Chuck Taylor (Flickr)
Chuck Taylor (Flickr)

On Saturday I was bicycling in Monroe early in the morning and heard a train horn sound and the crossing gates come down. I thought surely it was freight, as the Empire Builder had developed such a reputation for notorious lateness that I wouldn’t have expected it through there until noon. But alas, there it was, on time and humming along adjacent to Hwy 2. Remembering the unexpected dip in gas prices we’ve experienced this year, I thought I’d check in on the train’s on-time performance. Has the Bakken’s bust been the Builder’s boon?

Indeed, it has.  For now at least, it appears that Amtrak has seen a welcome reprieve from the 12-hour delays and terrible headlines of the recent past. In February, the train arrived early into Seattle 17 times, and was late more than 30 minutes only 4 times. Day to day variability is still unacceptably high, of course, but the word ‘success’ when it comes to Amtrak often means ‘doing the best you can within your myriad constraints’, and by that score things are definitely looking up on the Hi-Line.

Empire Builder Recovery

39 Replies to “The Empire Builder Gets Back on Track”

  1. Oil production in ND has dropped significantly this year. As of last week, there were 119 active oil rigs in ND versus 192 last year. So there should be significantly less oil train traffic on the rails, too. But it isn’t just Amtrak that has suffered from delays in ND. Grain producers have experienced huge delays in getting railcars to move their crops. Last spring and summer BNSF was building lots of new infrastructure in ND (double tracking, new sidings) and that was a big reason for the delays. More trains plus slower track speeds around the construction sites created a big bottleneck in ND. There is still plenty of grain to be moved, but there’s more capacity now and Empire Builder delays should be rarer.

    1. Not sure whether or how it could be done, but we really do need the equivalent of the Interstate and Defense Highway system for the railways – 40K-50K of higher speed double/triple track ROW crisscrossing the US and poking into Canada and Mexico. This would help re-establish a railway culture in the US that is sadly missing when it comes to transport planning, both passenger AND freight.

      1. Always glad to see the word Defense along with Highways – where Congress put it when they passed the law.

        The “whether” part is up to the electorate. Which likely someday will become the word “As soon the starter button on the first construction machine can be pushed.”

        But the “how” is easy. The same way as the highway act got passed.


      2. Highways are public property. I don’t think we should be handing out billions of dollars to BNSF unless they agree to let us use their rails for free.

      3. The government can always buy out the tracks. The UK did so back in 1945, and nearly every other country in the world has done so. The US is unusual (and insane) in having private monopolies running most of our railroad system.

      4. MetroLink and other transit agencies have also purchased lines so the regional passenger service is able to operate more effectively.

        This should also be viewed as an opportunity to do more with freight. If the state or other goverment entity owns the track, then open access could be allowed. Eg, Tacoma Rail, Puget Sound and Pacific, and even Ballard Terminal could have access to more customers by operating the main line like highways currently are.

        This could have interesting implications for the Port of Seattle transportation needs. Short line railroad companies are far better able to deal with freight traffic moving over short distances than the behemoths are.

    2. All you ever wanted to know about US rig counts can be found here. Summary: Rig counts are down steeply in almost every US shale play. I’d suspect a drop in oil/bomb train counts may lag a bit and grain deliveries also play into the Amtrak picture as well.

  2. How is a “Bakken Bust” congruent with expectations of up to forty trains per day coming to Washington State within a couple of years? This is only a temporary reprieve for the train. Amtrak needs to consider turning the train south at Snowden and running through Glendive and Bismarck. Yes, it’s a backtrack of thirty some miles to the west, but it would get the train out of the Williston mess.

    The other option to continue service to Glacier Park is to run via Billings and Great Falls, but that’s more of a deviation and the trackage between Billings and Shelby is a lot longer stretch that would need improvement. It would, of course, add biggest and third biggest cities in Montana to the train’s direct service.

    If those forty trains do come, either they’ll have to use the link through Sidney and then travel via the old Mainstreeter route through Billings, Helena and Missoula or Amtrak will. The High Line simply can’t handle the existing traffic and an additional forty trains. It would have to be two main tracks all the way from Sandpoint to Williston, and there isn’t physical room enough through the mountains for that.

    1. The real question is what the long-term trend for oil prices is. If they stay relatively low then there is much less demand for Bakken crude as it is relatively expensive to extract. On the other hand if high oil prices come back then expect Bakken production to continue to increase.

