Empire Builder in North Dakota – Photo by Flickr User mwahlsten

It has been a terrible year for the Empire Builder.  On-time performance over the last 12 months is hovering around 10-15%, and delays have frequently been 5-12 hours or more.  Service has been either truncated or canceled outright over 50 times so far in 2011.  While collisions with vehicles, our epic mudslides, and an Idaho rockslide have all disrupted service, the heart of the problem is flooding in the Devil’s Lake Basin of North Dakota.  As an endorheic (closed) basin, Devil’s Lake has continued to rise over the past decades as precipitation has increased, increasingly submerging the railbed and 2 key bridges.  (BNSF has not operated through freight service between Grand Forks and Minot for over a year).  Amtrak, however, limps onward on the troubled segment.  On June 15, BNSF and Amtrak agreed in principle to split the $100m cost of rebuilding 17 miles of the corridor, raising the railbed and rebuilding the bridges.

My personal opinion is that this amounts to doubling down on a short-to-medium term solution.  Bypassing Devil’s Lake may be the better long-term choice.  While those in and around Grand Forks would lose service, using the direct line between Fargo and Minot would be faster, more direct and significantly more reliable.  Politically, however, it’s a non-starter.

It is beyond frustrating that rainfall in North Dakota means that Seattle passengers can’t get to Spokane, etc…  Though famously subsidized, Amtrak operates without a shred of redundancy, so when things go wrong, they tend to do so spectacularly.  With sufficient equipment and crew, Amtrak could (and should) operate segments of the line when service is disrupted, especially between Seattle-Spokane and Minneapolis-Chicago.  Perhaps these problems will someday bring about state support for Eastern Washington service that is independent of the long-distance network.

In normal times the Builder is perhaps the premier long-distance train in North America, offering unrivaled scenery, a lifeline to the northern plains, and quality onboard amenities.  It’s a shame to watch the service degrade into chaos without the ability for Amtrak to adapt quickly.

134 Replies to “Empire Builder Woes”

  1. Is there any evidence that the State is interested in an east-west alignment for the state? It would be cool to see service at least extend from Seattle to northern Idaho.

    1. Agreed – I think it’s a pretty massive failure that there is but a single daily train (at not terribly useful hours of the day) from Seattle to Spokane (to say nothing of the fact that flooding in North Dakota disrupts what little service we have here).

      It’s symptomatic of what is Amtrak’s far larger problem: as Amtrak has developed over the decades, there has always been a lot of big thinking. Long routes covering thousands of miles connecting far-flung cities; this is now an outmoded concept thanks to the rise of airline hub-and-spoke networks. Amtrak should cease its super-long haul lines (1000 miles+) that consistently under-perform (which is most of them) and instead realign towards regional services.

      Trains between Seattle and Minneapolis aren’t cost-effective: a sampling of one-way flights for next friday (6/29) is between $300 and $360, with trip durations of 6-8 hours stopping in Denver or Phoenix. The comparable train fare for the same day is $347, if it runs at all — oh, and you don’t get to the Twin Cities until Sunday morning. I would imagine that many of Amtrak’s long haul routes suffer similar problems.

      Seattle to Spokane, however? $136 on Alaska airlines, $82 on Amtrak (on the train, not its subcontracted bus service). The train will take you 8 hours, though. A regional focus on improving service and infrastructure might make this a very attractive alternative to flying or braving I-90.

      End the Empire Builder – the Empire was completed long ago, and only a few exceptionally scenic long-haul train routes (Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited) still retain bits of the romance that intercity trains used to evoke.

      1. I’ll take issue with that last paragraph. If the Empire Builder is one thing, it’s a beautiful trip. I’ve taken it to go hiking in Glacier National Park (can be done in a weekend). That’s why prople take the train across the country – because it’s a beautiful way to travel if you’re not in a hurry.

      2. Okay, fair point. Scenic routes do still exist and people do use them for that (and I’m not the best judge of routes which are and are not worth taking for the scenery), but I stand by my claim that long-haul train travel has lost much of its luster, for which Amtrak itself deserves much of the blame.

        Amtrak suffers from being branded by its lowest common denominator: that trains serve the sole purpose to move passengers from point A to point B. Sadly, it operates close to that philosophy as well, sterilizing what ought to be spectacular trips. There’s a niche between road trips (for sightseers) and air travel (for shortest time between destinations) that Amtrak has entirely failed in its quest to serve. What good is a gorgeous train ride if you’re never on time to your destination? The farm that your train has been stopped next to is only interesting for so many hours.

      3. Airplanes use more fuel than trains, and the fuel would be more expensive if it weren’t indirectly subsidized by our military and the lack of a carbon-emissions tax. Those factors are going to be harder to sustain in the future.

      4. Completely with you on this. Every dollar Amtrak spends to shore up some sinking railroad line in North Dakota is one that isn’t being spent on NEC, California, one of the Chicago lines or Cascades, or even a new Seattle-Spokane service. And that just makes me cranky. Even if this buys the quiet support of a few senators, there’s still 45 more who just want to kill Amtrak altogether, and the subsidy these tickets receive lends them ammunition.

      5. Airplanes use more fuel than trains? Well, you’re not going to transport coal to China on a 747 but as far as passenger travel Amtrak is less efficient than commercial aviation.

        Amtrak (2005) 1.9 MJ/passenger-km
        Passenger airplanes averaged 1.4 MJ/passenger-km

        What I found surprising is the Cunard liner QE 2 (16.7 passenger-miles per imperial gallon) is less fuel efficient than the Concord (17 passenger miles/imperial gallon). But again, coal to China is done with ships and trains and not supersonic flight. Passenger trains probably have a significant advantage on short trips since planes use the majority of their fuel taking off but are extremely efficient cruising at altitude.

      6. Ah, you’re point is based on the false premise that folks ride these trains only from end to end – not true at all.
        Even my ride earlier this week on Acela was from Connecticut to Washington DC, not starting from NY, or Phily, or Boston.

        These long distance trains link dozens of city pairs between their endpoints, which makes them very useful in that regard. A better answer would be to double the frequency, say with trains 8 hours apart, to deal with the really inconvenient times for locations where the train runs through at night.

      7. There’s more to travel than energy per mile, although that is a vital number. GHG emissions higher in the atmosphere have more impact than on the ground, for example. I’m pretty sure (although I can’t find data offhand) that intercity electric trains use less energy than similar diesels.

        But yes, where passenger trains work best is short- to medium-haul between busy destinations where you can consistently fill the train, which is exactly where I would have us focus Amtrak’s attention.

      8. Mike: That’s a loaded point, as any inter-modal comparison would have to use passenger-miles per gallon; a simple MPG comparison is insufficient. It isn’t useful if a more efficient train is carrying fewer people over shorter distances; a full airliner will eventually surpass the train’s point of diminishing returns if the distance is great enough.

      9. These long distance trains link dozens of city pairs between their endpoints,

        The Acela on the NEC is an entirely different animal than long distance excursion trains like the Empire Builder. For starters it feeds NYC from points north and south (NYC has a greater population than every city along the Empire Builder combined), it links large cities that are all in close proximity and it’s speed compresses travel time. There’s a whole lot of nothing between Spokane and Minneapolis St. Paul.

        Why does the Empire Builder alternate between Seattle and Portland? The Coast Starlight doesn’t alternate between Seattle and Spokane.

      10. “Why does the Empire Builder alternate between Seattle and Portland?”

        It doesn’t. It splits/combines in Spokane.

      11. Easy enough to avoid, buy the 389 dollar pass good for eight segments. We did that last year.

        Zephyr is having problems with flooding now on a near annual basis. last summer as we headed west to Colorado from Chicago, most of Iowa was under water and we had to stop in several sections to make sure the water wasn’t to deep for the power.

        I can see the point about axing the long distance stuff, but since I can never make heads or tails over the subsidy numbers vs. the airline industry I can’t take a stand on whether they should kill ’em or not.

        I don’t know how you can claim that long-haul has lost its luster, in fact that’s about one of the only reasons their still around.

        Benjamin C’s point about small town service is spot-on, imho. People need to get around, and at some point the govt. has to provide service to those not economically self-sufficient. Its either Amtrak, or some other service, period.

        Maybe it is time to kill Amtrak altogether; its been said that since the freight railroads and corporate mgmt. wanted it so they could dump their passenger trains, started with Penn Central staff in the HQ, and downhill ever since, more or less.

        The alternative?

      12. Completely with you on this. Every dollar Amtrak spends to shore up some sinking railroad line in North Dakota is one that isn’t being spent on NEC, California, one of the Chicago lines or Cascades

        Exactly. It’s also one less dollar that could be spent on improving the Empire Builder. It seems like split serve from Spokane has got to drive costs way up. I know it would add time to the trip but I’d rather see the train end in Seattle and put the savings toward improved Cascades service. There might be schedule issues but someone traveling with a sleeper could be transffered to the Starlight in Seattle which wouldn’t make much sense if they’re only going to Portland but it would permit Chicago to LA where you could pull off the same trick with the Chief or Eagle creating (to the customer) a See America loop route.

