Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

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mulad
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Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » June 4th, 2012, 8:24 pm

First the project that the existing Wisconsin governor claims to support (we'll see what happens tomorrow):

At today's Passenger Rail Forum meeting, we were informed that the 9-month study for a second daily train held a kickoff meeting on May 15th following a "hi-rail" tour for interested parties the previous month. Amtrak is going through its "standard feasibility study process". After 3 or 4 months, Amtrak will submit an initial draft of the report to the railroads to comment on (at least CP, but probably also including BNSF), and then release that to the state DOTs. Since this would be a "corridor" train of less than 700 miles, the plan would be for it to at least start out as a state-supported route (eek!). It's not entirely clear whether the second train will make all of the same stops as the Empire Builder, though it sounds like they're planning on making the train start in Chicago in the morning and turn around to make the run back starting in the afternoon/evening.

Four termini/routes are planned to be studied (and it looks like someone became more sane recently, because previous iterations seemed to mostly talk about Big Lake instead of St. Cloud):
  • Chicago to Saint Paul Union Depot
  • Chicago to Minneapolis Transportation Interchange via SPUD
  • Chicago to St. Cloud via SPUD and MTI
  • Chicago to St. Cloud via SPUD and Fridley
Parts of the study will look into upgrades needed along the line as well as the feasibility of acquiring actual equipment for the train itself.


As for the multiple-trains-per-day, high(er)-speed rail project, Mn/DOT is proceeding with the Minnesota side of the Tier 1 EIS study while the situation on the other side of the St. Croix/Mississippi remains unclear. The state has written up responses to all of the comments submitted to the Alternatives Analysis report (particularly the large response from the Eau Claire area) and should be releasing a final AA document with all of the responses included pretty soon.

There's supposed to be a new webpage/website going up for the Tier 1 EIS, distinct from the existing Phase 7 MWRRI page.

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Amtrak Empire Builder

Postby mulad » August 19th, 2012, 5:05 pm

Here's a thread for the longstanding Empire Builder route, in case interesting stuff happens (particularly west of the Twin Cities -- the Intercity rail to Chicago thread should probably be used for proposed services to the east). Chicago to Seattle/Portland, making Minnesota stops in Winona, Red Wing, Saint Paul, St. Cloud, Staples, and Detroit Lakes, plus stops just across the border in La Crosse, WI, and Fargo and Grand Forks, ND.

Last summer, the train was getting annulled west of St. Paul for much of the year, contributing to a 12% drop in ridership from FY2010 to FY2011. This year, the train has gone through some periods of very poor on-time performance (9-12 hour delays) because of fires and trackwork out west, but it seems to be settling down a bit now (still running around 3 hours late in many cases, however).

I wrote an article on Friday to address increasing ridership to western North Dakota because of the Bakken oil boom, where I suggested that the extra coach which gets added for the Chicago-to-Saint Paul run should be extended farther west, though now that I think about it, it'd probably be better to exchange the coach seating for a sleeper car. I figured it would be good to run an extra car out to Minot, ND or Havre, MT, where there are major service stops. I just came across another article today which wanted to bring a car as far as Whitefish, MT (a station that gets about half as much ridership as MSP despite being in a town of just 6,400 people).

Of course, I've never actually taken Amtrak west of here -- the place I most want to get to in that direction is Fargo, but the train usually stops there between about 2 and 4 in the morning...

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby FISHMANPET » August 19th, 2012, 6:47 pm

What exactly do you mean by annulled? Does the train just stop and unload and give up, or what?

I'll be taking a trip to Portland at the end of December on the Empire Builder with a Superliner Bedroom.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » August 19th, 2012, 7:05 pm

Yeah, it would offload everyone in Saint Paul and just wait in town overnight before loading up in the morning and returning to Chicago. That was usually set up as a shortened "Baby Builder".

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Northropdweller » August 20th, 2012, 9:47 am

I work on the Empire Builder as a conductor. I'll be happy to answer any questions, so long as I know the answer. ; )

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby JT$ » August 20th, 2012, 11:05 am

Northropdweller wrote:I work on the Empire Builder as a conductor. I'll be happy to answer any questions, so long as I know the answer. ; )
Why is can't Amtrak design a schedule that works? People might use it more if the train wasn't so often delayed.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » August 20th, 2012, 4:39 pm

Eep. I'd say go easy on the guy to start, but I suppose he gets asked that question every single day...

