Amtrak’s Empire Builder: Not A Jolly Good Show.
Some time ago – it was probably back in the early 90s – I was on Amtrak’s Empire Builder heading to Seattle. On the second afternoon, somewhere in the eastern part of Montana, I was having an enjoyable lunch in the dining car. One of my tablemates was a delightful man from England on an extended visit to the U.S. He was seeing the country by train and was thoroughly enjoying himself.
Just as we were finishing our lunch, the conductor came through the car and he stopped at our table to chat.
“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but a freight train in front of us has broken a wheel and we’re going to be stopping in a few minutes. It’s going to take a while to fix it and I’m afraid we’re probably going to be four hours late into Seattle.”
The Brit positively beamed. “Jolly good!” he said, “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”
I’ve never forgotten him and I try to adopt his wonderful attitude whenever I’m experiencing a delay during one of my rail journeys. But I can’t help wondering how he would be today, with the Empire Builder running late on a regular basis. And not just four hours late, either.
There are, as I write this, three Empire Builders heading west somewhere along the 2200-mile route from Chicago to Seattle. If you want a snapshot of just how bad things are, this will give it to you:
Builder # 1 departed Winona, Minnesota, 23 minutes late.
Builder # 2 departed Malta, Montana, six hours and five minutes behind schedule.
Builder # 3 arrived in Spokane, Washington, eleven hours and 51 minutes late.
I don’t have to ask what’s causing those awful, maddening, inexcusable delays. It’s congestion. It’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight traffic. And the three Empire Builders sit there on sidings, as the minutes and the hours keep piling up, while the BNSF trains of 100 or more tanker cars filled with crude oil keep lumbering by.
The thing is, those three Amtrak trains are filled, too … with people. People who are going to miss connections, and maybe have to spend an extra night or two in a hotel once they get to Seattle. They’re going to miss weddings and funerals, class reunions, business meetings and doctors’ appointments. Lives are going to be disrupted and unexpected expenses are going to be incurred.
BNSF says the Empire Builder will be back running on schedule by the end of March.
Right. Anyone wanna bet?