News & Features

‘The Empire Builder is Back’

Amtrak, Whitefish celebrate passenger train's return to traditional schedule; promise service improvements in the coming months to regain lost riders

WHITEFISH – For more than a year, the Empire Builder has been plagued with delays and the train rarely rolled into Whitefish on time. But Amtrak officials say that is about to change and on Tuesday morning they made good on that promise when the eastbound Empire Builder arrived 23 minutes early.

Nine months after the passenger train’s schedule was adjusted to deal with freight congestion in Montana and North Dakota, Amtrak has returned the Empire Builder to its original timetable. To mark the occasion, Amtrak officials held a small ceremony in Whitefish where they promised improved service in the coming months in an effort to lure back riders.

“The Empire Builder is back on its proper schedule,” said Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari during a press conference in Whitefish. “We want to rebuild service and ridership and we want to do that now … Delays are still possible, but we’re hopeful that the lengthy delays are a thing of the past.”

Delays on the Empire Builder route began more than a year ago when the train would frequently be 11 or 12 hours late to Whitefish. Amtrak blamed freight congestion on BNSF Railway in eastern Montana and North Dakota, but it got worse when extreme winter weather further slowed the train. On some days it had to be replaced by a bus due to avalanches on Marias Pass.

To alleviate the congestion, BNSF Railway spent $1 billion in 2014 on infrastructure improvements on its northern corridor. Meanwhile, Amtrak adjusted its schedule in April 2014 to allow more time for the train to get from station to station and so the train could make connections in Chicago. The new schedule meant the eastbound train, No. 8, arrived in Whitefish at 4:26 a.m. rather than its normal 7:26 a.m. The westbound train, No. 7, arrived at about 10:30 p.m. While the schedule helped Amtrak improve the train’s on-time performance, it wasn’t popular with people traveling to and from Whitefish. From June 2013 to June 2014, ridership on the train dropped 19 percent.

Last month Amtrak announced it would return to its old schedule on Jan. 12. The following morning, the eastbound Empire Builder arrived in Whitefish 23 minutes ahead of its advertised 7:26 a.m.

“We’re pleased and thrilled to have Amtrak on its regular schedule because it’s important for Whitefish,” said City Manager Chuck Stearns.

In hopes of encouraging passengers to take the train, Amtrak is offering a 30 percent discount on tickets to and from Whitefish until April 20. For details visit www.Amtrak.com/Whitefish30.

Magliari said with the train back on its regular schedule between Chicago and Seattle/Portland, Amtrak is hopeful that riders will return. He said the railroad has no plans to adjust the schedule in the future.

“We know how important the Empire Builder is to this part of the country,” he said. “We know it’s important to Whitefish and its businesses.”

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.