Anyway, thanks for offering to answer questions, Northropdweller. Actually, the fact you live in Minneapolis brings up a few questions -- aren't the crew-change points in St. Cloud and Winona? How do you get to work? What are the other crew-change points along the line?

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby JMS9 » August 20th, 2012, 6:53 pm

mulad wrote:Eep. I'd say go easy on the guy to start, but I suppose he gets asked that question every single day...
Should someone ask if he prefers Coke or Pepsi, first? :roll:

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Chauncey87 » August 20th, 2012, 10:07 pm

JT$ wrote:
Northropdweller wrote:I work on the Empire Builder as a conductor. I'll be happy to answer any questions, so long as I know the answer. ; )
Why is can't Amtrak design a schedule that works? People might use it more if the train wasn't so often delayed.

The Empire Builder I think is designed to travel through the Rocky Mountins durning the day. Hence why it leaves St. Paul around midnight. I have rode the Builder twice and both times remember the Mt's durning the day. I think that was the idea anyway. With freight trains having priority that can really affect the Builder being on time!

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby THERAT » August 21st, 2012, 1:18 pm

Unfortunately - the EP goes thru the prime mountain areas of Montana/Idaho/Washington(great town of Levenworth) at night on both the east/west bound timetables.

web

Re: Empire Builder

Postby web » August 21st, 2012, 8:44 pm

i think the time is set by leaving in the day chicago and arriving seattle/portland day. I dont think its at all timed for ,pls but it sure is better than fargo!

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Northropdweller » August 21st, 2012, 11:37 pm

JT$ wrote:
Northropdweller wrote:I work on the Empire Builder as a conductor. I'll be happy to answer any questions, so long as I know the answer. ; )
Why is can't Amtrak design a schedule that works? People might use it more if the train wasn't so often delayed.

There are so many reasons that these trains cannot run on time, and I couldn't possibly afford the time required to type out why, but a few main reasons include the following:

-Extremely increased freight traffic...especially between Minot,ND and Wolf Point, MT, due to increased oil production in the Bakken. Yea, passenger trains have the right of way...but this means nothing when the bn is fined, say, $100,000 (i pulled that number out of my ass) and has 3 oil trains worth millions of dollars waiting to arrive to their destinations on time... The bn dispatches us, since it is their tracks. It is always, Always, ALWAYS about the bottom line...laws be damned.

-Bad tracks (making it necessary to dramatically slow down for many miles) owned by the BNSF between Minot and Fargo, due to the floods of last year. For over 3 years, there has been bickering between bn and Amtrak (and the government of ND to some extent) as to who is going to pay to fix the Devils Lake and Hillsboro subdivisions. Basically, Amtrak knows the bn owns these tracks, and feels they should pay for the improvements. The bn doesn't see much point in fixing the tracks on a subdivisions that makes them little money. It's basically a renter/leaser and landlord situation. I think eventually either the devils lake sub will be fixed, or Amtrak will be rerouted. Maybe we will be rerouted as the devils lake sub gets fixed.

-There are only 6 hours to turn the train in Seattle ( the train must be cleaned, mechanically inspected, prepped, restocked of food, blankets, pillows, restroom supplies, etc) If #7 arrives in sea more than 2 hours late, it WILL leave sea late. There is no extra equipment to have a different consist leaving Seattle back to Chicago.

Chauncey87 is partly correct that the empire builder's schedule is designed to go through the mountains, or, at least the start of them during daylight hours. Web is also correct that the departure/arrival times of the terminus stations must be timed for the day time (connections to other trains). The rest of it is purely political/financial reasons.

Also, JT$, our trains are running at or ABOVE capacity 6 of 7 days a week. The Empire Builder has the highest ridership of any long distance train in the system. I think almost 50,000 people rode in June. Doesn't seem like a lot, but keep in mind that there is ONE train per day in each direction. Also, Amtrak as a system is about to end its third year of record ridership. More people are riding today than at any point in the entire history of Amtrak's existence. It is clear people want to and do ride the train...even with piss poor on-time performance.
Last edited by Northropdweller on August 22nd, 2012, 12:32 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Northropdweller » August 21st, 2012, 11:54 pm

mulad wrote:Eep. I'd say go easy on the guy to start, but I suppose he gets asked that question every single day...

