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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)
|Average ridership||1,285 daily|
|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 route operated by Amtrak in the Midwestern and Northwestern United States. It is Amtrak's busiest long-distance route, carrying more than 500,000 travelers annually from 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 the states of 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 on the route are Milwaukee; Fargo; Whitefish, Montana; and Vancouver, Washington. Host railways include 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 passes in each direction daily. The schedule is timed so the train will pass through the scenic Rocky Mountains (especially Glacier National Park) during daylight, but this is more likely in summer and on eastbound trains. It normally takes 45 to 46 hours to travel the entire route, barring delays. This averages 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) including stops.
Route description 
The modern westbound (Amtrak) Empire Builder departs Chicago's Union Station in early afternoon, and travels north to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After leaving Milwaukee, it passes 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 Midway Station in Saint Paul. From Saint Paul westward, the land changes from forest to prairie, becoming less populous and relatively barren. Westbound passengers will see only the occasional mercury-vapor light of farmsteads in the distance at night. As the Empire Builder passes through North Dakota and eastern Montana, the Northern Plains can be seen. Eventually, the train rolls past the prairies of North Dakota and Montana 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 too far from Glacier National Park). Year round (depending on weather), the mountain vistas can be seen from the train as it skirts the southern edge of the park. As darkness descends again, the train continues through the mountains, including northern Idaho and eastern Washington. In Spokane, the train splits, with the last four cars (Sightseer lounge, two Portland coaches, and the Portland sleeper) going down the Columbia River Gorge to Portland, Oregon and the other cars through the Cascades Range to Seattle.
During the summer months, on selected portions of the route, official "Trails and Rails" volunteers in the Sightseer Lounge car provide commentary about the history and sights of those portions. 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 is a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car for sleeping-car passengers. This includes not only information about the wines served but some questions; correct answers win passengers bottles of wine to take with them.
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 in 1951; 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 in the 1950s 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.
After 1971 Amtrak assumed operation of the train and shifted the Chicago to St. Paul leg to the Milwaukee Road route through Milwaukee along the route of the Hiawatha trains to the Twin Cities and Pacific Northwest.
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 most popular long-distance train in Amtrak's national system. In fiscal 2008, ridership grew by 9.8% to 554,266, although that year was marked by especially high fuel prices, and the number of 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.
Flooding problems 
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.[dead link] 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.)
Former stops 
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.:163-172 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, along with the Hiawatha Service, would shift one stop north to North Glenview in Glenview, Illinois. This move would eliminate lengthy stops which block traffic on Glenview Road. This move would involve reconstruction of the North Glenview station to handle the additional traffic, and depends on commitments from Glenview, the Illinois General Assembly and Metra. In Minnesota, the Builder is expected to return to Saint Paul Union Depot in 2012, 41 years after it last served the station the day before the formation of Amtrak.
Equipment used 
|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 receive this equipment in 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. Another single locomotive which is stored in Spokane couples onto the last four cars and takes the train to Portland. The opposite of this happens going eastbound. During peak seasons a single coach car often runs on the back of the train between Chicago and St. Paul. It is left at Midway Station 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.
- "Trails & Rails". National Park Service. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
- "Amtrak Empire Builder Relaunch". Amtrak Empire Builder. trainweb.com. August 1, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-14.
- Keith C. Heidorn (June 4, 2009). "Tornadoes and Trains". The Weather Doctor. Retrieved 2010-02-07.
- "Michigan, ND Rear End Railroad Collision, Aug 1945". GenDisasters.com. December 27, 2007. Retrieved 2010-02-07.
- "Through Your Car Window - Westbound - On the Streamlined Empire Builder, Western Star and other Great Northern Trains". Great Northern Railway Page. Great Northern Railway. June 1953. Retrieved 2010-02-08.
- "Amtrak's Improvement Wish List", Trains, January 2011, 20-21.
- "North Coast Hiawatha Passenger Rail Study". Amtrak. October 16, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
- "Railroad Grade Raise Planning and Feasibility Study". April 8, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- "Devils Lake Gauge at Creel Bay". Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- "Devils Lake threatens Empire Builder". KFGO. April 23, 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
- "Amtrak Service To Continue". WDAZ. June 15, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- "ND Leaders Review Strategy to Raise DL Rail Line". February 15, 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
- Bonham, Kevin. "Railroad raising underway in Devils Lake area". Grand Forks Herald. Bakken Today. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
- Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34705-X.
- "Amtrak eyes moving Ill. station". Railway Track and Structures. November 11, 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
- Black, Sam (December 10, 2009). "Mortenson team picked for $150M St. Paul Union Depot transit hub". Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal. Retrieved 16 December 2009.
- Dubin, Arthur, D (1964). Some Classic Trains. Milwaukee: Kalmbach. p. 309.
Further reading 
- Wayner, Robert J., ed. (1972), Car Names, Numbers and Consists, Wayner Publications, New York, NY
- Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder (Great Passenger Trains). Motorbooks International (MBI). ISBN 0-7603-1847-6.
|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