      1. Chris,

        That’s generally true, but we have a supply problem here in the Northwest. We need more light crude to mix with the bitumen that comes from the tar sands area via the Mid-Continent line in Canada. The light crude we’ve traditionally used has been from Alaska, but that supply is drying up; they’re actually worried that the TAP might freeze in a super cold winter because of the low flow through it.

        So whether or not prices stay low, we’re likely to get more oil trains over the next few years because we have to get light crude from somewhere, and North Dakota is the closest place with a surplus. At least some of the trains originating around Williston will be headed west rather than nearly all eastward as now. It will balance traffic on the railroad somewhat better.

        But out here we will see many more trains. BNSF still plans to double-track the spur to the Ferndale refineries.

      2. I’ve spent a looooong time analyzing the future of energy. Total oil demand is on a permanent, and unstoppable, decline.

        It’s kind of complicated because of the four-way interaction between oil, methane, electricity, and solar power. But, basically, fossil fuels are uneconomical now or in the near future.
        * Burning oil is *extremely* uneconomical already. Everyone who can use an alternative should do so immediately, and most are starting to do so. The payback period for switching is less than 10 years for everything except lightly-used passenger automobiles, and even that will change soon. The payback period is as short as 2 years for some applications.
        * Methane is currently competitive with solar but certain to go up in price
        * Solar is certain to go down in price

        Of course it’ll take a long time for every industry to switch over. But you would only get vast numbers of increased oil trains if the traffic was, for some reason, shifting away from somewhere else. And I don’t see any reason it would.

        You should expect more grain trains, though. Global warming is going to create bumper harvests in Canada, North Dakota, Montana for a decade or two (while destroying the fields in Iowa and points south, unfortunately).

  3. One thing seems to be strangely missing from the oil train discussion:

    How suddenly and with so little argument this dangerous and environmentally disastrous cargo could demolish the mode that was supposed to be our best hope of a cleaner world.

    And also the damage to necessary and productive industries- grain, for instance. And for what? Energy independence? Cars are floating in an ocean of oil.

    Where it’s going is to provide the cheapest and dirtiest possible fuel to one of our country’s worst- in more than one sense- competitors.

    Wrecking our own country for Chinese money. Those bronze Korean War troops on the Capitol lawn must be cutting themselves loose from the concrete with their can-openers.

    So what are the policy priorities here? Can’t be defense. Can’t be our productive economy. Can’t be fuel for us. Let alone, way down the line, public transportation.

    Anybody in Congress- especially Democrats- saying “boo” about this?


    1. Actually, Mark, the oil trains aren’t for export. Yes, much of the coal is, but the oil is to replace the dwindling supplies from Alaska. The refineries in northern Puget Sound need more light crude to mix with the bitumen they get from the Mid-Continent line from Alberta. That has traditionally been Alaskan, but the pipeline is barely carrying enough to keep the oil from freezing in the winter now.

      It would be possible to revamp the refineries to use a greater mix of bitumen, but the existing pipeline is pretty much maxed out, so that option depends on Canada approving the new parallel line that the First Nations oppose implacably.

      So, the bottom line is that if we want to keep driving here in the Northwest, the cheapest way to do so is with Bakken crude by rail. Now I’d be ecstatic if we opted as a group to drive less and bus more, but that’s not the trend anywhere except in Seattle City proper.

      1. By, “the pipeline” I didn’t mean the Mid-Continent. I meant the Trans-Alaska. Sorry for the “indefinite antecedent”.

      2. I’m surprised – what’s happened to Alaskan production? Do you have a link for me to find out more?

      3. It doesn’t seem to have been noticed yet, but the WA Department of Ecology has just released Washington State 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study:

        It’s 500+ pages of information about current oil transportation patterns and future needs. It’s quite a lot to process; but until alternate energy sources are developed, we’re going to continue to see oil trains in WA.

      4. Re the Alaska pipeline / Prudhoe Bay, the easy to get oil is depleted. I lived in Alaska for a couple years until about 8 months ago, every so often the politics would fire up on the subject and people try and blame the government for slowing production down, believe me if the oil was there to suck out of the ground and send down that pipeline they’d be doing it faster than a robbers dog. I’d have to go read the info again, but that oil field was the largest in North America, something like 16billion barrels have traveled down 600 miles of 48″ pipe to Valdez in about 25 years.

        There is a plan afoot to build a natural gas pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to either Valdez or more ambitiously through Canada to the lower 48. I believe its still in the planning/consent/trying to find companies to invest in building it “phase”.