        I’m all for the incremental approach Washington has adopted with it’s “higher” speed rail (CA should do the same thing SFO to LAX) but the best bang for the buck with high speed rail (after fixing some of the existing issues on the NEC) would be to extend the it south to cities that are already some of the busiest airport hubs in the nation; Raleigh #38, Charlotte #11, Atlanta #1, Orlando #13, Fort Lauderdale #25 and Miami #14. It leverages the existing asset (DC to NY) and would allow the elimination or truncation of some of the southern Amtrak routes searching for a purpose.

      13. The Empire builder, and other long distance trains serve as both an alternate to airlines (see what happend post 9/11 when all commerical avaiation was shut down in this country) plus they connect the local communities with each other and the big cities. The Empire builder gets a lot of business this way and is nessasary to the local economies. Further, theres an unmet need for long distance trains in this country, trains we once had but were lost to budget cuts and not lack of ridership. The North Coast Limited from Seattle to Chicago via the NP (Now MRL) is importaint for those in southern Montana, even with I-90. Secondly, the Resumption of the Pioneer and Desert Wind, Denver to Seattle via Boise and Portland and Denver to Los Angenles via Las Vegas. A second Coast Starlight trip a day either probally would fill up just as fast as it started. Theres demand out there, its simply not being met, even on existing trains that are running very full. Also i’m starting to think its time for a shift in travel and transportation policy in this country. First being, encouraging Amtrak, Greyhound, and the like to open their ticketing and reservation systems up to websites like Expedia and Orbitz, and having Greyhound and the like serve the airports for direct connections inbetween services. Amtrak of course would have to have a Shuttle in most spots. Secondly once people started getting more comfortable with those connections and options, start regulating these short hop trips, Seattle-Portland, Seattle-Vancouver BC for example. We should have done that years ago to mitigate the need for a 3rd runway, not to mention noise and pollution from turbojet aircraft which cannot be very efficent to fly. These are things that can be done with existing resources and with little impact at first but will start to give people a lot more options than just using one mode for their whole journey.

      14. I’m not buying the whole “lifeline” argument. If this was an essential service there would be ghost towns all along the routes mentioned that have gone away. What happened when the airlines were shutdown? Mostly people sat around waiting for flights to resume. People who had to get somewhere rented cars or took a bus because the number of destinations, time penalty and cost of most travel by rail makes it appealing only to those that just want the train experience. The third runway at SEA was so that flights could stay on schedule during bad weather that regulates a wider separation between planes and all the long distance Amtrak service in the world wouldn’t have changed that. Trains relieve airport demand only if they are time competitive.

      15. It also serves a purpose for those who don’t like to fly. We should keep it.

      16. I’m sorry, but the fact that you don’t like to fly isn’t any more of a justification for this sort of expenditure than it is to run a local bus service because I don’t like driving. We run bus services because it’s a demonstrable fact that they’re more a efficient way of moving people around dense urban environments than cars. Similarly, trains are great for regional transportation if they can string together a bunch of dense urban areas with travel times comparable to driving and withing an hour or so of flying.

      17. downintacoma says: “The comparable train fare for the same day is $347, if it runs at all — oh, and you don’t get to the Twin Cities until Sunday morning.”

        While I agree that it takes time to get to the Twin Cities, you’re looking at the last minute price. Book early, and you can drop that price down to around $150 to $160.

      18. Bernie says: “There’s a whole lot of nothing between Spokane and Minneapolis St. Paul.”

        And yet nearly half of the Empire Builder’s ridership gets on and/or off in that nothing area.

        Total ridership in 2010 for the Empire Builder was 533,493. Total riders getting on/off at a stop in Iowa, Montana, & North Dakata in 2010 was 285,418.

      19. I take issue with your suggestion of ending the Empire Builder. We need the long and short haul of train travel as a public choice and service. Following your line of thinking, we should get rid of all short haul flights and only keep the long haul ones. Makes perfect sense economically to bolster short haul rail and long haul flying, but it is also a deprival of choice to those who like choices and who may be afraid to take trains or planes. The marketplace and the public will sort out flying options, but for that section of the public that lives far from feasible airports and outside of the marketplace, it needs its trains funded to the full bent of their local and regional and long haul potential.

      20. The Empire Builder along with the Coast Starlight are two of Amtrak’s most successful long distance routes. If you can’t justify them then you can’t justify anything other than the NEC and regional service subsidized by the states.

        One huge problem with eliminating the long distance service is it means it will be hard to start up new regional service because the maintenance facilities and crew bases used by the long-distance network will be gone.

        Also remember that the long-distance trains form part of the overall passenger rail network (such as it is). The regional trains benefit from the long-distance trains and vice-versa.

      21. Bernie,
        While I think incremental upgrades have a place in an overall plan for passenger rail improvements in the SW US, San Francisco and Sacramento to San Diego via Los Angeles and Riverside is the HSR corridor with the most potential in the US outside of the NEC.

        Due to the distances involved this will need to be real high speed rail not just 90 or 110 MPH service. In addition due to the routes desired and existing freight congestion new ROW will be required for much of the route. The good news is outside the urbanized areas around San Francisco/San Jose and Los Angeles the new ROW should be fairly cheap. For getting in and out of the cities there is already more or less suitable existing ROW which while somewhat costly to upgrade should be much cheaper to fix than some of the capacity and speed problems on the NEC.

        While a good case could be made for HSR spurs off the NEC to Albany, Harrisburg, and Richmond. There really isn’t a good case to be made any further South than about Raleigh. Atlanta to Raleigh is probably best served for now with incremental improvements like have been done with Cascades.

        Outside of the NEC and California/Nevada the next best set of corridors center on Chicago. One of the two or three best is along the Empire Builder route between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul via Milwaukee.

  2. The Empire Builder works well for a small percentage of the folks living in the states on the route. It works well as a tourist train and as an essential link to services for remote high-line towns.

    I’m from West Central Montana, a region not served by Amtrak since 1979. Southern Montana has a combined population about 700,000 people, but has no intercity rail or reliable transit links to regional centers like Spokane, Seattle, Salt Lake City or Denver.

    Spokane is another issue, and one that I see as linked to the lack of service in Montana’s populated southern tier. Politically, the Empire Builder is a difficult subject, but I think there is a possible compromise that would add service, redundancy and retain essential links for high-line communities.

    There should be a dedicated daily train linking Spokane – Seattle and Spokane – Portland. This train would operate at an hour more tenable than the current 1:30 AM Schedule.

    The Empire Builder would then be truncated. One possibility is a Chicago – Twin Cities – Fargo daily that would end in Fargo. Transferring in Fargo, the Empire Builder could continue on along a similar route to the present train(bypassing Devil’s Lake). I think the Empire Builder doesn’t have to be a daily train, but that is open for debate. A new daily line would go south and serve Southern N. Dakota, through the I-94/I-90 corridor to Billings – Bozeman – Helena – Missoula and terminating in Spokane where travelers could then transfer to the NW only service.

    If Amtrak really wanted to keep the long-distance train going, perhaps they could have a once weekly through train that serves the tourists well. Otherwise, I see no future for the current configuration of the route, or the need to spend large pots of money on a service that doesn’t serve the much larger, transit starved population.

    Interesting to note is that the Montana Department of Transportation does plan to add Southern Montana rail service, even if it is only between Billings – Missoula. Funding is certainly an issue, and I think having regional links makes for a better service. I hope the Empire Builder states can work together to find a solution.

    1. I could see a twice-a-week service still doing well. As long as they added cars to meet the demand.

      1. Daily service is nearly always more profitable (/ loses less) than less-than-daily service. Amtrak tried less-than-daily service, it’s always a disaster. Look at the Sunset Limited and Cardinal numbers and compare to the Empire Builder or California Zephyr or Southwest Chief.

        As an aside, everyone lumps all “long distance” trains together. I agree that the Empire Builder route is a bit questionable, but the New York-Chicago “Lake Shore Limited” and DC-Chicago “Capitol Limited” are ALSO considered “long distance trains”, despite being quite a bit shorter distance. And these sorts of routes through the densely populated upper midwest, connecting two huge cities overnight, are obviously ideal for *more* and *better* train service. Which is why I get angry when people propose “killing long distance trains”. A country with no passenger trains from New York to Chicago is a ridiculous third-world country.

      2. The Empire Builder is hardly “questionable”. By most metrics the EB and Coast Starlight do very well compared to all of the other long distance trains and even much regional service. Sure the Empire builder isn’t the NEC or the Pacific Surfliner but that is a rather high bar to hold passenger rail in much of the country to.

        As for dropping the long-distance trains to less than daily service, that is a sure-fire way to start a death spiral for long-distance service. 3x a week service really isn’t much cheaper to operate than daily. Dropping service frequency tends to really cut ridership and the ridership drop tends to be larger than the amount of the service cut.

        If anything given demand on both the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight there should be more than one train per day. In addition I’d support regional service on the East and West ends of the Empire builder route.

