Empire Builder Gets Back on Track

Amtrak passenger train through Montana returns to its regular schedule

By Justin Franz

Nine months after its timetable was adjusted to deal with booming freight traffic and track construction, Amtrak’s Empire Builder through Northwest Montana is getting back on schedule.

Amtrak and BNSF Railway announced late this month that beginning Jan. 12 the Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle and Portland would return to its original schedule that has the train calling on the Flathead Valley in the morning and evening, rather than at night like it has for much of 2014.

The schedule implemented in April added three hours to the eastbound trip and 90 minutes to the westbound trip in an effort to help the train make connections in Chicago. The eastbound train, No. 8, arrived in Whitefish at 4:26 a.m., instead of its regular 7:26 a.m., and the westbound No. 7 arrived at 10:26 p.m. instead of 8:56 p.m. Although the schedule may have helped the train make connections at its end terminals, it wasn’t popular with towns like Whitefish. Officials with the Whitefish Visitors and Convention Bureau said the schedule was inconvenient for travelers arriving in the early morning before anything downtown is open.

Amtrak officials say returning to the old schedule will not only help communities in the Flathead Valley, but those in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“Local community and business leaders depend on the Empire Builder and see Amtrak service as an important public transportation link,” said DJ Stadtler, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief operations officer. “We will work closely with BNSF to fulfill a commitment to Amtrak passengers and our communities to operate this train on schedules our customers expect.”

One of the reasons for delays on the Empire Builder route is the huge increase in freight traffic, particularly crude oil out of North Dakota. In order to ease the congestion, BNSF spent $1 billion on infrastructure improvements across its northern corridor. BNSF also recently announced plans to spend more than $6 billion on capital improvements across its 32,000-mile system in 2015.

Railroad officials have also pledged that BNSF will do more to keep the Empire Builder on time.

“BNSF has a long history of hosting passenger service on our freight network. The investments we are continuing to make will improve reliability for all of our customers, including Amtrak,” said DJ Mitchell, vice president of passenger operations for BNSF.

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