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The Empire Builder crosses the Two Medicine Trestle at East Glacier Park, Montana in 2011.
|Service type||Inter-city rail|
|First service||June 11, 1929|
|Current operator(s)||Amtrak (1971–present)|
|Former operator(s)||Great Northern Railway (1929–1970)
Burlington Northern Railway (1970–1971)
|Annual ridership||469,167 total (FY11)|
|Distance travelled||2,206 miles (3,550 km) (Chicago - Seattle)
2,257 miles (3,632 km) (Chicago - Portland)
|Train number(s)||7 (Chicago-Spokane-Seattle)
807 (Chicago-St. Paul)
808 (St. Paul-Chicago)
|Rolling stock||Superliner sleepers and coaches|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm)|
|Operating speed||79 mph (127 km/h) max
50 mph (80 km/h) average
|Track owner(s)||BNSF Railway (Seattle - Minneapolis)
Minnesota Commercial Railway (Minneapolis - St. Paul)
Canadian Pacific (St. Paul - Glenview)
Metra (Glenview - Chicago)
The Empire Builder is a passenger train operated by Amtrak in the Midwestern and Northwestern United States. It is Amtrak's busiest long-distance route, carrying more than 500,000 passengers a year in 2007–2010. Before Amtrak, the Empire Builder was the flagship train of the Great Northern Railway. The current route runs from Chicago, Illinois, to the Pacific Northwest. The line splits in Spokane, Washington, terminating at Seattle, Washington's King Street Station (2,206 miles (3,550 km) from Chicago) in the north and Portland, Oregon's Union Station (2,257 miles (3,632 km) from Chicago) in the south.
The train passes through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Layovers (train service stops) are made in Saint Paul, Minot, Havre, and Spokane. Other major stops are Milwaukee; Fargo; Whitefish, Montana; and Vancouver, Washington. Railways used are BNSF Railway's northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from Glenview to Chicago.
One train a day passes each way. The schedule is timed so the train will pass through the Rocky Mountains (and Glacier National Park) during daylight, but this is more likely in summer and eastbound. Schedule is 45 to 46 hours between Seattle and Chicago, average 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) including stops, though the train is allowed up to 79 miles per hour (127 km/h).
Amtrak's Empire Builder departs Chicago's Union Station in early afternoon, and travels north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then through the rural landscape of southern Wisconsin, crossing the Upper Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wisconsin. The train travels through southeastern Minnesota, crossing the Mississippi again at Hastings and stops at the Saint Paul Union Depot in Saint Paul. From Saint Paul westward, the land changes from forest to prairie, becoming less populous and relatively barren. Westbound passengers see only the occasional mercury-vapor light of farmsteads in the distance at night. In North Dakota and eastern Montana, the Northern Plains can be seen. Eventually, the train leaves the prairies with three short stops near Glacier National Park (East Glacier Park [summer only] or Browning [winter only], Essex [a flag stop], and West Glacier Park) followed by a longer stop in Whitefish, Montana (not far from Glacier National Park). Year round (depending on weather), mountain vistas can be seen from the train as it skirts the southern edge of the park, crossing the Continental Divide at Marias Pass. As darkness descends the train continues through the mountains in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. In Spokane the train splits into two segments. A single locomotive hauls the last four cars (Sightseer lounge, two Portland coaches (one a Coach-Baggage unit), and the Portland sleeper) down the north side of the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, Oregon, while the locomotives leading the portion of the train ahead of the lounge car take that portion of the train through the Cascades Range and across Stevens Pass via Cascade Tunnel to Seattle.
During summer months, on portions of the route, "Trails and Rails" volunteers in the Sightseer Lounge car provide commentary about the history of the areas through which the train is passing, and points of interest that can be viewed from the train. This commentary can only be heard in the Sightseer Lounge car.
On August 21, 2005 the train was "relaunched" by Amtrak with upgraded service. This included features not seen on other long-distance Amtrak trains: on the second day in mid-afternoon there was a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car for sleeping-car passengers. This included not only information about the wines served but some questions; correct answers win passengers bottles of wine to take with them. Currently (2015) this wine and cheese tasting has been discontinued, along with some the other sleeping car amenities, such as free newspapers in the morning.
The Empire Builder was started by the Great Northern on June 11, 1929, and displaced the Oriental Limited as the railroad's premier train. The train's name honored James J. Hill, known as "The Empire Builder" who reorganized several failing railroads into the Great Northern Railway and extended the line to the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. The fare was standard and the initial schedule for 2264 miles Chicago to Seattle was the same 63 hours westward and 61-1/4 hours eastward as on the other non-extra-fare trains between Chicago and the west coast.
The service was altered to carry more passengers during World War II. After the war new streamlined, diesel-powered trains were placed in service on February 23, 1947. The train was re-equipped again on June 31, 1951, with the 1947 equipment being used to create the Western Star; in summer 1954 the schedule for 2211 miles from Chicago to Seattle was 45 hours. (By 1954 it skipped Grand Forks, so less mileage.)