        The Empire Builder is the most popular long-distance train in Amtrak’s system and has the 10th highest ridership of any Amtrak train. It has the 4th highest revenue of any Amtrak train (after only Acela, Northeast Regional, and Auto Train) it also has 65% farebox recovery which is beaten by only a few regional trains and Auto Train.

  3. If the Empire Builder could be just a little more reliable and provide wi-fi (I would even pay for it), I would never fly to the midwest again. I love long train trips, but I need to be able to work at least a little bit if I am going to dedicate that many days to travel.

    1. I’ve found that sometimes it can even be faster to take the train to some towns. I’ve had to work in Havre, MT, and the fastest (and cheapest) way home was by an overnight train. My other option was to drive three hours to Great Falls and stay the night and fly back the next day. If I’m going to have to sleep somewhere, I’d much rather be in a “roomette” with a view of the Rockies.

      And yes, wi-fi would have made me much more productive. But it would remove my excuse to not be productive!

      1. I usually use the Empire Builder to get to the East Coast. I can usually put enough work on a flash drive to keep busy and can access wi-fi in Chicago to send and receive updated files to the office. What makes me more productive is that my company uses a poor carrier for my Blackberry, so they can’t contact me. I usually get a dump of e-mails in Minot and there is a brief window where they can call.

  4. “In normal times the Builder is perhaps the premier long-distance train in North America, offering unrivaled scenery, a lifeline to the northern plains, and quality onboard amenities. It’s a shame to watch the service degrade into chaos without the ability for Amtrak to adapt quickly.”

    Edit that paragraph so that its subject is the United States of America and it will be even more accurate and to the point. Especially the “shame” part.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Add bomb threats to the list of causes for delay (my girlfriend got to spend an extra 11 hours in Whitefish on Valentine’s Day waiting and waiting and waiting for this particular train to show up).

  6. Some thoughts on the Empire Builder and other long-distance trains:

    1) My understanding is the train usually runs full and there is more demand than seat supply. Part of the problem with Amtrak’s long-distance service is the lack of capital (trains). Once a day doesn’t cut it because the train has to be somewhere in the middle of the night. Check the schedule each way between Fargo, ND and Saint Cloud, MN. Would you use the train for this trip? Probably not. Short trips on a long-distance train work best if there’s at least one daytime option per city pair, that is, a minimum of one train every 12 hours.

    2. Specifically re: the Builder, there used to be a second version of it that ran via southern Montana. That does seem a more useful route than the current one, though Minot and Grand Forks, ND are major enough cities that they deserve consideration.

    3. If the long-distance trains are abolished, then maybe the federal government should devolve Amtrak to the states and make passenger rail a state responsibility. I believe Washington would probably see fit to operate a Seattle-Spokane train every 12 hours at least. Agreements between states could be used to coordinate regional systems.

    1. 1) My understanding is the train usually runs full

      I dunno, I’m able to book a trip for Monday to Chicago (get’s you there Wednesday, yippie). During the summer the sleeper cars sell out months in advance. That’s because instead of running this like a cruise ship it’s model is some bastardized “it’s transit, it’s travel, it’s two mints in one.” One issue I’ve heard raised is that the Amtrak reservation system isn’t sophisticated enough to free up the seat of say a person going from Seattle to Minot so that someone boarding in Grand Forks can fill it to Chicago. The system will claim the seat is full even though in reality it’s empty.

      Minot and Grand Forks, ND are major enough cities that they deserve consideration.

      Perhaps an alternating route would make sense. It would be a selling point for tourists that can make the trip twice and see different country; reserve one route westbound and the other eastbound. Short inter-city trips are prohibitively expensive it they are sold at the cost of turning down an end to end passenger. And a bus can easily perform the function for a lot less money, make intermediate stops and likely still be faster (and often more reliable).

      maybe the federal government should devolve Amtrak to the states and make passenger rail a state responsibility.

      States really need to step up if it’s truly “an issue vital to the State economy.” I don’t think Montana kicks in a dime of state funding for passenger rail but they have for freight to both BNSF and Montana Rail Link. If it ain’t worth a dime then don’t try to put it all on my dime. Something like a 50% matching funds would be a good start to see how much States really value the service.

      1. Bernie says: “During the summer the sleeper cars sell out months in advance. That’s because instead of running this like a cruise ship it’s model is some bastardized “it’s transit, it’s travel, it’s two mints in one.”

        While it could well be considered a land cruise, and is by many opponents, the passengers in sleeping cars actually cover all their incremental costs. In other words, the only subsidy that sleeping car passengers get is the same one that a coach passenger gets.

        In fact, the sleeping car passengers actually reduce the overall subsidy to the train, and in effect reduce the subsidy per passenger mile for coach passengers. Without sleepers, the subsidy per passenger mile in coach would go up a bit.

        Bernie says: “One issue I’ve heard raised is that the Amtrak reservation system isn’t sophisticated enough to free up the seat of say a person going from Seattle to Minot so that someone boarding in Grand Forks can fill it to Chicago. The system will claim the seat is full even though in reality it’s empty.”

        Absolutely not!

        In fact, that one of the reasons that Amtrak still does not assign seats at the time of booking. This way, much like a hotel that doesn’t assign you your actuall room number until the night before your arrival, they can juggle seats to get the maximum load and turnover.

      2. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the sleeper cars and upscale service. It’s what pays. Cruise ships generally work on a week long schedule and maximize the experience. The current system is two days out and two days back as a death march. Take the full week, adjust times so that, for instance, you’re not pulling out of Spokane at 2AM and you spend time at the great lodges enroute. Package the hotel on wheels with other routes or an alternate return so you see more of the country. In short, run it like a business.

        With regard to the reservation system that was something brought up on this blog in the past by as I remember someone/people in the know. My recollection could be wrong, that allegation could have been wrong or maybe it’s been fixed. But the basic problem still remains. If you sell a ticket for Minot to Grand Forks that’s one less ticket you can sell for a higher rate end to end trip which makes use of the Empire Builder for intercity transportation a colossal failure economically.

      3. Bernie says: “With regard to the reservation system that was something brought up on this blog in the past by as I remember someone/people in the know. My recollection could be wrong, that allegation could have been wrong or maybe it’s been fixed. ”

        Please, I’m not trying to say that your memory is wrong. But if you did hear it, again it isn’t true for coach sales. Amtrak does have that problem to some extent with sleepers, as they are assigned room numbers at the time of sale. So perhaps that’s what you saw something about.

        Amtrak does try to work around the sleeper problem, but often isn’t able to. In fact, a recent trip that I took saw the train as sold out, but thanks to working the Amtrak site a bit, I found that while I couldn’t book a through sleeper from Chicago to Portland, that I could book a one room to Whitefish (#14) and then at Whitefish, room #10 opened up so I was able to move to that room since #14 was sold out of Sandpoint to Portland.

        Of course I fully realize that the average person would never realize this and figure out how to get around the problem like I did.

        Bernie says: “But the basic problem still remains. If you sell a ticket for Minot to Grand Forks that’s one less ticket you can sell for a higher rate end to end trip which makes use of the Empire Builder for intercity transportation a colossal failure economically.”

        Yes, this is a partial problem for Amtrak. However, in most cases (not all) they compensate by charging more for that short haul. In fact in some cases, they actually charge more for the short haul than the long haul. For example one can often travel from NY to New Orleans more cheaply than you can go from NY to Atlanta.

      4. I’ve also found that the train crew can move things around while on the train. They’ve kindly asked me to move to another room to accommodate a person with a disability.

      5. Actually, they seem to charge the same for a partial-length trip as a full length. I bought a last-minute ticket to Chicago and paid $300 RT (in November), and others on the train said they’d paid the same amount from eastern Montana to Minneapolis, or North Dakota to Wisconsin, etc. Some twenty people got on together in one North Dakota town and off at Fargo; they were part of a high school sports team or band or something. And everybody said the train was necessary in these parts, it’s the only public transit available, unless they take a bus 90 miles south and transfer to the eastbound bus. Which is why people got on and off at almost every stop even in the middle of the night.

        People also moved into the sleeper rooms as soon as they were available. The rate rises the fuller the rooms are until the train starts, then it goes back to the minimum rate which I think was $70 a night. Or maybe it was $70 after subtracting the included meals, but at any rate it was favorable to a $70 budget motel. I almost switched because I was buying all the meals anyway, but I couldn’t quite justify it when I was alone.

      6. I should point out, Amtrak’s advance fares can be more expensive than flying, but if you have to travel at the last minute when the airfares have doubled, Amtrak can be significantly more affordable.

      7. Before anyone has a conversation about Amtrak they need to Waiting on a Train. Really, you’ll thank me. I came away with a very different idea and solution to the problem after reading it.

        Also if you’ve never taken a long haul train trip on Amtrak please don’t post like you know what it’s like. That would be like posting about what the airlines should do if you’ve never been on a plane.

        There IS a place for corridor service (Cascades) AND for long haul service like the Empire Builder. They are drastically different experiences. The former needs to model itself after the TGV and similar systems. I’ve never had an Amtrak long haul type of experience anywhere in the world. Not that I don’t think it can be improved but I’ve ridden about 10,000 miles on Amtrak long haul trains and have every intention of continuing to do so. If I’m going to Europe I’ll fly across the country or if I’m going to NYC for work but in most other situations I’ll take the train.

