lengthened 90 minutes westbound and 3 hours eastbound to accommodate the actual operating conditions of the route which has been severely affected by a phenomenal growth of freight traffic due to the Bakken oil boom in Western North Dakota and Eastern Montana. The new schedule eastbound severs the connection from the northbound Coast Starlight to the Empire Builder in Portland, actually improves train times in Spokane, but creates a middle-of-the-night departure at Whitefish. The schedule remains in effect through January of 2015. The return to the “normal” schedule was a result of BNSF investing billions to upgrade its “Northern Transcontinental” route used by the Empire Builder.


In early June, Amtrak begins running two Superliner sleeping cars in the Portland section of each Empire Builder consist, bringing the total number of revenue cars to four (two coaches and two sleeping cars, along with the Sightseer Lounge car); this is the most capacity ever offered as an Amtrak train.

The Empire Builder celebrates 90 years of continuous service to America's Northern Tier in June.


The Empire Builder begins operating tri-weekly over its entire route due to a loss of patronage associated with the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic effective October 19.


The Empire Builder begins operating daily over its entire route effective May 24 due to additional funding Amtrak received with the signing of the American Rescue Plan (associated with the pandemic) by President Biden.


Due to continued equipment and staffing difficulties (according to Amtrak), the Empire Builder begins operating five days per week effective January 28, with no departures from origin stations on Thursday or Friday. Amtrak initially stated daily service would resume March 24, but that a subsequent announcement indicates daily service will not commence until an undetermined date in May, 2022.