The Empire Builder: Current Issues, Threats, Opportunities

The saga of the Empire Builder 2004-2019

The Empire Builder passenger train has been around continuously for 90 years. Launched by the Great Northern railway and its affiliates in 1929, it rose to become the premier Chicago-Pacific Northwest passenger train through innovations such as being the first western post-WWII streamliner, featuring more dome car seats than any other regularly-scheduled passenger train, and being the fastest passenger train on its Chicago-Seattle route.

As the government continued to tax railroads while building infrastructure for airline and highway competition, more and more passenger trains were discontinued prior to the creation of Amtrak in 1971, which resulted in two-thirds of the remaining intercity passenger trains being discontinued. The Empire Builder, albeit on a somewhat different routing, was the lone Chicago-Pacific Northwest passenger train to survive into the Amtrak era.

So, while it was named after James J. Hill, known as The “Empire Builder” for building the Great Northern Railway which helped settle the Northwestern United States, the Empire Builder passenger train has been an Amtrak service longer than that of any of the privately-held railroads – some 47 years (in 2018) and counting.

But, perhaps the counting is about to end. As an Amtrak train, the Empire Builder has endured numerous threats to its existence throughout the past five decades: Inadequate funding for Amtrak as a whole; a reduction to temporary tri-weekly operation in in 1979, and to temporary quad-weekly operation in 1977 and 1995. The Empire Builder’s future has never been totally secure. But today the threat is more dire than ever: The current (White House) administration in Washington, D.C. sees no value in Amtrak long distance services; the equipment used by most Amtrak long distance services is around 40 years old with many cars out of service because Amtrak doesn’t have funding to repair them; and, the biggest and most unique threat of the past 47 years: an Amtrak management openly hostile to its own long distance trains.

Indeed, an administration targeting Amtrak is nothing new; as is the recurring need for new and/or modernized equipment. But the threat from current CEO Richard Anderson and the rest of senior management at Amtrak poses a risk like no other in the history of the Empire Builder. In spite of Amtrak being a ward of Congress with regard to its funding and direction, the past 15 of the Empire Builder’s 89 years helps explain how important the policy of Amtrak senior management (also governed by its board of directors) can be. Here is a synopsis:

The Empire Builder celebrated its diamond anniversary in 2004, also the year when it achieved ridership that was greater than any of the other of Amtrak’s 14 long distance trains. The train was considered as valued transportation throughout its route, so much so that numerous communities along the entire route celebrated its 75 years. David Gunn, president of Amtrak since 2002, was aboard the 75th anniversary train out of Chicago and rode to Whitefish, Montana. He arranged to have Amtrak’s only dome car on the train: an ex-Empire Builder full length car which was the only remaining dome car in Amtrak’s fleet. Leading that 75th anniversary Empire Builder were Amtrak locomotives 7 and 31. “7” has been the westbound train number of the Empire Builder since November of 1971, and “31” was the pre-Amtrak train number for the westbound version of the train for the decade or so prior to the creation of Amtrak.

In 2005, Amtrak announced that the equipment used on the Empire Builder would be upgraded. Superliner cars would be refurbished to be more comfortable and appealing, and on-board amenities would be expanded, such as a new menu in the dining car, at-seat dining car service for coach passengers, and wine and cheese tastings of locally-produced products.

Later in 2005, the Amtrak board fired Mr. Gunn citing that he failed to lead the company toward a break up into separate entities in preparation for privatization (something that has yet to occur under the leadership of subsequent presidents simply because of the complexity and lack of financial incentive that would result). The New York Times reported that Gunn was "widely credited with improving the railroad's management, cutting costs and imposing better financial controls," and "improving the state of repair of Amtrak's locomotives and aging passenger cars, as well as its tracks, signals and electrical systems.”

In spite of the demise of Mr. Gunn, his improvements to the Empire Builder had a very positive impact. Ticket revenue for the Empire Builder in 2007 was 9.2% more than the previous year, and was greater than any other long distance train, including Auto Train, where 100% of the passengers ride the entire length of the route, and pay an additional fee to transport a vehicle. Empire Builder ridership peaked in 2008 at 554,266, 51 percent more than Amtrak’s New York-Miami Silver Star, the second most-ridden train. 13% of all long distance passengers on Amtrak’s 15 trains were Empire Builder passengers; nearly 2% of all passengers on Amtrak rode the Empire Builder with average trips longer than Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (Washington, D.C. to Boston).

