Is There a Light at the End of the Empire Builder’s Tunnel?
It’s common knowledge that Amtrak has been having serious problems with the on-time performance of several of its long-distance trains. Among others, the California Zephyr and the Texas Eagle have had some serious delays on an on-again-off-again basis.
But the principal culprit—or should I say “victim”?—has been the Empire Builder, which runs daily in each direction between Chicago in the east and both Seattle and Portland in the west. For more than a year, the train that was once the pride of the Amtrak system has arrived late almost 80-percent for the time. And“late” has often meant 8 or 10 hours behind schedule, causing inconvenience and additional expense for many thousands of passengers, not to mention literally millions of dollars in extra cost for Amtrak.
So what went wrong? Well, just about everything that could go wrong: awful weather, an unprecedented increase in the number of trains transporting crude oil to refineries around the country, and the suspicion in some quarters that a court decision gave freight railroads the idea that maybe they didn’t have to run passenger trains on time after all.
It was time for drastic measures and Amtrak went to unprecedented lengths to adjust to the unpleasant reality. They padded the Empire Builder’s schedule by several hours to give passengers a more realistic idea of when they might arrive. Unfortunately, and as a practical matter, that often meant arriving in Chicago seven hours late instead of ten. It also eliminated the westbound Builder’s connection with the southbound Coast Starlight in Portland, Oregon. Amtrak also re-routed the eastbound Builder to bypass Rugby, Devils Lake and Grand Forks in North Dakota—a stretch of track roughly 275 miles long where most of the freight congestion was occurring.
To give them their due, BNSF—the freight railroad owning all that track and the trains of tank cars clogging it—has put an extraordinary amount to money and effort into double-tracking long stretches and providing more sidings in an effort to mitigate if not alleviate a lot of the congestion.
Now, as an indication that things might be returning to normal—whatever the hell that is—Amtrak has announced that the Rugby-to-Grand Forks bypass will end in the middle of next month. Well, we shall see.
As I write this late on Sunday afternoon in Hawaii, there are four Empire Builder consists operating. One eastbound train has just left Everett, Washington, the other one is somewhere between Wolf Point, Montana, and Williston, North Dakota. Both of those trains are running about three hours late. One of the westbound trains is five hours out of Chicago and is still on time; the other one, left Glasgow, Montana, four-and-a-half hours late.
You can go to the NARP website (www.narprail.org), click on TRAIN STATUS, and it will give detailed and current information for every Amtrak train. Go ahead. I dare you.