      8. I haven’t taken a long distance train trip because every time I try either the schedule sucks so bad it’s not workable or they’re going to through route me for part of the trip on a damn bus which is kind of pointless when you’re trying to ride a train. I’ve take lots of excursion trips run by private RR ventures over the years and will plan part of a vacation to do so. Coast Starlight was looking like a real possibility this year until we found out about the no pets policy (even if you keep it in your private compartment). We have an ancient cat that requires daily special care. You can take a cat on the airplane, you can take a cat on a Metro bus but not on the train.

      9. The Amtrak no-pets policy is obnoxious; almost all railroads worldwide allow caged pets. I think Amtrak gets away with it simply because there are relatively few riders of Amtrak. You should start an “Amtrak riders demanding pet transport” lobby.

  7. Meanwhile…Japan Flashes Green Signal for Maglev Train Line

    Running at 505 kilometers (313 miles) per hour, the maglev trains will cover the distance between Tokyo and Nagoya in about 40 minutes. When the line is completed, maglev trains will travel the 514 km (320 mile) distance between Tokyo and Osaka in 67 minutes.


    At 300 mph, you could go Seattle to NYC in 10 hours!

    This comes down to why waste money repairing a steamboat when we should be building maglevs to crisscross this country. The only value in the Empire builder is the right-of-way.

    1. Except trips in Japan aren’t as long as Seattle to NYC.

      Rather than building a direct line from Seattle to New York, or similar direct-line transcontinental trips, it makes sense to adopt the airlines’ hub-and-spoke model. 200MPH trains providing a web of service is far superior to 300MPH trains that only serve one long trip.

    2. Find a metro area of 35 million 300 miles from a metro area of 18 million in the US and we’ll talk. Oh wait, the Osaka metro area is the size of New York and Tokyo is larger than NY and LA combined. At close to 3,000 miles from LA to NY it’s much faster and more efficient to fly. Oh, and if we could build it at the same projected cost per mile it would be a over a trillion dollars. Just tack that onto the national credit card along with the continuing operational subsidies?

      1. Actually, most HSR services at least manage to cover their operating costs. A few have even managed to pay off their capital costs.

        Even here in the States Amtrak’s Acela makes an operating profit; last year it was $100.6 Million. Acela however does not come close to covering its operating costs. Of course part of that problem is the fact that it runs on 100+ year old infrastructure that has been neglected for many years. Another issue is deciding just how much of the capital costs to charge to Acela vs. the Regional trains vs. the commuter trains.

      2. Acela does not make a profit; it’s track maintenance cost (off budget for Amtrak) puts it in the red. There is no HSR service in the world that does. The chunnel between London and Paris is probably the closest to break even and it’s private investors went bankrupt. Look, if there was money to be made Warren Buffet would be there.

      3. Bernie,

        I see that I made an error in my post which could have caused some confusion on your part when I said, “Acela however does not come close to covering its operating costs.” I used “operating” when I should have used “capital” costs. For that I apologize!

        But to be clear, Acela does make an operating profit. It does not however make a bottom line profit when capital expenses are included. Track maintenance is an operating expenses. Rebuilding track, track support structures, buying new trains, etc. is a capital expense.

        And in your opening post for this sub-thread you said “along with the continuing operational subsidies”. Hence my reply that Acela, as well as most other systems, at least cover operating expenses. And again, there are at least 2 or 3 HSR systems that have managed to repay the loans used to build the systems. Most HSR systems are not currently able to do that, but some are at least managing to keep up with the current capital expenses, even if they cannot repay the past capital expenses.

        As for The Chunnel, they don’t run trains. They charge train companies to run through the Chunnel. The train companies, one in England and one in France, operating through the Chunnel are all doing fine. The investors that went bankrupt were the people who built the infrastructure, not the people operating the trains.

      4. I’m not opposed and actually lean toward a model where the ROW is maintain by government and private operators run the lines. Essentially that’s how our highway system works. Just get government out of the ticket selling business… please! That’s one (of many) government sucks at big time.

      5. “There is no HSR service in the world that does. ” Google please… TGV makes a profit on he HSR portion of their lines. The TER (slow intercity) does not. I’m sure we’ve covered this before.

    3. I’ve always thought that Washington and Oregon should replace the Cascades service with a completely grade separated maglev line. A single track shuttle between Portland and Seattle averaging just 175mph could give 8 roundtrips per day and still give 4 hours down time for overnight track maintenance. Double tracking a small percentage of the line would allow doubling of that service. Adding off-line stations would allow the addition of local service to intermediate stops.

      The existing Cascades equipment could then be used to provide connecting service across the Cascades to eastern Washington cities.

      1. If you did any economic or engineering analysis your thoughts would be different. But it’s always a great pipe dream (go post on the BodaciousBailoBlog). The problem is it translates into skepticism and no votes for incremental change that actually might make sense. Or maybe that’s what you’re after?

      2. Japan has managed to build multiple HSR lines on one of the most geographically unstable areas in the world. And when the big one hit earlier this year, all the lines safely shut down with no one killed.

        So I’m not sure why it’s an issue here.

      3. Three hours from Seattle to Portland is fast enough. Cascades currently takes 3:30, which is pretty impressive considering it takes a solid 3 hours to drive the distance (and that it includes station stops, which driving doesn’t). Improvements in construction will bring it closer to 3:00 and potentially even below.

        For the billions it would take to build one maglev line, we could add a few trains a day to Spokane and Yakima. Not everybody is going to Portland.

        After California’s HSR is in production and its ridership is proven, we can talk about HSR to California.

      4. Three hours to Portland is probably fast enough. Two and a half would be even better and would get more business. What needs to improve is the on time performance as well as adding more trips.

    4. MagLev technology is enormously energy consumptive. There’s a reason that the support magnets are superconductors. Put down the Buck Rogers book and if you want to go to New York, get on a non-stop flight. Half the fuel to get there is used to get up to 35K and then it’s pretty much cruising at 1/3 throttle. Little air means little drag.

      But don’t step outside for a smoke.

  8. I’m with downintacoma. The most effective way of crossing over the Cascades is to avoid them; Vancouver, WA to Spokane via Pasco. A train can be almost as competitive to the auto in terms of travel. It would take tens of billions for make that happen over Stevens Pass and over the Columbia in Wenatchee.

    As Matt the Engineer points out, there is value for an across the country train trip. But does it need to be daily? If people are willing to spend over two days on a train they are probably not going to change their plans because it comes three times a week. I think there are probably 7 train sets doing the Empire Builder (maybe more?). If only two did the Seattle to Chicago run, the other sets could be focused on Portland to western Montana (Glacier) and Minneapolis to Chicago. Why daily trains in North Dakota? Perhaps the trains could be twice daily and provide service during daylight, rather than missing have the rockies in the middle of the night.
    As for Spokane to Seattle, buses on I-90 can be very fuel efficient and cost effective. Because the capacity is lower, higher frequency should be added which would help make it an option to those who can’t take Alaska Air (the best transit option for most people between Spokane and Seattle).
    Just ideas.

    1. Multimodal Man,

      One only needs to look at the current Amtrak data to know that cutting service back to just 2 or 3 days per week is the best way to kill ridership. People can’t plan trips around “is the train running on Tuesday?”

      The two long distance trains with the lowest ridership are the Cardinal and the Sunset Limited. And they both run only 3 days per week. Last year the Sunset Limited carried 1/5th the ridership of the Empire Builder, 91,684 vs 533,493. The Cardinal did a bit better coming in at 107,053.

      Now to be fair, the Southwest Chief and the California Zephyr didn’t do quite as well as the Empire Builder does, but then those trains have fewer cars than the EB. The Chief carried 342,043 while the Zephyr hauled 377,876.

      Years ago the Texas Eagle used to run only 3 days a week. When that train was restored to 7 days a week, ridership soared. I can no longer find the news story on the surge, but it was well beyond taking the ridership for 3 days, averaging that out and then multiplying the answer by 7.

      Reducing frequencies only makes the loses worse. You cut ridership, not only because you can’t carry as many people now, but also because people can’t schedule their trips around the reduced train schedule. Additionally, certain fixed costs remain, things like stations and other overhead costs, but now you have less revenue to put against those costs.

      1. A good parallel is RR A. Increase service hours by 50% and get a 25% increase in ridership. It’s a rat hole that just ends in extermination. If a route is unproductive and reducing service still can’t increase productivity then it’s toast. Increasing service to make it less cost effective is an expensive route to failure.

      2. Bernie,

        As I noted, I don’t have access to the old numbers for the Texas Eagle. However, back when it ran 3 days per week, it’s loss per passenger mile was around the same as the Sunset Limited’s loss and the Cardinal. In 2010, the Sunset lost 50.3 cents per passenger mile, while the Cardinal lost 38.7 cents per pax/mile.

        The Texas Eagle in 2010 lost 17.7 cents per passenger mile. In fact, it’s now the third best performing long distance train has, behind only the Auto Train and the Empire Builder.

