Amtrak’s Empire Builder: The Train that Deserves Better

Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the only intercity rail service in Minnesota, will be reduced from daily to tri-weekly service beginning in October due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. I decided to take it one more time before the cuts went into effect, as there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll be before daily service is restored. This post will be about my trip, plus looking into how the Empire Builder and Amtrak in general can come out of this pandemic stronger.

Day Trip to Winona

Since I had never been to Winona, I decided to go there. In addition to nice weather, I wanted to pick a day where the eastbound train going to Chicago was on time or at least not extremely late. Amtrak’s website includes a feature to track your train in almost real-time. On September 24th I looked at the eastbound train that would arrive in St. Paul the next day, and it was running an hour late in Montana. The train is scheduled to arrive in St. Paul at 8:00 AM, so adding an extra hour was good for me since I’m not a morning person. When booking a ticket you can also see how many seats have already been booked, a feature Amtrak added due to the pandemic. On Friday going to Winona the train was 20% full, and going back to St. Paul the same day the train was 25% full. The weather forecast was warm and beautiful, so everything looked good and I booked. The roundtrip ticket was $52, plus $4 for parking near Union Depot.

The train arrived slightly over an hour late, which allowed me to take my time getting ready in the morning and driving from Bloomington. In the waiting room at Union Depot there were around a few dozen people waiting to board. Mask compliance at the station and on the train were good, and on the train you’re required to wear a mask (unless you’re eating or drinking of course) or they won’t hesitate to kick you off at the next station. Social distancing at Union Depot wasn’t the best, especially on the platform with several people getting off the train to smoke. The narrow platform meant it was difficult to social distance and avoid the smell of cigarettes. On the train social distancing was good, but it helped that I was in my seat the whole time.

Boarding at Union Depot. | Photo: Author
Plenty of legroom even though I’m 6 feet 2 inches. And yes, I’m in coach. | Photo: Author

The trip was pretty scenic, as the leaves had started to change color, signaling the beginning of autumn. There were also plenty of views of the Mississippi River, and sights of a few towns as we made our way along the river. In addition to a station stop in Red Wing, we also had to pull onto a siding twice for a couple freight trains, each time being about 10 minutes. There is a noticeable difference in the ride quality when the train is on welded rail versus jointed rail. The mainline track is welded rail while the sidings are jointed rail, which made for a slightly bumpy ride pulling into the sidings. Considering that the mainline was jointed rail back when this rail line was owned by the Milwaukee Road, I wonder how comfortable the ride was since trains were at one time able to go 90-110 miles per hour on this route.

Crossing the Mississippi River in Hastings. | Photo: Author
Along the Mississippi River we wait in a siding for an approaching freight train.| Photo: Author

The train arrived in Winona one hour and 40 minutes late, but I didn’t mind since I had plenty of time to explore the city. After getting off the train I walked half a mile to a bike shop to rent a bike, and for most of the day I biked around Winona plus a short trip across the river into Wisconsin. Although Winona isn’t the most bike-friendly, it’s definitely not the worst; I consider that title to belong to certain outer ring suburbs of the Twin Cities region. Winona is a charming city that, based on my travel experiences, is pretty close to what you would find in a small European city (except instead of just one train per day they’re served by several daily trains). After biking for 5 hours I was tired out and went to the bike shop to return it. It was a good deal: only $10 for the whole day.

I still had nearly 2 hours to go before the westbound Empire Builder would arrive. Every so often I looked on the Amtrak website to see the progress of the train, leaving Chicago on time, and through Wisconsin it was only around 15 minutes late. A few days ago this train had been a few hours late due to mechanical issues in Chicago, so I was definitely taking a risk relying on this train getting me home and not having to spend a long night in the tiny waiting room. While waiting for the train I sat on a bench near the station and enjoyed the fresh air, had lunch/dinner, and watched the occasional freight train.

Warm outside with a gentle breeze plus no mosquitos, so it was a perfect night waiting for the train. | Photo: Author

Just after sunset the train arrived, and only around 10 minutes late. Around a dozen people were also waiting for the train. Going back to St. Paul the train flew through the night at a top speed of 79 miles per hour, only stopping at Red Wing and slowing down for a couple short segments. Either there was no freight traffic in the way, or Canadian Pacific was merciful and pulled their trains onto sidings to let us through. We arrived in St. Paul seven minutes early, and as I walked through the waiting room at Union Depot there were a couple dozen people waiting to board.

I had enough time to drive from Union Depot to a spot where I could see the Empire Builder roaring up what is known as Shortline Hill in St. Paul as the train headed to the Pacific Northwest. | Photo: Author

This concluded my third trip on the Empire Builder, the first being in the late 1990s from St. Paul to Red Wing, and the second almost exactly two years ago from Chicago to St. Paul. I look forward to riding it again, but with the service reductions taking place it may be awhile before that happens.

The Future for the Empire Builder

Making Amtrak a more feasible travel option for Minnesotans has long been sought, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped with that, and now with service reductions our intercity rail service is regressing when it should be progressing. Since 1981 there has only been one daily train between the Twin Cities and Chicago despite these two large markets plus Madison and Milwaukee in between. Progress on improving intercity rail along this highly traveled route has been slow, and Madison has remained without any passenger rail service since Amtrak began operations in 1971. Even getting a second daily train on the Empire Builder route between the Twin Cities and Chicago has been a long process with several years and millions of dollars spent just on studies. The latest progress on the second train proposal was a recently announced $31 million grant to Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation, but service won’t begin until 2024 at the earliest. We need better intercity rail sooner rather than later in order to make the Twin Cities region more competitive, reduce our dependence on air travel and automobiles, and make our means of travel more efficient and sustainable. While Interstate 94 requires a few lanes in each direction to handle the many greenhouse gas-emitting cars – most with only a single occupant – two tracks plus occasional sidings are all that’s needed to handle several daily passenger trains and existing freight traffic.

I wrote in detail about improving intercity rail in Minnesota here, and the Twin Cities-Chicago market is definitely a route that deserves better service. This will of course require money and political and public willpower. Amtrak needs support for retaining and improving both their long-distance services that rural communities who have very limited transportation options rely upon, and their corridor services like Twin Cities-Chicago where multiple daily trips are needed to make the train a competitive and feasible transportation option for these major metropolitan areas. That is the only way the Empire Builder, and Amtrak overall, can come out of this global pandemic stronger. If our current political climate persists, and we continue with self-inflicting wounds to the economy including not taking the pandemic seriously and not addressing economic and racial disparities, then Amtrak is doomed to being mostly a skeletal system.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.