WHITEFISH, Mont. – About an hour before dawn on a Friday, Amtrak’s eastbound Empire Builder crept into the station, already an hour and one minute late into its 2,206-mile journey from Seattle to Chicago.
Under the glow of the yellow station lights, a handful of passengers hauled their luggage off the train while another group waited to climb aboard. In the minutes before the train pulled out of the station to continue its journey east, the sparse crowd already had dispersed and the platform, with the exception of a conductor and a woman looking for her lost bags, was empty.
Eighty-five years after its debut as the Great Northern Railway’s premier passenger service to the west, the Empire Builder is broken.
Extreme freight congestion in the northern plains, particularly in North Dakota’s Bakken region, has resulted in major delays for Amtrak’s passenger service between Chicago and Seattle and Portland. Five years after the Empire Builder had some of Amtrak’s best on-time performance rates, even outpacing Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train between Boston and Washington, delays of three to five hours are now commonplace. It was even worse last winter, when the train was sometimes 12 hours late.
In June, the westbound Empire Builder, train No. 7, stayed on schedule a scant 10 percent of the time. The eastbound train, No. 8, had a zero percent on-time rate.
In hopes of addressing the delays, Amtrak modified the train’s schedule in April. Now it travels through northwest Montana earlier in the morning and later at night, much to the chagrin of area businesses that say the change has done little to help the Flathead Valley, especially during the busy summer tourism season.
Passengers also are starting to notice the delays and are abandoning train travel in droves. Ridership on the Empire Builder from June 2013, when it moved 49,813 people, to June 2014 has dropped 19 percent. The decline comes just two years after the train had its best year ever, hauling more than 543,000 people in 2012, a 15.8 percent increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, the Empire Builder’s decline comes as flights out of Glacier Park International Airport are up more than 12 percent.
The situation on the train is, as National Association of Railroad Passengers representative Barry Green put it, “disheartening and disgusting.”
‘Last word in comfort’
But it wasn’t always this way. On June 11, 1929, the first Empire Builder departed Chicago with a train of luxury passenger cars that were, according to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, “the last word in comfort, amenities and speed for their day.” The train’s name came from the Great Northern’s founder, James J. Hill, who dedicated his life to building a railroad empire that still spans the continent today.
The train crossed the country in a brisk 63 hours. For more than four decades, the train was the pride of the Great Northern, and northwest Montana, especially the area around Glacier National Park, was among its most popular destinations.
In March 1970, the Great Northern merged with three other railroads to become Burlington Northern, later renamed BNSF Railway. The 1960s and 1970s were a trying time for America’s railroads, especially those in the passenger business. With the growing popularity of commercial flights and an ever-expanding highway system, railroads were losing more and more passengers to planes and cars.
To save intercity passenger service, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970 that led to the creation of Amtrak, a private, for-profit railroad company owned and funded by the government. As part of the deal to relieve freight companies of having to operate passenger trains, the railroads agreed to let Amtrak run its trains on their tracks.
In 2012, Amtrak boasted its biggest year ever, when it hauled 31.2 million passengers nationally, an increase of 49 percent since 2000. In 2013, Amtrak’s ridership numbers increased again, with 31.6 million passengers.
While Amtrak was hauling more passengers, BNSF was starting to haul even more freight, particularly intermodal, grain and crude oil from North Dakota. The traffic increases created a railroad “logjam,” wrote National Association of Railroad Passengers president and CEO Ross Capon in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx in January. In that same letter asking Foxx to step in and find a solution, Capon accused BNSF of giving crude oil a “priority over people.”
“I think the increase in (freight traffic) caught us all off guard,” said Green, NARP’s Montana passenger rail advocate and a locomotive engineer for 37 years. “There’s just a lot of freight to move.”
The problems facing Amtrak were made even worse by a historically harsh winter in North Dakota and Montana that caused derailments and avalanches, which closed the rail line over Marias Pass. On the days the Empire Builder wasn’t replaced with a bus, it sometimes ran 11 or 12 hours late.
“All of those factors combined and created a perfect storm for the Empire Builder, and it struggled,” said Jim Brzezinski, Amtrak route director for the train. “When you go from being the No. 1 on-time performance train on the entire system to being dead last, it’s a shock.”
In hopes of improving the on-time performance of the Empire Builder, Amtrak changed its schedule to allow the train more time to travel from station to station. The new schedule has the train leaving Seattle and Portland three hours earlier going east.
Brzezinski, the route director, said the changes were made so the Empire Builder can meet other trains in Chicago and passengers can make their connecting trips.
Dylan Boyle, director of the Whitefish Visitors and Convention Bureau, citing data from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research, said the consistent delays and inconvenient arrival and departure times have resulted in fewer people coming to Whitefish by train. According to the institute, 65,000 people arrived or departed on the Empire Builder in Whitefish in 2013. From January to May of this year, there were just 20,000 riders, and it’s unclear whether those numbers will catch up.
Christie Dunn, general manager of the Belton Chalet in West Glacier, has seen a decline in guests coming from the train as well. She said in years past, there would be a rush of guests at the front desk of the historic railroad hotel when the train arrived, sometimes requiring two staff members, but that hasn’t happened this summer.
‘A long way to go’
Brzezinski said Amtrak understands that the new, earlier arrival times are inconvenient for communities in northwest Montana and that they hope to return to the old schedule soon. When that might happen is unknown.
One thing that is clear is that the old schedule probably will not return until after the construction season. This year, BNSF Railway is spending $5 billion on infrastructure improvements across its 32,000-mile system, including $1 billion on its line across the northern part of the country throughout Montana and North Dakota. BNSF spokesman Matt Jones said the investment would help expand capacity so BNSF’s rail lines through the region can handle the additional freight trains and, hopefully, keep Amtrak’s Empire Builder on time.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Brzezinski said. “Things are improving, but we do have a long way to go.”
Brzezinski said solid customer service would be the base of the Empire Builder’s recovery – after that “we just need to get the train over the road.”
Boyle is also hopeful that the Empire Builder can return to its former glory.
“The railroad is iconic in Whitefish and being able to come here by train is a big part of our brand,” he said. “I’m just worried we could lose that.”