The schedule allowed riders views of the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountain landscapes of Glacier National Park, a park established through the lobbying efforts of the Great Northern. After it was re-equipped with domes in 1955 passengers viewed the route through its three dome coaches and one full-length Great Dome car for first class passengers.
Two major train wrecks involved the Empire Builder in the Great Northern era:
- In 1931, an eastbound train near Moorhead, Minnesota traveling at nearly 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) was struck by a tornado which derailed the train and flung one of the 83-ton coaches 80 feet (24 m) through the air, resulting in one death and 57 injuries.
- In 1945 the Builder was running in two sections (two trains immediately following each other) due to wartime traffic. The second section plowed into the stopped observation car of the first in Michigan, North Dakota, killing 34. See Michigan train wreck for more information.
Service always ran Chicago to Spokane and split into Seattle and Portland sections except during the Amtrak era between 1971 and 1981, when there was no Portland section. Before 1971 the Chicago to St. Paul leg was on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad via its mainline along the Mississippi River through Wisconsin. The service also used to operate west from the Twin Cities before turning north in Willmar, Minnesota to reach Fargo. The Spokane-Portland section of the train was operated by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway.
In the January 2011 issue of Trains Magazine this route was listed as one of five routes to be looked at by Amtrak in FY 2012 and examined like previous routes (Sunset, Eagle, Zephyr, Capitol, and Cardinal) were examined in FY 2010.
Ridership and revenue
In fiscal year 2007 the Empire Builder carried over a half million passengers, maintaining its status as the long-distance Amtrak train with the highest ridership. In fiscal 2008 ridership grew by 9.8% to 554,266, although that year was marked by high fuel prices, and passengers declined by 7% to 515,444 in 2009. It generated over $54 million in revenue that year, trailing only the Acela Express, Northeast Regional, and Auto Train. In 2007 and 2008 it ranked third. About 65% of the cost of operating the train is covered by fare revenue, a rate among Amtrak's long-distance trains second only to the specialized East Coast Auto Train.
During fiscal year 2011 the Empire Builder carried nearly 470,000 passengers, a 12.1% decrease from FY2010. The Empire Builder remains the most popular long-distance train in the Amtrak system. The train had a total revenue of $53,773,711 in FY2011, a decrease of 8.1% from FY2010.
The line has come under threat from flooding from the Missouri, Souris, Red, and Mississippi Rivers, and has occasionally had to suspend or alter service. Most service gets restored in days or weeks, but Devils Lake in North Dakota, which has no natural outlet, is a long-standing threat. The lowest top-of-rail elevation in the lake crossing is 1,455.7 ft (443.70 m). In spring 2011, the lake reached 1,454.3 ft (443.27 m), causing service interruptions on windy days when high waves threatened the tracks.
BNSF, which owns the track, suspended freight operations through Devils Lake in 2009 and threatened to allow the rising waters to cover the line unless Amtrak could provide $100 million to raise the track. In that case, the Empire Builder would have been rerouted to the south, ending service to Rugby, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks. In June 2011 agreement was reached that Amtrak and BNSF would each cover 1/3 of the cost with the rest to come from the federal and state governments. In December 2011 the state of North Dakota was awarded a $10 million TIGER grant from the US Department of Transportation to assist with the state portion of the cost. Work began in June 2012, and the track is being raised in two stages: 5 feet in 2012, and another 5 feet in 2013. Two bridges and their abutments are also being raised. When the track raise is complete, the top-of-rail elevation will be 1,466 ft (446.84 m). This is 10 feet above the level at which the lake will naturally overflow and will thus be a permanent solution to the Devils Lake flooding. In the spring and summer of 2011 flooding of the Souris River near Minot, North Dakota blocked the route in the latter part of June and for most of July. For some of that time the Empire Builder (with a typical consist of only four cars) ran from Chicago and terminated in Minneapolis/St Paul; to the west, the Empire Builder did not run east of Havre, Montana. (Other locations along the route also flooded, near Devils Lake, North Dakota and areas further west along the Missouri River.)
Freight train interference
An oil boom at the Bakken formation, combined with a robust fall 2013 harvest, has led to a spike in the number of crude oil and grain trains using the BNSF tracks in Montana and North Dakota. The resulting congestion has led to terrible delays for the Empire Builder, with the train receiving a 44.5% on-time record for November 2013, the worst rating on the Amtrak network. In some cases, the delays resulted in an imbalance of crew and equipment, forcing Amtrak to cancel runs of the Empire Builder. In May 2014, only 26% of Empire Builder trains had arrived within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, and delays averaged between 3 and 5 hours.
Due to the routine delays, which had become severe, Amtrak officially changed the scheduled times for station stops west of Minneapolis, changes which took effect on April 15, 2014. The rescheduled times were designed to keep the same departure/arrival times in Chicago and through the corridor up to and including Minneapolis. However, scheduled stops westbound out of Minneapolis were set for later times, while eastbound, the train departed Seattle/Portland approx three hours earlier than previously. Operating hours for affected stations were also officially adjusted accordingly. The Amtrak announcement also said that the BNSF Railway is working on adding track capacity, and it was anticipated that sometime in 2015 the Empire Builder could be returned to its former schedule. In January of 2015, it was announced that the train would resume its normal schedule.
