Empire Builders Snowed In.
Stuff happens when you travel by train. And in the case of Amtrak’s Empire Builder, it’s white stuff that’s happening. The problem is between Whitefish and Cut Bank, Montana—specifically in the Marias Pass area. According to a spokesman for BNSF, the freight railroad that owns the track, at least one avalanche damaged track to the extent that it’s impassable.
Amtrak’s spokesman, Mark Magliari, said yesterday that one train—it must have been the eastbound Empire Builder)—returned to Whitefish, having made it as far as Essex. Meanwhile, the westbound Empire Builder was halted at Cut Bank, Montana, and was finally sent back to Shelby.
This is really a mess, and getting messier, because BNSF freight trains must also be stalled. Conceivably it could take days to repair the track because media reports are that it’s under many feet of snow.
Curiously, there is no mention on the BNSF website of the avalanche or efforts to repair track and reopen the line. That said, a Missoula television station has a quote from a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman: “[Because of] recent avalanche activity, continued snow fall and challenging weather conditions, BNSF has temporarily suspended train operations between Shelby and Whitefish.”
Magliari says Amtrak is busy trying to get passengers on both trains to their destinations, although it appears some are being housed in Whitefish. In the meantime, since the Empire Builder is a daily train, the issue facing Amtrak is what to do with today’s train. As far as we know, they have simply sent each train back in the direction from which it had come. In other words, the westbound Builder becomes the eastbound train and the train that had been headed for Chicago is pointed back toward Seattle. Meanwhile, we must assume that passengers have been taken by bus from one train to the other in order top complete their journeys.
I hate it when I get caught up in one of these incidents—it’s happened to me a couple of times—but you sure have to admire the people who somehow and some way get it all straightened out.