2008 was the beginning of the “Great Recession,” but Empire Builder ridership was relatively unaffected through 2010 with over one-half million riders. Patronage declined sharply in 2011 due to annulments and truncation of service due severe flooding in North Dakota. The Minot station was flooded and was closed for five months. Devils Lake, near the Amtrak stop of the same name, was evolving into an inland sea (increasing in volume fourfold), threatening the Empire Builder route across the state, and resulting in frequent late trains.

Ridership rebounded in 2012 to 543,072, mostly due to ridership to and from stations in Bakken oil field (Minot, Stanley, and Williston) and was nearly as high in 2013, the tenth consecutive year that the Empire Builder was Amtrak’s most-ridden long distance train.

Though the “Bakken Boom” bolstered ridership in in 2012 and 2013, by 2014, the corresponding increase in freight train traffic along the Empire Builder route severely hindered the train’s reliability. Very late trains were the norm, and Amtrak management – instead of trying to ameliorate the problem with lower fares and improved service and amenities – began to eliminate amenities onboard the Empire Builder in an attempt to create a generic long distance “product.” From 2014 to early 2015, Amtrak lengthened the schedule of the Empire Builder both westbound and eastbound to attempt to achieve a modicum of on-time performance. The connection from the northbound Coast Starlight in Portland was severed, and Whitefish had unpalatable train times in both directions. As a result, ridership dropped nearly 16 percent from 2013 to 2014. 2014 was the first time since 2004 that the Empire Builder was not the most-ridden long distance train in the Amtrak system, being eclipsed slightly by the Coast Starlight. By the time the Empire Builder returned to its previous schedule in January 2015, BNSF had completely rebuilt the route from Fargo to Minot via Grand Forks, adding sidings, CTC, and replacing nearly all the ties and rail. The route was operated as a second main track to the more-direct KO subdivision via New Rockford between those two cities. Empire Builder timekeeping improved dramatically, and even more so by late 2015 when the second main track was complete all the way (except for Gassman Coulee) from Minot to Williston.

In 2012, Amtrak issued its PRIIA (Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act) “Performance Improvement Plan” report for five long distance trains, including the Empire Builder:

Because of the continuing (at the time) high ridership on the Empire Builder, this report included a number of proposals to increase ridership through adding equipment on each train. Most of the suggestions were described as those Amtrak “does not recommend at this time,” but one was open to “further review and analysis.” This proposal was to add two cars to each Empire Builder – another Chicago-Portland sleeping car, and a “Cross-Country Café” car to supplement dining car service. Additional sleeping car space was determined to be a necessity, but the dining car (which operates on the Seattle section of the train) could not accommodate any more patrons during the summer months. The Cross-County Café car would allow additional dining and lounge car service over the entire Chicago-Portland route (and would allow the Sightseer Lounge car – which currently operated on the Portland section – to continue to Seattle). Specifically, the report states, “During most of the year, the Empire Builder operates with two sleeping cars between Chicago Seattle and one sleeping car between Chicago and Portland. From May through October, these sleeping cars routinely sell out. An analysis performed by our Revenue Management group determined that of all the long-distance trains, the Empire Builder had the most unmet demandand if a sleeping car were added during peak travel months, would generate the most ridership and revenue. Adding a sleeping car to this train creates an immediate service problem for the dining car, which is already strained to capacity during peak travel periods. It is the only Amtrak train that actually has a vendor contract with a local restaurant at Havre, Montana, with customers placing orders with the on-board staff for a box dinner received after departure from this station. To address this service challenge, which would be exacerbated further with the addition of a 4th sleeping car, the proposal would be to utilize available 37000 series Cross Country Café cars as both a sleeping car lounge and an alternate meal service option for our sleeping car guests.” The report also included the verbiage, “The result of this service change would be to make the Empire Builder service level comparable to the Coast Starlight and Auto Train, and allow for modest fare increases associated with the higher service level.” The plan was never implemented, even though equipment was available. But even in 2012, Amtrak acknowledged that Empire Builder amenities needed to be upgraded and doing so would be desirable, and that ridership would benefit from service upgrades.