Anyway, thanks for offering to answer questions, Northropdweller. Actually, the fact you live in Minneapolis brings up a few questions -- aren't the crew-change points in St. Cloud and Winona? How do you get to work? What are the other crew-change points along the line?
I in fact do get asked that question about 3 times EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. It's such a frequently asked question that I have a sort of schpeel memorized as my response. Heh.

I work out of st cloud. My partner works for the gov of Minneapolis 5 days a week...sometimes more. I only commute an average of 2-3 times a week, as i am gone for 1-2 days at a time. It makes sense for us to live in Minneapolis. Plus MPLS/STP is the only place we would consider living in mn. I, unfortunately, have to drive to work (admittedly, I drive a very fuel efficient car, and outside of peak hours). I'd LOVE to be able to take the northstar up there, but the schedule, lack of frequency and multiple connections from my home in south MPLS make it unrealistic. If phase 2 ever happens I'll be the first passenger in line at the ticket kiosk.

Crewbases are located in milwaukee, st cloud, Shelby MT, Seattle and Portland (notice there are no EB operating crews based out of Chicago). On top of crew changes happening at crewbases, operating crews from different crewbases meet in the middle to give/take the train over from one another (aka layover points) at Winona, Minot, and Spokane.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » August 22nd, 2012, 7:02 am

Thanks for the responses. Yeah, the Devils Lake project is expected to begin construction in summer 2013. Looks like it's getting an expedited process for federal review and permits.

http://www.inforum.com/event/article/id ... roup/News/

It'll probably take until 2015 for the construction to finish, though -- I've heard that two construction seasons will likely be needed.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby NickP » August 22nd, 2012, 1:27 pm

Northropdweller, thank you so much for the responses. I thought they we very informative on all fronts.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby Northropdweller » August 23rd, 2012, 12:10 pm

mulad wrote:Thanks for the responses. Yeah, the Devils Lake project is expected to begin construction in summer 2013. Looks like it's getting an expedited process for federal review and permits.

http://www.inforum.com/event/article/id ... roup/News/

It'll probably take until 2015 for the construction to finish, though -- I've heard that two construction seasons will likely be needed.

It wouldn't surprise me if 2 seasons were needed. It's a huge chunk of single track that needs improvements/replacement. We will most likely be rerouted on the KO subdivision through New Rockford, but who knows. I'd have mixed feelings about us occupying the KO...there is an immense amount of traffic on the KO. Although, it is CTC (automated) signaling and switches, unlike both the Hillsboro and Devils Lake subs, which are TWC ABS controlled (track warrants need to be obtained to occupy this track, and none of it is automated-guess who gets out in front of the train in the middle of those North Dakota January nights to clean out and hand line the switches into the siding??? Moi.). Maybe that'll help balance things. Although, the tardiness of the train will likely spike (or at the least, not improve) during that time, unless there is some sort of agreement to keep Amtrak rollin' on through. I've heard there can be 17-20ish freight trains on the KO between MOT and FAR at a time, in the middle of the night. Not good for Amtrak. We'll just have to see what happens. C'est la vie.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mulad » August 23rd, 2012, 1:38 pm

Yeah, the lack of automation on many train lines drives me batty. I was wondering if there were any non-CTC sections on the line, and there you go. Whenever signaling gets brought up, I'm always reminded of this video of an X-2000 demonstrator unit was shipped over from Sweden back when different companies were competing for the Acela Express contract -- here we have this advanced tilting train, and yet switches had to be thrown manually in some areas (one example shows up around 2:45 in the video):

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blCnZq7ePvA[/youtube]

We can't get more trains running over these lines because there isn't good enough signaling and switch automation, and we can't get better signaling and switches because there isn't enough traffic running over the line.

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby mattaudio » August 26th, 2012, 11:18 pm

us northrop dwellers really are the bees knees :)

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby UptownSport » August 27th, 2012, 9:57 pm

"And the trains ran on time"

Might have ominous connotations but if even a bus is late in Germany they all start talking about it.

Someone should be accountable for delays (withing reason) and fix them

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Re: Empire Builder

Postby aguaman » August 28th, 2012, 7:07 am

sometimes a late train is beneficial for us here in msp. i once caught a train that was 10 hours late, which allowed me to work a full day of work on friday. usually i would need to take a vacation day just to catch an eastbound train. that is ridiculous. we need three or four eastbound trains...


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