        Yes, it still loses money moving people, but it’s losing far less now that it runs 7 days a week.

      3. Not really enough to go on here but if you lose 20 cents a mile running 6 days a week and 40 cent a mile running 3 days a week it’s sort of a wash; except there is still a net “savings” in making the same bad bet only half as often. The difference in the freed up rolling stock could also be put toward something more productive.

      4. Part of the problem with the Sunset Limited is that the it’s interaction with the Texs Eagle is operationally complex, and because of the three day a week schedule, train crews and equipment spend a lot of time just sitting around. Amtrak’s Performance Improvemnet Plan for the Sunset Limited published last year showed that a daily train from LA to Chicago and San Antonio to New Orleans would actually use less equipment. See page 20 here.

        Of course, the main issue with going to daily service is the huge bribe UP wants for a daily Sunset Ltd.

      5. I appreciate the value of frequency; that is precisely why I would propose to increase frequency on those portions of the corridor that actually have demand. Imagine if RapidRide traveled via SR 99 from Bellingham to Tenino. Every 2 hours. What would be better, increasing frequency to hourly or cutting out the dead space and focusing the buses on the urban core? From Whitefish to Fargo there is not a lot happening. I would be interest to know the percentage of people traveling across Montana and ND. Is it more than half the ridership? Ridership potential? In which case cutting frequency and re-applying to where the trains might be competitive and frequent seems to be a better option.

      6. Bernie,

        Those losses are expressed in passenger miles, not train miles. Because ridership soared, the cost to transport each rider 1 mile went down. Translation, there is no place else to put those cars that would be more efficient. The Texas Eagle is now the third most efficient long distance train and all because it went daily, instead of remaining a 3 day per week train.

      7. Multimodal Man,

        As I noted in an earlier post:

        “Total ridership in 2010 for the Empire Builder was 533,493. Total riders getting on/off at a stop in Iowa, Montana, & North Dakata in 2010 was 285,418.”

      8. Thanks Alan, I was going to copy and paste your numbers. For those of us living on the coasts e don’t realise there’s people in the middle who want to go places.

      9. “A good parallel is RR A. Increase service hours by 50% and get a 25% increase in ridership. It’s a rat hole that just ends in extermination. If a route is unproductive and reducing service still can’t increase productivity then it’s toast.”

        The purpose of the A is not to make money, it’s to get people where they want to go. That improves the overall commerce in the county. A bus does not have to be full to be worthwhile. The schedulers don’t know when a group of 20 will spontaneously decide to make a trip. If the bus is typically full, that group of 20 won’t be able to get on. Nonproductive routes are those that are routinely empty or have one or two people: not routes that routinely have twelve or twenty people as the A does.

        As has been said above, the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight are the most popular routes outside the northeast corridor. And there are people who would ride it if it fit their schedule better — if there was a second run eight or twelve hours later.

  9. I don’t know why every conversation about Amtrak turns into a bunch of pontificating about getting rid of it. I’ve heard the same arguments for years. It’s never anything new. As for alternating schedules, and “tri-weakly” schedules – they’ve been there, done that, and it was a mess.

    Look, I hate to drive. I do it for work all week, and it sucks, especially in Seattle, where the drivers are idiots. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-car. I just don’t want to be around one when I’m on vacation.

    And I hate to fly. I did it for years for work, and it gets more degrading every year.

    But I like the train. I like the ease of it, the leisurely pace of it, and the congeniality of it. I’m also old enough to remember the private railroads, and no matter what the foamers may tell you, they weren’t much diferent than Amtrak – at least in the last ten years of operation. I was on a Union Pacific “local” in 1967 that would rival the worst story you’ve ever heard about Amtrak.

    I’m a taxpayer, just like you. Me on the train means no me clogging up your highway, or snoring in the seat next to you on the plane. We really can all just get along, you know. I’ll gladly pay for your runways and extra lanes, if you’ll allow me my train ride. :-)

    I’m of mixed minds about the ND track rebuild: The detour up to Grand Forks seems inefficient, but unless they are willing to put the money in to the mainline, the Builder will constantly be stuck in a very highly trafficked, and under-capitalized part of the Hi-Line. Maybe this is the way to go.

    As for the statewide service: I don’t know why Amtrak doesn’t run stub trains between Seattle and Whitefish (or at least Spokane) during times where the mid-section of the route might be impassable. After all, they run a stub train between the twin cities and Chicago when the regular Empire Builder is out of service.

    The Seattle management needs to realize that this isn’t 1970, and that there’s such a thing as adapting to fit new travel patterns and expectations – and that should include a lounge car between Seattle and Spokane.

    1. What your talking about is meeting customer expectations. Not going to happen when Amtrak is controlled by political favoritism. Doesn’t mean the Feds can’t and shouldn’t provide tax dollars but at the basic level the users and the States contribution should steer those subsides so that it’s not just a free for all at the candy bowl.

      1. A random thought: perhaps something along the lines of the system in the UK would improve the passenger experience? I’d be really interested in what Richard Branson would do if handed a check for the Empire Builder’s yearly subsidy and told to operate a daily Chicago to Seattle train.

        The idea would be to keep Amtrak’s hand in where they do better than a 100% private operation (for example the need for subsidies and planning a national system), but have private operators do the things the private sector seems to do better (ticketing/reservations, on-board services, etc.).

        OTOH I suspect if every Amtrak car was as nice inside as the Talgo cars on the Cascades and every train had the same level of on-board service as the Cascades there would be far fewer complaints and ridership would be much higher.

      2. Chris, have your ridden both the Cascades and the larger Superliners? One one you get a cold sandwich at the Bistro car and the other you get full dining experience with large bathrooms and possibly even sleeper compartments. You can figure out which is which. The only real advantage it to the Cascades is speed and wifi. Both would be welcome on a Superliner.

      3. Grant, I do wish they would bring back the menu items from a decade ago. I do miss the pie a la mode.

      4. You can sort of get pie al mode once again. They’ll serve you the pie with a cup of Hagen Daz. Get the right crew member and they’ll even scoop it out of the cup before they present it to you.

      5. Grant,
        I’ve ridden the Cascades, the Coast Starlight, and the Empire Builder. Admittedly my trips on the Superliners have been short haul (no further than Seattle-Eugene or Seattle-Spokane).

        Here’s where I think the Cascades does a better job:
        * Nicer interiors, even the more run-down Talgo cars seem nicer inside to me than even the newly refurbished Superliner cars. The leather seats are nice too. This is really noticeable in the dome car which has a very institutional feel especially downstairs in the snack bar.
        * More power outlets. I know the newly refurbished Superliners have more outlets than the older cars but it isn’t every car and the dome car is seriously lacking for outlets.
        * Wi-Fi
        * Food and drink quality in the snack bar. On the superliners they have food/drinks/snacks worse than most gas stations. On the Cascades I end up spending at least a few dollars in the bistro car on every trip. I don’t know about the dining car on the Coast Starlight or Empire Builder as I’ve never indulged due to schedule/trip length issues.
        * Staff friendliness and attitude. Not that the EB or CS are bad just that the staff on the Cascades seems very customer service oriented and happy to be there.

        Points in favor of the superliners are:
        * Better view, especially from the dome car.
        * More room everywhere
        * Fully reclining seats
        * Dining and Sleeper service (which I’ve never used)

        You could also include the movies on the Cascades as something it does “better” but I think rather than bring that to the Superliner services it would be better to upgrade both the long-distance and regional services to something similar to the state of the art seat-back entertainment systems the airlines are offering.

      6. J. Reddoch,
        The older Amtrak dining car menus were generally better. But if you want a real eye-popper look at the dining car menus for the top trains from the golden age of passenger rail.

        Imagine if the snack car had the menu of a good diner and if the dining car offered a menu a top restaurant would be proud of.

    2. “I don’t know why every conversation about Amtrak turns into a bunch of pontificating about getting rid of it.”

      It’s not pontification, it’s a very simple argument about mobility and cost-effectiveness, also tied in to political viability. Long-distance Amtrak trains to not provide mobility for the vast majority of working adults — no-one has days and days to get around the country between big cities. It’s true that it provides mobility for small towns that otherwise don’t have much, but that can be provided in other, cheaper ways, such as Washington’s intercity bus program that I linked to above.

      Many of the working age adults who do take it between cities are on vacation or just taking the train for the experience or fun of it. There is no taxpayer interest in running vacation trains any more than there is in running cruise lines.

      “Me on the train means no me clogging up your highway”

      That doesn’t wash either. Transit mitigates congestion in cities where cars, as a transportation mode, simply don’t work well. Rural highways, when they are in normal operation, are very rarely congested. If traffic is your concern, it makes more sense to use transit for your Seattle commute (if it will work) and drive on vacation. Environmentally it would probably by better, too.

      “I like the ease of it, the leisurely pace of it, and the congeniality of it.”

      Sure, that’s nice, but if you were (say) 17 in 1967, you are now probably retired or close to it, and you probably have to time to ride long-distance trains. I don’t, and nobody I know does, unless it’s for a vacation.