Also in the 2012 Performance Improvement Plan was a proposal to add Amtrak Thruway Bus service between Grand Forks, North Dakota and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Though the train times are not the best at Grand Forks (currently about 100 AM eastbound and 500 AM westbound), the report estimated that ridership on the bus would actually produce an operating surplus of nearly $700,000 annually! The bus would connect the Empire Builder (both eastbound and westbound) with VIA Rail Canada trains in Winnipeg, about 150 miles distant. The specific planned VIA Rail connection was to VIA’s Hudson Bay service operating between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba, which had much allure for tourists. In addition, the bus could also allow passengers (mostly higher-end tourists) to transfer between the Empire Builder and VIA Rail’s transcontinental “Canadian” train which operated between Toronto and Vancouver, B.C. Possibly the even greater benefit of this proposed bus service would be to fill a huge void in cross-border U.S.-Canada land travel. At the time, there was no scheduled rail or intercity bus transportation between Interstate 5 (Blaine, Washington/White Rock, BC) and Detroit, MI-Windsor, ON. (Today, there is no scheduled land passenger transportation between I-5 and I-75 at Sault Ste. Marie, MI-ON.) While the study gave no negative connotations associated with starting the connecting bus (and indeed stated that there should be no problem implementing it by 2013), it never happened. It should be noted that since 2012, VIA Rail passenger trains serving Winnipeg have experienced operating challenges of their own with regard to service interruptions, truncations, and reductions in days of operation. Regardless, Winnipeg with over 700,000 residents – Canada’s eighth largest city – could have provided a sizeable market for the Empire Builder and its stop in “nearby” Grand Forks.

In 2012, about 55 people per day entrained and detrained at Grand Forks. Because of the various delays due to freight and flooding interference, this number had decreased to 38 people per day by 2014. In 2015, when the long-time agent at the Grand Forks station retired, Amtrak then simply destaffed that location without attempting to revive the ridership lost by the poor timekeeping and flooding problems of the previous four years. When the train was operating more dependably, local groups of as many as 100 people – some from nearby Winnipeg, Manitoba, frequented the Empire Builder traveling to and from Whitefish to ski. Grand Forks is home to the University of North Dakota, the largest institution of that kind in the state, based on enrollment. Many UND students reside in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area because Minnesota and North Dakota have a reciprocal college tuition agreement. The Empire Builder was especially popular with its overnight schedule between the Twin Cities and Grand Forks. But both skiers (skis) and college students (laundry and comforts of home) have a lot of luggage, and no agent at Grand Forks means no checked baggage, and therefore a very reduced likelihood that this business can ever be regained. Later in 2015, Amtrak removed the agent at Winona, Minnesota, a community with two colleges.

Since 2015, Amtrak has increased its destaffing of stations systemwide. Rugby, Wolf Point, and Columbus, Wisconsin were among the stations to lose Customer Service Representatives. In June of 2018, Amtrak removed station personnel in Montana at the Havre and Shelby stations in a move – according to Amtrak – to remove staffing at all stations where 40 or fewer people used Amtrak trains per day each day in calendar year. This translates to 16,400 entrainings and/or detrainings per year (i.e. 365X40). Ridership at Havre and Shelby in 2017 was 11,570 and 10,887 respectively. (Grand Forks was 13,891, and Winona 17,595, which is well above the 40-per-day criteria.) Back in 2010 – before the timekeeping became erratic and during a time of heightened amenities and improved equipment, ridership at Havre and Shelby were 16,077 and 16,534 respectively or 44 and 45 passengers daily.

