Leavenworth, Washington: The Empire Builder's albatross

Amtrak’s Leavenworth stop. The Empire Builder’s albatross.

The Leavenworth Snow Train had a been a Pacific Northwest institution. For three weekends before Christmas in December, a special passenger train – operated as an Amtrak train – departed Saturday and Sunday mornings from Seattle’s King Street Station arriving at the “Bavarian Village” town of Leavenworth just east of the Cascades in late morning. Passengers then had the afternoon to tour this quintessential tourist community before boarding the train in late afternoon to return to Seattle (stops were also made – both ways – in Edmonds and Everett).

The train consisted of Amtrak locomotive power and a mixture of Amtrak passenger cars, usually Horizon and Amfleet coaches. Included was one or two food service cars. The train also had privately-owed passenger cars in which space could be obtained at a higher price due to being more comfortable and offering amenities such as meals. Ticketing and management of the space on board train was managed by Alki Tours in Seattle.

While it ran in 2017, there is no one-day roundtrip snow train this year (2018). Amtrak has canceled most special train movements to “focus on its core network services.” In theory, this should result in more resources being available for existing service, but as the Southwest Chief gets by with only two coaches in off-season (often selling out), Amtrak has yet to demonstrate any benefits from the policy.

Alki Tours is offering a “Snow Train” alternative, however: The “Rail to Leavenworth Lighting Festival Overnight Tour.” On December 7 and 14 (Fridays) of this year, customers can board Amtrak’s Empire Builder in Seattle and ride to Leavenworth, where they will be picked up by a motor coach and will spend two nights in a hotel. The motor coach will take them back to Seattle the following Sunday. The cost is $499 per person. But it does beg the question: Why would the average person ride this train? Well, that driving sucks in the Seattle metro area anytime but especially on Friday nights could be one reason, and US 2 and I-90 can be treacherous in December. But as for scenery (such as the daytime Snow Train previous years), there isn’t any, because it’s dark already when the eastbound Empire Builder leaves Seattle at 440 PM that time of year. And if safety were really a concern, the return would be by rail, too. But the unpalatable 608 AM departure for the westbound Empire Builder from Leavenworth is the likely reason that the tour does not offer travel by train in both directions.

But people have booked this year’s tour – or at least the space has been blocked out to accommodate such travel. Checking availability for coach space from Seattle to Havre on train 8 on either December 7 and 14 shows none available (there is some sleeping space). But ample coach space is available should you want to travel from Leavenworth to Havre. This is because Amtrak does not restrict travel between Seattle and Leavenworth whatsoever. In other words, anyone can book travel for any number of passengers in advance with no restrictions. In this case, coach space is sold out for the 133 miles from Seattle to Leavenworth, but for not for the 2000+ miles beyond. Problem is that most who want to travel to points beyond Leavenworth want to board at Seattle, Edmonds, or Everett and they cannot due to the large amount of travel to Leavenworth. Couple this with the fact that Amtrak has been operating the Seattle section of the Empire Builder with only one coach in the off season, and the situation develops where travel to Leavenworth restricts travel to the rest of the run. (Bob Johnston, who has a regular column in TRAINS magazine mentioned this situation earlier this year and how it reduces revenue overall on the Empire Builder route.)

As counterproductive as the situation with this year’s “Snow Train” is, it’s really nothing new. Since the construction of the $1.4 million “Icicle Station” in Leavenworth and the beginning of service there in the fall of 2009, valuable space on the Empire Builder has been taken up for travel only between Leavenworth and Everett, Edmonds, and Seattle, especially on weekends. In FY2017, 8,041 passengers either entrained or detrained at Leavenworth. 93.7% were traveling 199 miles or less. While it is within the realm of possibility that some of these people could be traveling to and from Wenatchee and Ephrata, it’s a safe bet most were going to or from Everett, Edmonds, and Seattle.

An easy way to see how the ridership in and out of Leavenworth is a detriment to the Empire Builder as a whole is to compare it to another Empire Builder station that more represents the average Empire Builder traveler.

Malta, Montana is about as not Leavenworth as you can get. Unlike Leavenworth which is a huge tourist mecca near a major population center, Malta is the county seat of a county with about 4,000 people and about the size of Connecticut. While there are nearby attractions that could attract Amtrak travelers to Malta (Sleeping Buffalo Hot Springs, Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, and Grasslands National Park as examples), these are relatively unknown, and without any taxis, rental car facilities, or even local automobile dealerships which sometimes rent cars, there is little opportunity for Malta to tap even this small tourist trade. In FY2017, 3,152 people entrained or detrained to/from the Empire Builder at Malta, only 39 percent of the number at Leavenworth. But where the average Amtrak trip to/from Leavenworth was only 190 miles, it was 873 at Malta. The average fare paid to ride to and from Leavenworth was only $38 compared to $113 at Malta. That’s why even though ridership at Malta was 39% that of Leavenworth, ticket revenue at Malta was 135% of Leavenworth! Malta is much more in line with the entire Empire Builder route as a whole which in FY2017 had an average trip length of 716 miles and average ticket price of $119. There simply is no other Empire Builder stop with a lower average trip length or average ticket price than Leavenworth. In other words, under the current conditions, just about every ticket sold to or from Leavenworth reduces Empire Builder revenue and capacity compared to more lucrative price points.

The Leavenworth stop traces itself back to the days of the Alki Snow Train, which predates the Amtrak stop there. Impressed by the success of these special trains, the community, urged by their then-mayor Rob Eaton (who is a company officer for Amtrak), lobbied hard to get the stop. The stop was also heartily endorsed by the State of Washington, and All Aboard Washington, the state’s passenger train advocacy group. In an article in the Seattle Times, Mr. Eaton is quoted as envisioning (for Leavenworth) patronage similar to that of Whitefish, Montana, also a huge tourist destination. So far, it’s not even close. In FY2017, ridership at Whitefish was 56,754 (705% of Leavenworth), with an average trip length of 757 miles (398% of Leavenworth), and an average ticket price of $127 (334% of Leavenworth). Like Malta, Whitefish is more in line with an average Empire Builder stop.

The Leavenworth stop should not be discontinued. Rather, it needs to be managed more effectively. If Amtrak is going to allow tour groups for a 133-mile trip, they need add equipment accordingly (even if adding or cutting cars at Spokane would be required). Fares between Seattle/Edmonds/Everett and Leavenworth should be kept artificially very high until 24-to-48 hours prior to departure to ensure that Amtrak is maximizing the amount of revenue on each train, especially to and from stations east of Leavenworth. And as BNSF is continually working on emissions monitoring techniques at Cascade Tunnel and has overall more locomotives producing fewer emissions, opportunity may exist in the future to add an additional frequency along the Empire Builder route between Seattle and Spokane with relatively minimal state investment. Such a service during daylight hours would provide true benefits to the economy of Leavenworth, as well as other communities which would see improved travel options.

While changing the Leavenworth stop into one that is completely positive from a ticket revenue perspective is going to be difficult due to average trip length, steps can be taken to ameliorate the negative affect the stop currently has on the Empire Builder. We can only hope some from the Washington DOT, All Aboard Washington – and mostly - Amtrak, will take heed.

--Mark Meyer, November 2, 2018