Going From Seattle to Chicago. And From Bad to Worse.

I received an email from a reader who was incredulous about the awful delays that Amtrak’s Empire Builder has been experiencing. In so many words, he was saying there’s just no good reason for it arriving 12 hours late.

Well, actually, there are a number of reasons … and I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not they’re good reasons.

First, there’s the weather. Weeks of unprecedented cold and deep snow have caused multiple problems. Trains get bogged down in snowdrifts twelve feet deep. Switches freeze and have to be thawed. When one train can’t move, trains behind it are also paralyzed. And if that first train has stalled on a stretch of single track, the trains in front of it can’t proceed either.

In addition to weather problems, there’s all the freight traffic. It’s increased dramatically over the past several months, especially on the North Dakota portion of the Empire Builder’s route where more and more trains hauling crude oil to refineries in other parts of the country are causing unprecedented congestion.

Then the troubles caused by too much bad weather and too many trains begin to compound.

Federal law says engineers and conductors cannot work more than 12 hours in a row, and that rule cannot be fudged by so much as a minute. So if the Empire Builder is sitting in the middle of nowhere stuck in deep snow and its crew “goes dead”, that train cannot move until Amtrak finds a relief crew and somehow transports them to the stranded train.

So, between waiting for a replacement crew, getting bogged down in all the congestion, and being stuck on sidings while dispatchers for BNSF, the railroad that owns the tracks, give priority to their trains, it’s no surprise that the Empire Builder finally limps into Chicago 11 or 12 hours late.

Unfortunately, we’re not yet through with this horror story. Because the Builder was

so late arriving into Chicago, Amtrak’s cleaning and service crews don’t have the usual amount of time to clean the train, remake the beds with clean linen, restock the dining car with food and drinks and china and all the other items needed to properly take care of the 250-or-so passengers who will be heading back west on the train’s return trip to Seattle and Portland.

And so the westboundEmpire Builder is an hour-and-a-half departing Chicago, and that means …

Well, you know what that means.