So, to recap the past 15 years with regard to Empire Builder patronage: It is proven that providing quality service with enhanced amenities brought the train to the apex of ridership in 2008; in the ten years that followed, ridership overall declined about 100,000 annually to its present 450,000 or so; still enough to often claim the “most ridden of all long distance trains” title, but obviously insufficient based on what was proven to be possible. Amtrak has shown that it has no desire to attempt to regain the ridership that was lost, which is especially troublesome considering the infrastructure improvements provided by BNSF to mostly rectify that situation. With regard to station staffing which is known to have an effect on patronage, Amtrak has and continues to choose to adjust staffing (cut jobs) rather than attempt to bolster ridership to match with what were previous staffing levels and their higher ridership. Additionally, there are other points to consider. While staffing was eliminated at Havre and Shelby each with 2 daily trains and 11,000 or so annual riders, Amtrak retained staffing at Centralia, Washington with its 10 daily trains and 25,000 riders evidently because Centralia was in excess of the 14,600 threshold. But both Havre and Shelby each had ticket revenues greater than Centralia (because most of the passengers at Havre and Shelby are riding further). And regardless of the ridership criteria associated with destaffing, Amtrak refuses to acknowledge the consequences of their degrading service. The 100,000-patron loss in ridership over 10 years notwithstanding, as major stations are destaffed, that drives more and more hand baggage into the train (and unsafe situation) or simply discourages more riders overall.

Richard Anderson is now at the helm at Amtrak. In his short tenure, he has reduced passenger amenities on long distance trains such as the Coast Starlight, Capitol Limited, and Lake Shore Limited. He has eliminated most private car moves and special trains. He has eliminated many discounts that have not only been in place for years, but that are available at the competition. All of this, supposedly, to focus on Amtrak’s existing business and route structure. Additionally, Mr. Anderson has balked at operating any Amtrak trains on trackage without Positive Train Control (PTC) after December 31, 2018. For the Empire Builder, this includes a short distance in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where the train operates over the Minnesota Commercial Railroad. On a larger scale, many other trains – both long distance trains and state-supported trains – would be at risk should his stance on this issue prevail. The salient point here is that prior to Mr. Anderson’s arrival at Amtrak, it had already been determined which routes with passenger trains were required to have PTC. The unilaterality of such decisions notwithstanding, the supposed reason for Mr. Anderson’s stance is passenger safety. While it is quizzical to understand how a line can be safe on December 31, 2018, and unsafe the next day, Mr. Anderson is at the very least, inconsistent. Should all these trains be discontinued or truncated due to lack of PTC, this will simply drive more people on to highways, statistically the most unsafe mode of transportation in the United States. One such example is Amtrak’s proposal to institute a ”bus bridge” on the Southwest Chief route between beginning and end of PTC at Dodge City, KS and Albuquerque (Dalies), NM. Rail traffic on this route is very light – in fact, between La Junta, CO and west of Lamy, NM, the Southwest Chief is the only traffic on the line for some 280 miles. Yet Amtrak mysteriously is suggesting that busing passengers on two-lane US 50 and US 350 in an area subject to severe weather (Raton Pass) is safer than the historically all-weather mode of rail transport.

Taking all this into account, one cannot help but think there is an ulterior motive with regard to long distance trains at Amtrak besides “tightening the ship” and safety. Amtrak indeed has safety issues, but there’s no proof that anything suggested so far by Amtrak senior management will help achieve that goal. With regard to the Empire Builder over the past 15 years specifically, Amtrak itself has proven that ridership will soar or fall depending on the level of service offered, and as late as 2012 acknowledged that service and capacity needed to be expanded, not reduced! The train remains relatively well-patronized, especially compared to other Amtrak service. So, it’s not even a question of ”fixing something that ain’t broke”; rather, it’s failure to act on an opportunity. Given the Empire Builder’s importance to isolated communities, its utility as dependable transportation during inclement weather, and that is well-positioned to serve numerous popular tourist destinations, Amtrak needs to build on what is a well-established infrastructure and ridership base. Adding equipment and amenities and even frequencies over some or all parts of the route would not only provide a needed and appreciated public service (which was part of Amtrak’s initial charter in 1971), but could do so without a corresponding multiplier of personnel and infrastructure costs.

Should the Empire Builder not succumb to current and potential future immediate threats, the train will celebrate its 90th birthday in June of 2019, serving America’s outback and Northern Tier for parts of ten decades. When one considers the America that the train’s namesake helped established, and Glacier National Park which was developed into the treasure it is by the railroad created by the original Empire Builder, it should be obvious that should the current forces working against long distance trains in general and the Empire Builder specifically prevail, America will not only lose a valued economic engine, but a piece of its own heritage. As Americans – with vested interest through taxpayer support and the power of the ballot box – we cannot allow this to happen.