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.

24 thoughts on “Amtrak’s Empire Builder: The Train that Deserves Better

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    I love that train. Sad to see it cut back, and yes, a many trips per day train to Chicago is a necessity. There used to be three different railroads serving this route, all of which ran to Chicago in just over six hours.

    1. Camille

      I completed a trip on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. It was good, enjoyed the scenery for 2 days and all from my roomette, relaxing, slept when I wanted to. Spent 3 days in Seattle exploring all the wonders…the waterfalls, my favorite Mt. Rainier, etc. I intend to go back and visit the other beautiful places. I met a few really lovely passengers, so I had some people to talk with and share experiences. One of the conductors on the train was especially wonderful, very helpful, and a great conversationalist. I learned a lot from him about Amtrax and its service.

      1. Sheryl Smith

        I couldn’t agree with you more. I did a cross-country trip a couple of years ago doing what you did with the Empire Builder and then Seattle.
        I have never liked flying and knew if I want ed to see the West Coast Amtrak was going to be the only way I could do it. I stayed a couple of days and then took a train down to San Francisco. There is no better way to see our beautiful country. I use amtrak often but this was my first western venture.
        I was just planning another cross-country trip doing the lower half of the US and now they have cut the trips to 3 times a week which means I have 2-day day layovers in certain places. I’m going to wait to see if they restore daily service..
        What we don’t need a more cuts to this valuable service.

      2. Laverne McCartney Knighton

        My husband and I and two other couples are taking this train to Seattle in mid November. We are looking forward to this first time experience. We leveled up and booked the bedroom package …a little pricey, but worth it for our comfort and leisure. Looking forward to this seven day excursion. Thank you for your overview and affirmation.

  2. Murray

    This train is fantastic. Last year, I took it from St Paul west to Glacier National Park and Whitefish with my bike. They recently started “roll on” service where you pay an extra $20 and roll your bike up and roll it off at departure, no boxing necessary. Sure, it took longer than flying, but was much more relaxing. On the ride, we saw pronghorn antelope on their epic migration, and the sudden explosion of the Rockies after coming through miles of plains I incredible.

  3. Bob Roscoe

    It looks like southern Minnesota is not comparable to The Netherlands and other parts of Europe. We very much liked traveling there.

  4. Sandra Peck

    Thanks for this post. I am planning to move back to Mpls. in the next few years and will put a train tip around Minnesota on my list of things to do once I am home.

  5. Scott Walters

    That’s a great idea for a day trip. I’ve done a bike ride up to Big Lake and ridden the Northstar back to Minneapolis, but I hadn’t thought that Red Wing could also work with the Amtrak. Thank you!

  6. cb McMillan

    I have often travelled from Shelby Montana to both Seattle and Portland- Very scenic and relaxing. A pleasure to ride the Empire Builder

  7. Walter Maze

    Please call your senators and Congress, they need to hear from you the public, if you want Amtrak to expand service, you have to be continuously telling your elected officials you need more service, and remind them you are registered and you vote!

    1. Sheryl Smith

      You are right about that. But a lot of people have to do the writing and phone calling. Little attention will get paid it its just a handful of people here and there.
      I’ve done this with a variety of issues in my state and literally you have to flood them with the letters and calls to get anything done.

  8. John Chesser

    Early this year I completed my third crossing of the USA by Amtrak. North, south and central. Of the three I enjoyed the Empire Builder most. As a Canadian, who travels Canada on VIA Rail regularly I am sorry to hear of the cuts being made to Amtrak service. (Schedule and meals). I have enjoyed visiting the USA and hope many folks would try the cross Canada rail voyage as well.

  9. John Garro

    I rode Amtrak from SLC, Utah to Denver Colorado. I purchased a room first class travel because my 85 year old mother accompanied me. We were to board at 3:00 am SLC AND LEAVE AT 3:30 AM. The train was late so it was 5:30 am before we pulled out. Our room was clean, fresh and our beds were turned down. The ride was re routed thru Wyoming because of the wild fires in Colorado. So from SLC to Denver it was a non stop ride.
    The menu on board for first class passengers was absolutely horrible. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner. Amtrak has beautiful dining cars with a full equipt kitchen below. The food was worse than airline food. All microwave prepared and tasted like a rubber ball.

    1. Sheryl Smith

      I agree with you about the food. The dining experience could and should , be so much better. Based on some articles I have read it seems an Amtrak management simply sees no value in upgrading the dining option.
      And that’s a shame!

