Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder.
The California Zephyr offers a more scenic route and I love those wonderful parlor cars on the Coast Starlight, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the Empire Builder. There’s just something majestic about this train. It’s a damn shame it can’t seem to run on time.
The problems began in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The computer in the lead engine of this consist stopped talking to the computer in the B unit which, as a consequence, would not release its brakes. Give our crew credit: they swapped positions of the two engines and communication was restored. But figuring out what to do, consulting with Amtrak’s powers-that-be, then physically exchanging positions of the two locomotives and taking care of paperwork required because we now had a different A unit . . . all that took the better part of three hours.
And so our train fell out of its “slot”, if such thing truly exists, and from first light Sunday morning, we dawdled along behind a number of slow BNSF freights, falling farther and farther behind.
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of a big pothole on the platform in Minot, North Dakota. The hand-painted sign says “DO NOT STOP”.
Most of the time, especially in the past few years, the Builder’s on-time problem has been freight congestion … more specifically, the oil trains.There are many times the number that were running up here before the big oil discovery in the Williston area a few years ago, and they have been cluttering up great stretches of the Builder’s route.
In fairness, I must say that throughout the day today I have seen quite a lot of what certainly appears to be new track, both sidings and double track. Indeed, we have repeatedly heard about the multi-billions BNSF is spending to increase capacity. Still, that increased congestion, plus a couple of unusually awful winters, has done damage to this train’s proud reputation. There’s just no overlooking the fact that the Empire Builder’s On Time Performance is consistently lousy. Padding in the schedule helped a bit today and we arrived in Seattle exactly 3:30 late.
Personally, I don’t connect anymore; I overnight. It’s just a lot safer. But a lot of people can’t or just don’t. There was at least one couple on board that is supposed to connect in Seattle with a bus that will take them to Vancouver for the start off on an Alaskan cruise. Their connection time in Seattle was three hours. Multiply that by other passengers on other Builders missing other connections and it all adds up to costing Amtrak a lot of dollars and a great deal of good will and lost future business.
And you don’t hear a damn peep about this from the think-small crowd in Congress. They’re too busy trying to reduce Amtrak’s pitifully small subsidy and passing a law requiring Amtrak to accommodate pets and demanding that Amtrak cut costs in its dining cars. Can you find any sense in any of that? I sure as hell can’t.