      1. I’m agreeing with everything Bruce and McSchwinn have to say. Should I become a Democrat or just wait for the new wave of Schwinn Republicans?

      2. Well then, it’s good to know it’s all about you. The rest of us should just wait in the hall, maybe?

        We’re talking about a handful of trains that takes maybe a couple of million a year in subsidy to run. That’s nothing – the military wastes ten times that much in parts they don’t want, that Congress makes them buy.

        People like the trains, as their ridership attests. What’s wrong with the taxpayers getting some value for their money?

        As I get older – I’m 46 – is see more and more the value of inefficiency. Inefficiency creates jobs and innovation. Inefficiency increases the velocity of currency in the market. Inefficiency is the enemy of monopoly. So LNG-distance passenger service is inefficient. So what? It gives people work, it gives travelers enjoyment, and it creates economic activity all along the line. What’s wrong with that?

        Everybody needs to just relax and stop trying to be a brainiac all the time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

      3. Bullshit. There is absolutely a taxpayer interest in making vacation trips possible. It was half the motivation of the highway system, and its why public transit runs on weekends — vacation trips are a valid use for trains too.

        I think there’s some insane Puritan idea in your head that the government should only support work, work, work, work, work. Do you oppose public parks too? If not, think about what you said.

      4. Regarding congestion, your average Amtrak passenger is starting or ending his or her trip in a big city. Which means, trip removed from URBAN freeways.

      5. Since the government shouldn’t be subsidizing vacations we should get rid of anything the government does to support them right? So we should close the national parks, forests, and recreation areas? Or at least tear out any facilities provided for those on vacation such as campgrounds? How about locks and dams or navigational aids provided mostly for recreational boaters? We should get rid of those too right? What about ski resorts? Many are built on public lands.

        Of course this fails to recognize that tourism and recreation are huge sections of the economy all by themselves.

      6. “no-one has days and days to get around the country between big cities.”

        You mean like the 600,000 people who pack the Empire Builder? Is that the no-one you’re talking about? The train runs mostly full. I’ve ridden it across the country several times and there’s rarely extra room.

      7. The [Empire Builder] runs mostly full.

        Not nearly as full as the multiple cruise ships that dock in Seattle. I don’t think it comes close to the performance of the Via Canadian which costs 2-3 times more.

      8. Bernie,

        VIA’s Canadian really is little more than a land cruise. Yes, it makes stops in small places along the way, but most of those stops see little traffic. And VIA in a sleeper will set you back a very pretty penny compared to Amtrak. Yes, the service is much better on VIA, but you are paying for it! Big time.

        And during the off peak times, VIA cuts the number of cars on their train in half because they can’t sell the rooms during the winter months and shoulder periods. Amtrak’s EB might add an extra coach in the summer, but otherwise it runs the same consist every day. Yes, it is easier to get a room during the winter than during the summer, but not that much easier.

      9. Forgot to mention that VIA’s Canadian only runs 3 days a week and it takes 4 days to go from Toronto to Vancouver.

        Amtrak can get you coast to coast in 3 days.

      10. The problem is that for many of the cities served by the Empire Builder, Greyhound isn’t an option. Take away the EB and those small towns & cities will have no other choices but driving. And since the Builder is already going by, and seeing that those towns & cities represent half the passenger load, taking them away would only serve to increase the train’s losses.

        By the way, even Greyhound isn’t really making money. That’s why they cut more than 1/3rd of their routes over the last 5 years or so. And that’s despite the fact that they run on the heavily subsidized highways.

      11. I like the idea of adding cars. Once the train is on it’s way it costs very little to add cars for various reasons. The freight railroads figure one ton can be transported 50 miles for $1. So basically one car from Seattle to Chicago adds about $2 to the ticket cost assuming a full EB not including cost of the car and maintenance etc.. I think a theater car, an extra observation car, an arcade car etc… would make the EB more desirable. Also since the cost of dragging the car around is very little more sleepers would be profitable since the cost of the sleeper would offset the staff to run it. I’m not saying go full hog and make it the Oriental Express but once the train is moving it wouldn’t be that hard to add carrots to the stick. Also it’s too bad that the EB doesn’t go where people live ie. Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Billings, Rapid City etc.. instead of the highline. With a shuttle (or rental car agency) to Yellowstone and another in Rapid City for the Black Hills it could be much more of a sightseeing train than it is now.

      12. Grant,
        The solution for Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, Billings, Rapid City, etc. is to bring back the North Coast Hiawatha route. I have no doubt if this was done and timed to add another useful daily Seattle/Spokane and Chicago/Minneapolis frequency it would prove just as popular as the Empire Builder without diminishing EB ridership at all.

    3. Amtrak DID run trains between Spokane and Seattle/Portland, and separately between St. Paul and Chicago, during the latest outages. Did anyone actually bother to look at Amtrak’s website?

      1. Actually, they mostly ran buses on the Seattle/Portland side. They only ran trains when they had groups.(I work next door to King Street Station, and keep track of these things) I think they should have run a stub train to at least Whitefish or Glacier Park every day.

      2. Ski trains to Whitefish work pretty well but if they focused on this market they’d have a winner. Likewise Glacier in the summer would likely be a huge success and, gosh, you might even be able to do Spoke-cain to Seattle/Portland without having to take the red eye.

  10. To Zac Shaner,

    First, Amtrak and BNSF did not agree to split the costs of the $100M in improvements. They agreed to each pay 1/3rd of the cost or about $33M. The State of North Dakota & the Fed still have to work out how to pay the final 1/3rd of the bill.

    Next, part of that nearly $100M will see BNSF installing new continuous welded rail on that line, as well as a new signal system. This will allow for increased speeds on those tracks and fewer delays too. While you’re correct that the other route is more direct, it currently has lower track speeds and it is full of freight trains. Unfortunately this will be a problem for Amtrak too, at least during the estimated 9 months of construction to redo the Devil’s Lake sub, as Amtrak will have to use the Surry cutoff.

    Finally, Amtrak did indeed operate service between Chicago and Minn/St. Paul during this past disruption, as well as between Spokane and the two west coast terminus (I understand that a few runs were made with buses, but most were train). On a few days where there were a large enough number of people booked into Whitefish they even ran the train that far. On other days they provided a bus to Whitefish from Spokane.

    Here’s a link to the Amtrak Service Advisory detailing some of the arrangements.

    1. Thanks for the additional info. If the State is willing to contribute 1/3 then I’m much more supportive (I’d said 50% in a previous post but the idea is just some sort of significant percentage). There is also the time issue which isn’t so big over the course of the route but can make for a significant local issue (i.e. leaving Spokane for Seattle after 2AM which means nobody is going to use it).

  11. I am opposed to any reduction of service on the Empire Builder and in favor of Amtrak and the railroad doing what they can to protect the trains from disruption and chaos. If the line goes through North Dakota, that should not be a problem as I believe at the core that we need more and not less service and to more states and not less.

    Amtrak is not in and of itself the problem. The problem is the poor funding ratio to needs and Amtrak has too little of the former and too much of the latter. Until we get this in balance, I believe that most daily or seasonal problems will become mountains rather than molehills and our ability to cross them that much worse.

    1. In fairness, a flood of truly Biblical proportions, as we are seeing in the Midwest right now, and which started in the norther tier, is not (hopefully) something we see every year.

    1. I doubt you’d get over 50 MPH on much of the old NP ‘twixt Fargo and Spokane – plus providing station “services” appropriate sidings for meeting and passing trains, engineer training, etc, would consume boxcars full of dollars.
      Just because there is a line on a map, or a ROW used for freight, does not mean it is “ready-to-go” for passenger service at a moment’s notice.

      1. Engineer training? Time to start contracting running the train to BNSF, you know, the people who make a profit running trains for a living. Even ST figured this out.

      2. BNSF doesn’t want to run passenger trains. They got out of that business years ago, which is why we have Amtrak. And passenger trains are very different than freight trains.

        Maybe, just maybe, if the Fed guaranteed that they would lose no money thanks to Federal subsidies, then might consider pax service again. But even then I wouldn’t bet on it.

        And I wouldn’t even want to think about the fun of trying to run trains over multiple RR’s like the Coast Starlight, which uses UP, BNSF, & LA’s Metrolink tracks.

      3. BNSF does run Sounder for ST. I think they may operate at least one Metra line in Chicago too.

      4. Yes, BNSF operates Sounder and a couple of METRA lines. But they are a contractor only that is guaranteed a profit using public monies.

        So if one is worried about taxes and subsidies, which is the better choice:

        Sounder where the riders pay 22.83% (very low for commuter rail)?
        METRA where the riders pay 39% (combo of UP & BNSF)?
        or Amtrak where riders and other income pays 67% of all expenses and zero towards the profit of some private company?

        Amtrak may not be perfect, but personally I’d much rather see my tax dollars going into something that I use instead of the pockets of BNSF.