      5. Re: “The oil trains are not for export”:

        This is true for the trains going through Seattle to the refinery at March’s Point. However, the trains bound for Port Westward on the Columbia River may just as easily be sending oil for export as they would for sending oil to refineries on the west coast.
        and other sources refer to the oil facility at Port Westward as an “oil export” terminal. While it is true that sometimes domestically flagged barges show up there, I have also seen foreign flagged vessels there, and the byzantine marine shipping laws correctly foreign flagged vessels are not allowed to provide transportation between one USA port and another USA port.

        If that is the case, then those ships must be taking the oil elsewhere.

    2. In 20 years, the gains in solar technology will make oil and coal production an expensive and inefficient means of producing energy. Bakken may still be producing natural gas in 20 years, but Bakken crude oil production will likely be phased out by that time.

      1. The Bank of Abu Dhabi recently issued a report stating that solar was now cheaper than pretty much every fossil fuel form of energy and that nobody should invest in fossil fuels because they weren’t competitive.

        This is not the first such report. Such reports have been coming out of major investment banks for several years now.

        Solar installations are growing *exponentially*. (Both here and abroad). There’s some dispute over the rate, but a conservative estimate is a factor of 1.3 per year. This would replace the whole of US electricity production by somewhere around 2028. Because it’s exponential, it would be producing enough to displace all other energy usage a year or two later.

        Meanwhile, solar installation is still getting *cheaper*, and *very fast*; for each doubling of volume (which happens in 2..3 years), prices appear to be dropping by 30%.

        Most oil is burned for automobiles now. Everyone else has switched to methane or electricity. The limiting factor for autos is not the electricity (which is already much, much cheaper than gasoline) but the batteries. Battery prices aren’t dropping quite as fast, but they *are* expected to drop by 30% in the next couple of years, while volumes ramp up massively.

        This is enough to render oil completely uneconomical. It’s actually enough to render methane uneconomical for most applications, too (though it’s pretty nice for heating & cooking).

      2. Correction: the date when solar replaces all other electricity generation in the US is 2036 pessimistically (1.3 factor), 2031 with the more optimistic 1.4 factor. (Though it could go faster than that, since the accelerated price reductions do seem to spur increased production.)

        Obviously it won’t replace hydro. And obviously the infusion of huge numbers of electric cars on the grid will increase demand somewhat. But you get the point.

        Further notes: total electric demand has actually been dropping, and should be expected to continue dropping due to the installation of LEDs replacing incandescents, the adoption of high-COP heat pumps replacing old A/C and resistive heat, and insulation improvements. This will provide some headroom for the fleet of electric cars.

        Also, internal combustion engines in cars are about 20% efficient (80% losses), and another 20% or more is lost from well to car. The total efficiency from solar panel to wheels of an electric car is around 80%, with most of the losses being in the battery. So don’t imagine that you have to replace the energy content of all that gasoline; you do not.

      3. I haven’t tracked energy economics closely in a while, so I’m a bit out of the loop on current costs and trends.

        Oil really hasn’t been a factor in electric production for a while, coal is still king. Methane is taking a larger share and in much of the world represents much of the new capacity. One of the drivers is the relatively low construction cost of combined cycle plants compared to coal or nuclear. Even wher natural gas prices are high the savings in capital offsets higher fuel costs.

        I note you mention solar but not wind. IIRC wind is at the point that new capacity is cheaper than anything other than combined cycle methane.

        As for liquid fuels it has been the case most is used for transport rather than electrical generation or industrial uses for quite a while now. Cars and trucks are the lions share but aircraft, trains, and ships use some too. The biggest issue is aircraft as there are few alternatives as attractive (in terms of energy per kilogram and per cubic meter)

        Oil will stick around as at least aircraft fuel and chemical feedstock for a while.

      4. Seattlites have been using less water per capita the last decade and electricity is flat, but the population increase cancels that out. With electricity, the greater efficiency of lights and appliances is canceled out by the increasing number of them and people leaving them on for longer periods of time. People don’t realize that plasma TVs use more electricity than CRTs and large screens use more power than small ones, but oops, CRTs aren’t available anymore and people have already bought large screens. Kind of like how tomatoes and oranges were optimized for appearance for decades and nobody monitored their shrinking nutritional value. The net result is that if you want a fashonable downward trajectory on your electricity use, you have to keep your use of lights and appliances somewhat constant as they become more efficient.