In 1970 the flooding of Lake Koocanusa necessitated the realignment of 60 miles of track and the construction of Flathead Tunnel forcing the Empire Builder to drop service to Eureka, Montana. The Empire Builder also served Troy, Montana until February 15, 1973. On October 1, 1979, Amtrak moved the Empire Builder to operate over the North Coast Hiawatha's old route between Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota. With this alignment change, the Empire Builder dropped Willmar, Minnesota, Morris, Minnesota, and Breckenridge, Minnesota, while adding St. Cloud, Minnesota, Staples, Minnesota, and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Another alignment change came on October 25, 1981, when the Seattle section moved from the old Northern Pacific (which had also become part of the BN Railroad in 1970) to the Burlington Northern Railroad's line through the Cascade Tunnel over Stevens Pass. This change eliminated service to Yakima, Washington, Ellensburg, Washington, and Auburn, Washington. This change also marked the inauguration of the Portland section of the Builder, which returned service to the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad (it, too, became part of the BN system in 1970) line along the Washington side of the Columbia River to Portland. The route kept Pasco, but added Wishram, Bingen-White Salmon, and Vancouver (all in Washington) to the route. From Vancouver, the Builder followed the same route as the Coast Starlight and Cascades trains to Portland Union Station.
It is proposed that the Empire Builder and Hiawatha Service trains would shift one stop north to North Glenview in Glenview, Illinois. This move would eliminate stops which block traffic on Glenview Road. The North Glenview station would have to be modified to handle additional traffic, and the move depends on commitments from Glenview, the Illinois General Assembly and Metra. In Minnesota, the Builder returned to Saint Paul Union Depot on May 7, 2014, 43 years after it last served the station the day before the start of Amtrak. Renovation of the 1917 Beaux Arts terminal was undertaken in 2011, continuing through 2013, resulting in a multi-mode terminal now in use by Jefferson Bus Lines, Greyhound Bus lines, commuter bus and soon commuter rail and light rail from Minneapolis. The station replaced Midway Station which opened in 1978 after the initial abandonment of Saint Paul Union Depot in 1971 and the demolition of Minneapolis Great Northern Depot in 1978.
A new stop is in planning for the town of Culbertson, MT, which is about halfway between the stops of Williston, ND and Wolf Point, MT. This stop will mainly be to serve the rapidly growing oil regions of northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana. The former Great Northern depot and platform still exist in Culbertson, however the station will need some major renovation and the platform will need to be lengthened and upgraded.
|July 4, 1963|
Current equipment used
The present-day Empire Builder uses Amtrak's double-deck Superliner equipment. The Empire Builder was the first train to be fully equipped with Superliners, with the first run occurring on October 28, 1979. In Summer, 2005 the train was "re-launched" with newly refurbished equipment. A typical 2005 train would consist of (destination noted after the Spokane split):
- Two GE P42 "Genesis" Locomotives
- Baggage car (Seattle)
- Transitional Crew Sleeper (Seattle)
- Sleeper (Seattle)
- Sleeper (Seattle)
- Diner (Seattle)
- Coach (Seattle)
- Coach (Seattle)
- Sightseer Lounge/Café (Portland)
- Coach/Baggage (Portland)
- Coach (Portland)
- Sleeper (Portland)
- Coach (Chicago - St Paul) - This car is train number 807/808.
In Spokane the train is split into two pieces. The locomotives along with the first six cars continue onto Seattle. A single P42 is stored in Spokane, which picks up the last four cars to transport them to Portland. The opposite of this happens going eastbound. During peak travel periods, there is an additional coach that is attached to the very rear end of the train between Chicago and St. Paul. It is left at St. Paul Depot for the next day's return trip to pick up. This car operates as train number "807/808." This adds capacity during especially busy times in the year.
Historical equipment used
Car ownership on this train was by-and-large split between the Great Northern and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), though a couple of cars in the original consists were owned by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway (SP&S). In this consist, one of the 48-seat "chair" cars and one of the 4-section sleepers were used for the connection to Portland, while the rest of the consist connected to Seattle.
The Great Northern coaches eventually found their way into state-subsidized commuter service for the Central Railroad of New Jersey after the Burlington Northern merger and remained until 1987 when NJ Transit retired its last E8A locomotive. Some of these cars remain in New Jersey. Some coaches were acquired from the Union Pacific; these also went to New Jersey. One of the 28 seat coach-dinette cars also remains in New Jersey and is stored near Interstate 78 wearing tattered Amtrak colors.
Route map: Bing
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- Hidy et al. 2004, p. 180
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Empire Builder.|
- Amtrak — Empire Builder
- Empire Builder 75th Anniversary page
- Brochures and History of GN's Empire Builder
- Information and photos of GN's Empire Builder equipment