Since we last wrote about the Empire Builder’s woes, things have only gotten worse. When writers start doing novelty pieces about “riding the worst train in America”, you know things have gotten bad. In February 2014 the median arrival delay in Seattle was 4.7 hours, and the average delay was 5.6 hours (see chart below), excluding the 4 days the train didn’t make it to Seattle at all. After delays of up to 16 hours, even Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was saying the kinds of things you never want your PR person to have to say:
“You’ll get some people who’ll say ‘never again’ after going through that, and you and I can certainly understand why.”
While previous issues still occasionally cause delays or cancellations, such as Pacific Northwest mudslides or high water at Devils Lake (an intractable problem in an endorheic basin), the blame this time around falls squarely on North Dakota’s oil boom and the constrained track capacity it has caused. While track expansion projects are underway, causing additional delay themselves, the problem will persist indefinitely. Yet Amtrak has a mandate to run the train, and run it it will. To that end, Amtrak has released a revised schedule that it hopes will at least be somewhat realistic. Beginning April 15, eastbound trains will now leave Seattle three hours earlier, at 1:40pm, and westbound trains will arrive in Seattle 90 minutes later, at 11:55 am.
I’m a strong supporter of intercity rail, but we do ourselves no favors to downplay this terrible performance or to sugarcoat the human misery these delays cause. As someone who particularly cares about eventually giving Spokane better than its current graveyard service, seeing our fate so miserably tied to North Dakota’s is a shame.
Lost in this mess is the fact that the Empire Builder runs rather well here in Washington (see chart below and compare above), and we shouldn’t let miseries in the upper Midwest deter us from seeking better service across our state. This new schedule will have the (accidental but pleasant) effect of giving Spokane decent eastbound service, with a 9:00pm arrival time. (Westbound will get worse, however, with a 3:45am departure.)
Meanwhile, on this side of the Cascades, we have 7 trainsets making only 13 daily runs, an overcapitalized and underused fleet that awaits the completion of the Point Defiance Bypass and other projects. I would love to see WSDOT fund a temporary pilot project to give daily roundtrip service to Spokane through 2017 using one of those surplus sets, just to give Eastern Washington a taste of intercity travel that is better than either uncomfortable buses or unreliable trains. If the train performed poorly, we could cut it. If it performed well, we could fund it.