  4. “So, the bottom line is that if we want to keep driving here in the Northwest, the cheapest way to do so is with Bakken crude by rail. Now I’d be ecstatic if we opted as a group to drive less and bus more, but that’s not the trend anywhere except in Seattle City proper.”

    Thanks for setting me straight on the respective destinations of these two abominations.

    But any chance that if we can’t get crude oil the cheapest way- though the detonation of a mile-long napalm bomb going off under Tacoma could be pricey- people both outside Seattle and in it might trend to use transit more and cars less?

    The trend in Seattle is that it rains a lot. This means we’ll just have to wait to put roofs on houses until prices shift? And out-state it snows. Use the huskies for blankets? As well as food?

    If trend of people to drown in the Atlantic meant waiting ’til it dried up…well, I think Native Americans wouldn’t have bucked that one.


    1. Actually I think the Alberta tar sands are cheaper than Bakken crude. One advantage is there is already a pipeline serving our refineries from Alberta.

      Bakken crude production is driven by the price the producers can get at the wellhead. That is driven by two factors, the first world oil prices, the second the cost of getting it to market.

      Rail is a terribly expensive way to move crude oil (at least compared to tankers and pipelines), so Bakken crude comes with that built in disadvantage at least until there is more pipeline capacity to the fields. Coupled with the high price of production and it is only a viable play with high oil prices.

      1. Chris,

        Yes, the long-term optimum is to build the Keystone XL, but only from North Dakota to Cushing, without the extension into Canada. Essentially build it just for Bakken fracking crude. Then build the second Mid-Continent line from the tar sands to Point Roberts and expand the link to Cherry Point. Finally, reconfigure the refineries there to use more bitumen.

        Such a plan puts the Bakken light crude in Midwest refineries which are optimized for the similar WTI, uses the Gulf refineries to produce gasoline for worldwide sale, keeps Canada happy because they have an outlet for tar sands bitumen (both at Cherry Point and for export), and reduces the bomb trains.

        BUT, at this time, though, they can’t increase their bitumen proportion, and I doubt the refiners want to take a chance by adding the necessary heavy crackers on another Mid-Continent being built until it is under construction. So, it’s oil trains for the Northwest for at least a few years.

      2. As a clarification, the existing Mid-Continent line is at capacity. Now maybe the Ferndale plants can “outbid” world consumers for its current supply and quickly build the necessary larger link, but that raises the yes, cheap, price for bitumen. And it assumes that they will always be able to outbid other consumers. That’s not a good assumption on which to base the significant capital investment necessary to crack a lot more bitumen.

        If they know that there’s a large new supply coming, it makes sense to gamble that a local consumer will have a cost advantage over a non-local one and make the investment. It’s riskier if they’re dependent on a limited source.

      3. FWIW the majority of oil processed at the 5 refineries in Washington is from the North Slope and arrives via tanker.

        One issue is the North Slope oil is becoming more expensive and production is dropping.

        Diversifying West Coast refineries to be able to process and receive Bakken crude is indeed smart business for the refineries. The other alternative is shipping oil via tanker from somewhere other than Alaska.

        Still for the Bakken fields to make economic sense the price producers receive has to give a reasonable ROI over the cost of production. If world oil prices drop far enough, even with the cost of transportation, shipping from far away can make more sense than buying Bakken crude.

        Long-term more production in Alberta is a good way to bet, but it remains to be seen at what point further investments in pipelines and production capacity make sense.

        The biggest question is how long are current crude prices likely to be “the new normal”. As low prices depress investment in new production capacity, exploration, transportation infrastructure, and new technology.

      4. Chris: there’s a large and significant distinction between the cost of production for a well or tar mine where the costs have already been sunk, and the cost of production of a *new* well or tar mine.

        A new tar mine has astronomically high production costs. One which is already open, most of the costs are sunk, so the production costs afterwards are lower. But still high enough that they’re unprofitable at current oil prices.

        The important thing to realize is that oil exploration is dead. The cost to set up a new fracked well or a new tar sands mine is high enough that it’s quite impossible to make most of them profitable even at $100/bbl (several of the projects were depending on $120/bbl). But at those prices, there is immense demand destruction as people switch to alternatives to oil (like electricity).

        Worse for the oil companies, most oil exploration is currently failing entirely: ExxonMobil burned many hundreds of millions of dollars on exploration over the past 10 years, and has fewer reserves than when it started. Investors are soon going to stop throwing good money after bad.

