Spokane and other cities and towns along the route of the Empire Builder receive the worst Amtrak rail service in the country, with the one exception of a wacky mash-up of trains hitchhiking between Chicago and Pontiac, Mich.
Many may be surprised to know Spokane has Amtrak service. Eastbound and westbound the trains arrive after midnight; when they are on time, that is. The scheduling makes wonderful sense for passengers who transit Marias Pass on the southern boundary of Glacier National Park in daylight. As a potential alternative to airline service to Portland and Seattle, forget it.
And not many people are going to hang out in the Intermodal Transportation Center after dark waiting for that magical train that rolls in on schedule.
Amtrak reports the Empire Builder was on-time 44.5 percent of the time in November. For the last 12 months, the trains were on-time 59.3 percent. How bad is this?
Here’s a rundown of the 12-month performance along other major routes west of Chicago: California Zephyr (Chicago to the Bay Area), 69 percent; Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles), 74 percent; and the Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles), 82 percent. The Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle was on-time 85 percent (92 percent in November!).
For reference, airlines were on-time an average 79 percent for the first 10 months of 2013.
Thanks to the gorgeous Glacier Park views, and despite its dismal performance record, the Empire Builder is the most popular of all Amtrak long-distance trains, carrying 534,000 passengers in fiscal year 2013. It is second only to the East Coast auto train in revenue generated – $67.4 million – and about two-thirds of its operating costs are covered by fares; the highest among its peers in the West.
Amtrak breaks even only in the Northeast, where trains can compete with airlines for convenience. The payoff elsewhere is the economic benefits to the communities the trains connect, which is particularly true of the Empire Builder and its prosperous tourists.
But the train has the disadvantage of running on the BNSF Railway’s main line. Amtrak says “train interference” causes more than one-half of Empire Builder delays.
The railroad acknowledged its obligations to Amtrak, but says all trains — freight and passenger — have been delayed by record harvests, record growth in oil and industrial goods transportation, and double-digit increases in auto shipments.
BNSF says it will have invested $4.3 billion in network improvements in 2013. The main line benefited more than any other. In 2014, more big spending will add 50 miles of main line double-track to boost “fluidity.”
The investment cannot come too soon. Many shippers have no alternative to rail, but tourists certainly do. Train travel romance aside, how many would fly an airline late 55 percent of the time?
Passengers are the canaries on the coal line. Washington ports and refineries want for more trains, but the Empire Builder’s recent on-time record suggests BNSF has some catching up to do. And Amtrak some pushing.