News & Features

The Builder Battles Back

Six months after Amtrak celebrated its return, and a year after it was plagued by delays, the Empire Builder tries to stay on time and regain riders

On June 19, Amtrak’s eastbound Empire Builder arrived in Libby 21 minutes late. Two hours later, it pulled into Whitefish 3 minutes early. And then, a little further down the line, it departed West Glacier 6 minutes late.

The ebbs and flows of the Empire Builder’s arrivals and departures that Friday morning perhaps best exemplify the historic passenger train’s current situation: Not perfect, but getting better.

The tardy arrivals into Libby and West Glacier are nothing when compared to last year when the train could be delayed for hours on end. Six months after Amtrak officials came to Whitefish and declared that “the Empire Builder is back,” the train is slowly but surely trying to regain footing and local officials are starting to notice.

“From what it was a year ago, it is 1,000 percent better,” said Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Gartland. “A year ago it was totally unpredictable and that’s not the case anymore.”

In early 2014, the train between Chicago and Seattle and Portland was constantly plagued by delays, in part because of extreme freight congestion on the northern plains, particularly in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. On some days, especially during the winter, the train was nearly 12 hours late. In June 2014, the westbound train was on schedule 10 percent of the time. The eastbound train had a zero percent on-time rate. To try and help the train make connections at its endpoints – particularly in Chicago – Amtrak adjusted the timetable so that the train had more time between each station along its route. But the change drew ire from businesses in the Flathead Valley because the train arrived earlier in the morning and later at night.

In January, Amtrak put the train back on its traditional schedule – arriving in Whitefish at 7:26 a.m. on its way east and 8:56 p.m. on its way west. They also revealed a promotion to encourage people to travel to Whitefish by discounting tickets to and from the area by 30 percent. Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that 30 percent more people used the promotion during the 2014-2015 winter than the previous season (when it was only a 20 percent discount).

For years, Whitefish has been the most popular station stop in Montana for the Empire Builder, but those numbers took a hit when the train’s performance became more and more unpredictable. In 2008, more than 70,000 people got on and off the train in Whitefish. Last year, there were 49,000 passengers in and out of the depot, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

Although recent numbers for the Whitefish stop are not yet available, ridership on the train overall is slowly increasing again, after big dips in 2014. In February, 25,922 people rode the train, a 10 percent decrease from the previous year. In March, 34,551 people got on board, a 4.4 percent drop from that same month in 2014. And in April, the most current numbers available from Amtrak, 30,968 people rode the Empire Builder, only 2.5 percent less than the number of passengers a year earlier. Amtrak Spokesperson Marc Magliari told the Beacon that those numbers show the train is slowly making a comeback.

However, despite people returning to the train, its on-time performance is still subpar when compared to past years. Overall, the train is on time 54.5 percent of the time – 61.3 percent of the time going west and just 3.2 percent on time going east. But Barry Green, the Montana representative for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said from what he has seen the hours-long delays are a thing of the past and when the train is late it’s not that far off schedule.

Although the train still has its struggles, Boyle said the business community has welcomed its return. He notes that even though most visitors to the Flathead Valley come by car or plane, the Empire Builder still plays a vital role in bringing people here, just like it did when it premiered as one of America’s most luxurious passenger trains in 1929.

“The train is such an iconic piece of Whitefish’s history,” Boyle said.