        “The biggest question is how long are current crude prices likely to be “the new normal”. As low prices depress investment in new production capacity, exploration, transportation infrastructure, and new technology.”

        There’s a very nice Deutsche Bank report from several years ago which explains all of this.

        First prices spike high. This causes industries to switch off of oil, switching to gas or electricity. It causes people to eliminate use of oil by insulation etc. It causes people to switch to electric cars or hybrids. Etc.
        So demand drops permanently.
        As a result, prices drop low. This causes oil exploration activity to dry up. Companies shut down their rigs; investors refuse to put money into speculating on oil exploration; wells are mothballed.
        So supply drops.
        So prices spike high. Repeat step one.

        This sine-wave price cycle happens until nobody is using oil.

      5. I wonder how much companies like ExxonMobil will be using solar power in their oil extraction systems in the near future.

    2. Mark,

      I’m sorry that you are disappointed in Americans’ tendency to drive a lot. I’m sorry about that too. But you can’t argue with numbers: in Washington State the only populated area in which driving is falling is the City of Seattle proper. Every where else it’s growing.

      Now the coming requirements to increase CAFE and the overall trend toward hybrid and full electric cars is certainly encouraging. But it’s not going to make a drastic difference in energy uses; the past forty years of sprawl have baked enormous inefficiency into the American economic geography. Either we burn oil to move our cars of we consume stupendous amounts of energy building the necessary infrastructure to power them electrically. I hope it’s the latter, but even if it’s the former, have and use them we must.

      Maybe we’ll be lucky and people will start to Park’N’Ride massively, but the suburbs are never going to be “transit friendly”. Sure, pockets like Kent Station and downtown Bellevue will become more so, and corridors which support frequent transit will spread well into them. But the vast acreage of single-family homes in the Puget Sound region is going to require people to drive for a hundred years.

      The bottom line is that we can’t replace the six or seven million cars in the State of Washington with EV’s quickly enough to abandon the Ferndale refineries, even if we triple the wind towers to power such cars. So it’s going to be oil trains for about a decade until demand falls and the new Mid-Continent line from the tar sands is built.

      1. Kind condolences, Anandakos, but disappointment generally takes down those who think results are either out of their hands, or not worth the effort if they may not live to see them.

        Or, especially in anything technical, longing for them to be permanent. Great PBS DVD for you: “Horatio’s Drive”. Also book called “American Road”, by Peter Davies. .

        No War on Horses, though inevitable pandemics killed them by the thousands. But when the paved streets demanded by the bicyclists came in, so did demand for vehicles requiring less boot-cleaning and shoveling than horses provided.

        Frankly, don’t think reset travel modes will come from gas prices- but fact even in broad, wide America, increasingly fewer can move. Like I-5 south of Everett every single day. Only so many new freeway lanes you can build- and they’re all parking lots three years after they open.

        But how it’ll really go down, Anandakos, is that like with everything else in America, people will finally just get tired of cars and malls. Construction I see on all those homes, forget the “Cat”. Ten minute job for a “Bobcat”.

        Replacement by new development? Ever see construction workers turn down a job? Or developers lose a chance to develop? Fact that something is sane doesn’t mean it doesn’t turn profits.

        My own disappointment vaccine? Knowledge that this is the only country in world history whose every problem is self-inflicted. And so can be cured anytime we the people make, not wait for, it to happen.


  5. After first I read “Atlas Shrugged” (I guess a giant holding up the sky all the time just says ‘Well, guess that’s the way it goes’ every now and then), I thought the only damage the book could ever do was if it fell off a windowsill and killed a passerby.

    Considering how little the author knew about either railroads or capitalism, let alone selling things except badly-written books, I thought that Republican businesspeople themselves would see to it none of her adherents ever got hired, let alone elected.

    Precisely because they understood business itself, they firmly believed that a healthy economy depended on a whole world of utilities and services.

    None of which were expected to clear a profit- but necessary to sustain the profits of everyone who earned them. Too bad, though, that so many tall buildings still had windows that opened and allowed 3,000-page books to fall fifty stories.

    Resulting, fifty years later, in a whole transit blog pageful of agreement that corporate profits are stronger forces of nature than tsunamis. A bad state of mind in earthquake country.


      1. How about the amount of land, funding, and ethnic cleansing the Federal Government put into the building of the Transcontinental Railroad?


      2. Oh, I think Ayn Rand knew as much about railroads as she knew about anything. I’m just amazed that anyone would take that failed romance novelist seriously.

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