      5. Percentage sounds all well and good but Amtrak per boarding subsidy averages out system wide to be $43. If you got 99% cost recovery on a trip to the International Space Station the per boarding subsidy would be $200,000 (looks better on a per passenger mile basis). Amtrak operates a wide variety of routes. The NEC comes close to break even but the long distance trains drag down the ability to improve the productive routes. Amtrak’s $3.74 billion annual budget serves 28.7 million passengers. That amount of money would fund King County Metro for six years and Metro serves over 100 million people every year.

        One of the big selling points of a cruise ship is that you see multiple cities but only have to unpack once. On the Empire Builder, you can’t do that–you either get off and see a city and then get on the next train the next day (which requires you to find a hotel for the night),…

        Probably why the Via Canadian takes four days to make the transcontinental journey.

        Cruise lines offer a LOT more onboard amenities than Amtrak, partly because they’re so big. I mean, there’s no casino on the Empire Builder, no swimming pool, no piano bar, no Vegas-style theatrical productions, etc.

        Which is why in it’s heyday the railroads operated grand hotels. That’s something almost impossible to recreate as long as Amtrak is operated according to political mandate.

      6. Don’t kid yourself. The trains were always subsidized. First by the Post Office, then, after 1971, by the Congress.

      7. The Post Office is/was subsidized but I don’t know that the Railway Post Office cars were a subsidy to the railway. At the time the service was very cost efficient for the Post Office. USPS still uses trains to haul the mail.

        The Postal Service moves mail using planes, trains, trucks, cars, boats, ferries, helicopters, subways, float planes, hovercrafts, T-3s, street cars, mules, snowmobiles, bicycles and feet.

        But that’s no more of a subside than any other shipper (like UPS) that sends something by rail.

      8. First, that number is touted only for shock value. It’s really a useless number. No transit expert measures things that way. Even the airlines wouldn’t use that standard of measure.

        Everyone measures in passenger miles as that’s the only way to accurately compare things. Let’s just quickly look at one thing to see why it’s useless. For a one hour ride on Sounder, the subsidy per ride is $10.53. So if we translated that to a ride on the Empire Builder, that would make the subsidy per boarding for the 44 hour ride $463.32. So compared to that Sounder number, Amtrak is doing very well.

        Second, that amount is only when depreciation is figured in. While I’ll grant that Amtrak should be considering the gradual devaluing of its equipment, since Amtrak also gets no tax break for depreciation normal rules for depreciation should not be used. Yet that’s what the authors of that study did.

        Third, about a 1/3rd of Amtrak’s annual subsidy currently goes to pay off loans that it was forced to take out during years where Congress under funded things. Amtrak’s bottom line would be much better if Congress would guarantee a constant funding source & plan. Instead every year Amtrak waits around, sometimes several months into the current year, before it ever finds out how much money it can spend.

        It’s pretty hard to do long term ordering and bargain for price, when you can’t commit to a contract 2 years down the road.

        Next, it’s kind of disingenuous to compare Amtrak’s entire budget to King County Metro. The taxpayers didn’t fork over that entire $3.7B. The taxpayers’ subsidies would only fund KCM for about 2 – 1/2 years. Additionally, while KCM can boast millions of rides per year, probably 80% or more are repeat riders.

        Yes, Amtrak sees repeat riders (heck I’m one of them), but were I to hazard a guess maybe only 50% of its total ridership is repeat riders.

        And while KCM may move more people, Amtrak moves many more passenger miles. KCM only moves about 570 million passenger miles; Amtrak moved 6.3 billion passenger miles.

        Finally, Amtrak no longer carries any US mail. However, the fees collected for running the old RPO’s for years helped the bottom lines on passenger service back when the freight RR’s ran the service.

        It was the loss of the RPO revenue coupled with, subsidies to other forms of transit that reduced ridership on trains plus the Fed’s decision to tax the RR’s at 4.3 cents per gallon of diesel fuel and then pour that money into the highways (the primary competition to the RR’s, both passenger & freight), that led to the freight companies wanting out of the passenger rail business and Amtrak’s creation.

      9. Alan,
        You don’t happen to know offhand what the numbers for the entire Amtrak long-distance network look like when you compare ticket revenue to direct operating costs?

        I understand a big chunk of the Amtrak budget is actually covering legacy pension costs left over from private passenger operations.

      10. Bernie, the “fast trains” were heavily subsidized by the post office. When the USPS cancelled the contracts, the private roads immediately filed to discontinue their service.

      11. Chris,

        At this point in time I believe that they legacy pension match is down around $100 Million a year, perhaps even less. IIRC, it started out however at over $300M.

        To your other question, total revenues from the LD’s last year were $485.8 Million against direct operating expenses of $1.0192 Billion. Additional overhead expenses, one of the hot topics for Amtrak, were $42.2 Million. By hot topic, I mean that Amtrak has often been accused of dumping NEC expenses into both the direct operating costs of the LD’s, but especially the overhead costs.

        I’m not sure where the truth lies, but I will say that it is suspicious that California now maintains its own call center for the State sponsored trains. And one of the rumors is that came about because the state felt that Amtrak was overcharging them for using the Amtrak call center.

        So the total loss from the LD’s in 2010 was $575.5 Million, or about 1/3rd of the subsidies to Amtrak. That for the curious works out to an average loss of 20.6 cents per passenger mile.

        And not that a comparison between a commuter op and a long distance train is really valid, but just to give some frame of reference, Sounder’s costs per passenger mile in 2009 was 57 cents. With the passenger’s paying 22.83% that works out to a loss of 44 cents per passenger mile.

  12. Proposal: Rather than reducing service on the Empire Builder, add cars. Yes, this adds capital cost, a bit of maintenance cost, and potentially some labor cost. But other than that it’s effectively free – your fuel consumption goes up very little and the real capital costs are probably in the engine. Sleeper cars almost always sell out in the summer – so add more of them. This drops the price and a drop in price increases ridership. Yes, you need to hire another steward or two per car, but that can’t be the critical cost (what, about $400/mini sleeper per day x ~15 per car has to be more than a few stewards’ worth of salary).

    The times I’ve not ridden the train when I’ve traveled for work to Havre wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it – it was because there were no sleeper cars.

    1. You are absolutely correct, adding cars MORE than makes up for the “costs”, especially sleepers. Problem is, Amtrak has none because chose not to order 1000 new cars in 2009 or 2010 when the Dems controlled both houses of Congress. Now, it may be too late to save the company.

      1. Aside from the fact that it would be a very bad idea to order that many cars all in one order; your statement is not correct.

        First, Amtrak actually did place a car order in 2010, before the fall elections turned the House around. It was a small order, funded largely by extra revenue that Amtrak had. Amtrak also took out a guaranteed loan from the FRA to buy some desperately needed new electric locomotives.

        Second, Amtrak presented Congress with a master plan to make annual new car purchases that would eventually see a complete overhaul of the fleet. And that first purchase noted above was a small part of that plan.

        Congress took no action one way or the other towards funding that plan!

        You can view that plan here. Note: it’s a 3 meg file.

        Finally, Congress did pass a plan two years ago that would have seen Amtrak’s annual appropriation nearly doubling from around the $1.6B it’s currently getting to $2.5 or so IIRC. However, like many things with Congress, that was only a plan a roadmap. A map that Congress so far has chosen not to follow.

        Other than the Stimulus injection, Congress continues to fund Amtrak pretty much at the same “let’s give them just enough to keep going” level of $1.6B. So much for the plan!

    2. Matt,

      Actually it’s a bit more complicated and expensive than what you suggest. Not only do you need to hire another sleeping car attendant for each sleeper, you increase the load on the dining car, since meals are included for sleeper passengers. And currently the dining car is pretty much running at capacity on the Builder. Amtrak would actually need to add another dining car, with crew, to add more sleepers to the train.

      Mind you, I’m not saying that it still wouldn’t be a good idea. It still is a good idea. I’m just saying that the costs would be higher than you think. Amtrak would still no doubt be able to cover those costs.

      And in fact, Amtrak thought so! At least originally the planned use for some of the Superliner cars that had been wrecked and were being fixed using Stimulus monies was to increase the number of cars on the Empire Builder.

      Currently the train runs with 2 Seattle sleepers and 1 Portland sleeper, plus 1 dining car and 1 Sightseer Lounge/cafe car. The diner runs to Seattle, while the cafe goes to Portland. The plan saw one sleeper being added to the Portland section bringing that to 2 sleepers, as well as adding a Cross Country Cafe (CCC) to the Portland section.

      The CCC is a combination dining car/lounge car. This would have not only provided hot, sit down meals for the Portland section something that currently doesn’t happen, but extra dining car capacity when combined with the Seattle section for the run to Chicago.

      The current cafe car would then remain with the Seattle section of the train. There was also very serious consideration being given to adding a third sleeper to the Seattle section.

      I’ve not heard anything more on this idea in a while now, so it could be that Amtrak is reconsidering things in light of the Sunset/Eagle plan that would see daily service to LA. Or it could simply be the fact that they’re still awaiting the release of 4 more sleepers and 1 diner from the repair shop.

      1. Are you saying the Cross Country Cafe car would be similar to the Pacific Parlour Car that runs on the Coast Starlight? I discovered the fantastic meals in the Parlour Car almost too late to get to enjoy it on a trip to California one time. I thought the food much better than the dining car.