  10. Karl

    I am highly supportive of Amtrak’s long-term plans (the covid-related cuts are unfortunate but understandable) to focus on shorter, faster, more reliable routes at more favorable times that connect major cities like the St. Paul-Chicago stretch of the Empire Builder that can be more (but not completely) competitive with air travel. Issue number one regarding Amtrak continues to be the commercial railways (BNSF, CSX, NSC, UP) decades of refusal to follow the rules and give Amtrak preference on rail- leading to a dismal 43% on-schedule figure for long-distance trains. This is what leads to the delays that make Amtrak untenable to people that actually need to get somewhere at a given time.

    More info about it in this Bloomberg article: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-11-20/amtrak-ceo-has-no-love-lost-for-dining-cars-long-haul-routes

    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      Cutting long-distance service to, in theory, improve corridor service is just robbing Peter to pay Paul. Our country needs improvements to both services after the pandemic is over and we can begin to recover.

      I do agree that the freight railroads need to cooperate with Amtrak. However when there’s limited track capacity, especially single-track routes with a siding every 5-15 miles, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Amtrak gets delayed on busy freight corridors. The Empire Builder route through Minnesota and Wisconsin used to be almost fully double-track when it was owned by the Milwaukee Road, but when the Soo Line took over they didn’t see a need for a second track and ripped up most of it. In the present I think some railroads are regretting decisions like that, but they won’t invest in new track unless their traffic is far beyond capacity.

      1. Andy

        One thing that should (in theory) help with this is the freight railroad’s now-widespread adoption of the practice of running fewer, but enormous, freight trains (with multiple remote-controlled locomotive sets cut in midway along or at the tail end to smooth out slack action). Essentially they are combining what used to be two or three trains into one.

      2. Jeffrey Oswald

        Wouldn’t the fact that Amtrak gets shoved into sidings lead a reasonable person to conclude that freight railroads’ traffic is indeed beyond capacity? Please notice how much recovery time has been added to Amtrak schedules lately, and even with that, they still can’t manage to run on time. In fact, one of the famous “name trains” of the past was specifically named “The 400” for being able to travel the 400 miles from the Twin Cities to Chicago in 400 minutes. Amtrak’s “fluff for the freight railroads” schedules now allot 508 minutes to travel the same distance. (It could be worse! A connecting bus takes 560 minutes.).
        How would you like to run a business on privately-owned, fully-taxed right of way and then have the government construct a competing mode parallel to yours, on tax-exempt land, with massive subsidies for its constant maintenance and upgrading? It’s a wonder there are any railroads left in the US at all.
        Politicians who drink the Cato Kool-Aid and complain how Amtrak requires subsidies just don’t get it. Airlines were largely deregulated in the 1980s and will only run profitable routes. So-termed Essential Air Services and intercity buses are trimmed back more and more every year, leaving only Amtrak in certain corridors. Like the USPS, Amtrak is a service to the country. The corporation is not the one reaping the benefits of the service, it is the areas served by it. It is also worthwhile to note that the air and highway modes’ use of land and emissions of pollutants are given a free pass in this country. The same politicians who harp about menial subsidies for Amtrak are more than eager to sweep the ill effects of auto and truck pollution under the proverbial rug.
        What Amtrak calls “flexible dining service” deserves to be called out for what it really is: a thinly-veiled program to eliminate union jobs in the kitchen and make passengers miserable, in order to push down ridership, in order to justify cutting or discontinuing trains which run overnight. If you have personally experienced this onslaught of saturated fat, sodium, sugar and chem-lab ingredients, give your feedback to Amtrak, because they are listening and tracking customer response trends. You may need to wait on hold for a few minutes, or fill out a contact form on their website. For $600-900 a day after being stuck onboard for two days, passengers deserve better. Better food exists, but their upper-level management has decided not to pursue it.
        Also keep in mind that Amtrak employees, 1,950 of whom were pink-slipped this morning, are not the ones who decided on these changes. These changes are made by politically-appointed board members and airline loyalists who have their own interests in mind. The front-line workers at Amtrak are among the most professional and safety-conscious workers I have met. Upper management, well, not so much.

    1. Eric Ecklund Post author

      Had it not been for the pandemic, I would’ve considered taking the 54 bus from the 28th Avenue Park & Ride to Union Depot. But in a small enclosed space like a bus with no enforcement of mask wearing I’m hesitant of taking it.

  11. Nathanael

    Amtrak’s cuts are quite idiotic. The Lake Shore Limited, which runs from Chicago to New York (a very busy route, on all the “corridor” plans for decades), has been sold out for weeks, so Amtrak is now proposing to cut it to three-a-week in order to lose more revenue (while retaining nearly all the costs).

    Please do keep writing your Senators, and support railpassengers.org

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