      2. J,

        Sadly, no, the CCC is nothing like the Pacific Parlour Car on the Starlight. That is a very unique car and only 5 still exist on Amtrak’s roster. That car caters to sleeping car passengers only and has very limited seating for dining. And it does not function as a cafe car at all really, other than maybe some candy snacks.

        The CCC started its life as a regular dining car. After Congress mandated that Amtrak cut it’s food service losses, Amtrak converted a bunch of dining cars into a combination car that 2/3rds of which works as a dining car, while the other 1/3 works as a cafe car. These cars currently see use mainly on the City of New Orleans and the Texas Eagle and run in place of a normal dining car. I believe on the City of NOL, it still functions as both a diner & a cafe car. On the eagle however, demand is so high for the cafe, that the cafe in the Sightseer Lounge car is used and the CCC functions only as a dining car.

        If indeed Amtrak proceeds with the plan that I outlined, it would play the dual role between Portland & Spokane for sure. It’s unclear if it would still function as a combo cafe/diner east of Spokane or if it would go exclusively to a second dining car.

      3. Thanks Alan, you really know your trains.

        It seems to me that dining cars are a luxury in the train world. I haven’t ridden a sleeper in Europe, but I have ridden them in India, China, and Thailand, and have never encountered a dining car. There are cars where they cook food, but you place your order at your sleeper and they wheel it over in a cart. It’s much less convenient and romantic to eat in your sleeper, but I would imagine this allows them to serve dozens of cars (each much more packed than our cars) with fewer kitchen cars.

        If we took this to the extreme, you could consider the airline industry. They serve a good hundred passengers from the space of a small closet with just two employees doing the “cooking” and serving. Not that I would be happy with train meal service coming anywhere near the low quality of airplane food, but if we’re looking to cut costs this might be one area to consider.

        Of course there are also vendors that run on-board during stops to sell you local food in Asian countries, but I don’t see that happening any time soon in Havre.

      4. I look forward to the dining car as and experience (and time filler) that you can’t get on an airplane. Even flying first class gets you the same old crap with your peanuts just warmed over. Anyone on an Amtrak train with a dining car can experience eating a real meal with white tableclothes and table service. It’s very nice and the food isn’t bad either. I’d hate to see them go. Maybe they need to add a second “kitchen car” that does “room service” to anyone on the train. Also I think that a lot of space is wasted on Superliners that could be made to good use to attract passengers. The Coast Starlight has an Arcade car full of really ancient video games that rarely work. How about filling that space with Xbox 360s. I doubt you’d get any complaints from teenage boys about taking the train anywhere.

      5. I look forward to the dining car as and experience (and time filler) that you can’t get on an airplane. Even flying first class gets you the same old crap with your peanuts just warmed over. Anyone on an Amtrak train with a dining car can experience eating a real meal with white tableclothes and table service. It’s very nice and the food isn’t bad either. I’d hate to see them go. Maybe they need to add a second “kitchen car” that does “room service” to anyone on the train. Also I think that a lot of space is wasted on Superliners that could be made to good use to attract passengers. The Coast Starlight has an Arcade car full of really ancient video games that rarely work. How about filling that space with Xbox 360s. I doubt you’d get any complaints from teenage boys about taking the train anywhere. I also would really really miss the observation cars. I spent most of my time on long haul trains in the observation car with a book staring out sideways

      6. Matt,

        What you describe regarding the airline method was essentially the other half of a program called SDS or Simplified Dining Service. The CCC was the other half of this program to cut costs.

        When the plan was first implemented in 2006, with the exception of the Auto Train and the Empire Builder, all trains ceased actually cooking the food in a traditional fashion. Everything was pre-plated and simply warmed in a convection oven. While they didn’t resort to bringing meals to your room, this still allowed Amtrak to slash the crew size in the dining car.

        They went from 2 cooks and 3 to 4 waiters, down to 1 cook and 1 or 2 waiters. They also went to plastic plates & cups, since there was now no one to run the dishwasher.

        Unfortunately the cuts also led to the dining cars/CCC’s being able to serve less people. That pretty much killed any chance for coach passengers to even get into the dining car, which cut revenue. So while you now had fewer expenses, you also had less revenue to put against the remaining expenses. The passengers also were not happy with the food quality.

        Amtrak has since relaxed some of the SDS plan’s provisions. Some of the meals are still pre-plated, but others are once again being cooked fresh. Things like omelet’s, steaks, etc. Chicken, pasta, and fish dishes are still simply warmed in a convection oven. And Amtrak now has some complicated formulas that look at how sales of rooms & seats are going at various points starting about 3 months before that train’s departure, that see Amtrak adding crew members as the train’s bookings increase.

        At least from my outside view looking in as a passenger, this seems to be working pretty well for Amtrak. I’m not sure just how things are going regarding expenses vs. revenue, but from a passenger prospective, it seems like a winning combo.

  13. About comparing cruises to long-distance trains, I have a few thoughts:

    1. Amtrak will probably always have difficulty competing with the fares charged by cruise lines. There are only a tiny number of cruise ships that are subject to US labor laws, so they can pay people remarkably small salaries compared to those we pay US laborers for similar jobs. Additionally, they require many of their workers to work 7 days a week, and long hours at that. The few cruise ships that ARE subject to US labor laws charge quite a bit more than those that aren’t (compare prices on NCL’s Pride of America to the other NCL ships). In addition, most of today’s modern cruise ships can carry enormous numbers of passengers in comparison with Amtrak. For example, of the 3 ships docked in Seattle yesterday, the smallest one–the Oosterdam–can carry 1,916 passengers. Obviously the economics of a train with 1-2 sleeper cars vs. a cruise ship are just totally different. Which is why most of the rail tours you see, and also the handful of tiny cruise ships, charge a LOT more than the big cruise ships do.

    2. One of the big selling points of a cruise ship is that you see multiple cities but only have to unpack once. On the Empire Builder, you can’t do that–you either get off and see a city and then get on the next train the next day (which requires you to find a hotel for the night), or you stay on the train and don’t get to actually get out and experience the cities you’re passing through. Having trains every 12 hours instead of every 24 would help with this, combined with some kind of luggage service, but it’s still not the same as being able to come back to your same room after a busy day of sight-seeing, knowing you don’t have to worry about moving luggage around or packing/unpacking.

    3. Cruise lines offer a LOT more onboard amenities than Amtrak, partly because they’re so big. I mean, there’s no casino on the Empire Builder, no swimming pool, no piano bar, no Vegas-style theatrical productions, etc.

    I know it’s tempting to imagine that Amtrak might be able to tap into the enormous (and almost always growing) cruise market, but it’s really apples and oranges.

    1. No cruise ship goes where Amtrak goes, namely the US interior. Most cruise ships travel in a circle, or at best you can travel between two minor city pairs such as Seattle and Alaska. In contrast, most Amtrak passengers are at least partly interested in getting to the destination. In many cases they are essentially commuting (to visit somebody, for business, to go home from college, etc), and they’ll take the sleeper room as an extra but it’s not the primary purpose of the trip.

    2. I say we take the analogy all the way. Run a train with a good 500 cars. Include hot tub cars, horizontal rock walls (on the roof), buffet cars, club cars, and casino cars. Run to specific destination cities, which have been built up by the train company to be full-service tourist destinations. Everyone gets off at these cities for excersions, and the train parks on a siding for 8 hours. Everyone gets back on, and the train is off the next destination.

      1. Cruise ships are tacky. They are for people who want to act like they have more money than they actually do feel like they are grand.

        Amtrak should concentrate on clean trains and good fun, run as much on-time as possible.

  14. Just to add insult to injury, through service on the EB will be cancelled again this week. I believe that it starts with trains today, Tuesday the 21st, might be tomorrow Wed.

    More severe flooding in Minot, where water is expected to be several feet above the rails by Thursday and could take as long as 2 weeks to subside. I’m hearing through runs are cancelled through possibly July 9th, but stress that’s unconfirmed at this time.

    One thing different is that apparently with the summer travels, Amtrak is going to maintain service between Portland/Seattle & Havre this time. Plus of course the stub run from Chicago to Minn/St. Paul.

    1. Mmm, it seems service had just been restored on June 15th only to be cut off again less than a week later. Probably will resume sometime around the 4th of July. Anybody know what the Seattle to Harve and return route will be? This has the potential to improve the red eye situation to Spokane. Might be a really good time to take a spontaneous trip to Glacier National Park. With Amtrak service to the east severed I would think hotels would be scrambling to fill rooms and Amtrak should be discounting tickets.

      And, in other news, if flooding wasn’t enough to deal with:
      Rahall: Republican Plan to Abolish Amtrak a ‘Transcontinental Tragedy’

      1. The Seattle to Havre and vv trains will attempt to follow the normal Empire Builder schedules. Keeping in touch with Julie at Amtrak is essential as delays and cancellations seem to be ongoing.

  15. FYI, at 1789 feet, Devil’s Lake empties into the Sheyenne River.

    Therefore, if the Amtrak line is raised to about 1795 feet, it’s a permanent fix.

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