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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Amtrak’s weather fears lead to ‘Empire Builder’ cancellations NEWSWIRE

Amtrak’s weather fears lead to ‘Empire Builder’ cancellations NEWSWIRE

By Bob Johnston | April 13, 2018

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The ‘Empire Builder’ engine crew changes at Whitefish, Mont., on Feb 4, 2017.
Bob Johnston
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Winter storm Xanto, which is threatening travelers with blizzard conditions from the Dakotas through Minnesota and Wisconsin on April 13, and 14, is the type of weather system that the Empire Builder typically slogs through between November and March in providing daily mobility to passengers at 42 intermediate stops from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Nevertheless, Amtrak operating division managers in collaboration with the company’s Consolidated National Operations Center in Wilmington, Del., decided on April 11 to cancel trains leaving the West Coast on April 12 and 13 and Chicago on April 13 and 14.

Spokesman Marc Magliari tells Trains News Wire that the company is “exercising an abundance of caution because our mission is to safely carry customers to their destinations.” He also points out that severe weather conditions often result in crews and booked travelers not being able to get to stations.

However, BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth says, “Amtrak made its own determination about its schedule; we were fully prepared for them to operate on us.”

In an email to Trains News Wire she adds, “It is business as usual…we have been planning and preparing by briefing with teams on safety and possible weather, arranging for a command center if needed, and readying equipment and resources, such as switch heaters and blowers.”

BNSF handles the Builder west of the Twin Cities, where 7-12 inches of snow are now predicted to accumulate through Sunday morning, but tracks in Minnesota are the only parts of that host railroad’s route affected. Wisconsin also expects to see April snows from Xanto, although Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings is unable to immediately ascertain whether special operating plans will be implemented on the railroad’s St. Paul-Chicago Empire Builder segment.

Cancelling the train for two days necessarily disrupts crew turns by stranding personnel away from home and adding expense not offset by ticket revenue. It also inconveniences travelers who thought they had booked “all-weather” transportation.

In 2017 under avalanche threats, BNSF closed the Builder’s route for days through Montana’s Marias Pass and other rugged mountainous terrain, though Amtrak often ran Chicago-St. Paul stub trains during extended cancellation periods to protect local and connecting patronage on a busy Midwest corridor that lacks state-supported service.

Other than a concern for passenger safety, contributing to the cancellation decision is likely a management structure that for the first time in decades fails to make any manager responsible for balancing a route’s revenue and growth potential against adverse affects of inconveniencing travelers, while many departments are charged with cutting costs.

25 thoughts on “Amtrak’s weather fears lead to ‘Empire Builder’ cancellations NEWSWIRE

  1. It’s getting ridiculous. Four or five inches of snow in DC and they shut down the entire corridor. Anderson is out of his league. Not to many winters ago Amtrak openly and loudly let it be known that while the entire NE was shut down Amtrak trains and personal kept service going. Though it was at a reduced level Amtrak was still open. Now trains everywhere are being cancelled over literally nothing. Time to get some railroaders with institutional knowledge in the Ivory Tower

  2. Mr. Shoemaker: I recall at time, but I don’t remember exactly when, a huge snowstorm blanketed the Northeast. The army was mobilized to help people stranded and keep vital arteries open. A newspaper headline (by a Washington paper, I believe) stated, “ONLY ARMY AND AMTRAK MOVING.” How far we have come since then, and not in a good direction.

  3. Robert McGuire said, “Hey look at the bright side. Amtrak loses money on every train it runs so a few days of cancelled trains means a better bottom line.”

    Actually not. Fixed costs continue, as well as the deadhead the operating crews back home at the beginning of the service interruption and then to put them back in place at the end. Then there’s the loss of revenue, and loss of good will in that people along the Empire Builder route expect trains to be all-weather transportation.

  4. I’m live in the thick of this blizzard (about 100 ft visibility now, howling winds and no auto traffic) and I just heard a BNSF 100 car train go over the detector with nary a whimper. Just the latest of many Amtrak “dust ups”.

  5. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, and attended the University of Chicago from 1967-1973 for my Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics. Frequently I would ride the Milwaukee Road between Minneapolis and Chicago, usually one of the Hiawathas (always in the Skytop Parlor) but occasionally the Pioneer Limited.

    I remember one trip home a few days before Christmas (probably 1967 or 1968). The Hi (I don’t recall Morning or Afternoon) left Chicago with light snow, and the Skytop was nearly empty, as usual. We arrived in Milwaukee in heavy snow. The station platform was packed, because the airport (whether Milwaukee or the Twin Cities or maybe both) had closed due to the weather. The Skytop filled up with business types, and we set off across Wisconsin in a blizzard. The parallel interstate was nearly deserted. The “new” passengers kept remarking how much more comfortable this was than plane travel. (Whether they ever rode the train again when the planes were flying, of course I never found out.) The point is we cruised along in blizzard conditions and arrived in St. Paul and Minneapolis almost on time. None of the crew seemed to think this performance was at all unusual, but it was half a century ago. How things change!

  6. Simply astounding! As the BNSF smartly resisted becoming Anderson’s goat, we can surmise Anderson and the executive management foisted on him by their Board protectors are punching far above their abilities; or, weather is now being utilized as another surreptitious tool to take apart the national system.

    So much for the decades old mantra of passenger rail as the “all weather transportation system.” Instead, Amtrak has become more like a Second City routine–“You can rely on Amtrak only if the weather is perfect; sunny; not cold and not too hot (as trains will be slowed or stopped due to potential sun spots/kinks on the rails).” When we see the numerous, unacceptable cuts in on-board services, lengthened schedules, and an indifference, at best, towards long distance trains, Amtrak indeed has become a joke.

    I too have traveled extensively through winters in the 1960s between CHI-MSP on the Burlington, CNW, and CMStP&P–close to schedule, warm, with a content belly from well prepared meals, and along jointed rail. When run by the railroads, trains simply were not annulled in advance in anticipation of winter weather. Same goes for travels on the AT&SF thru Illinois, Oklahoma, and Arizona–we always knew we could count on the passenger train. Hats off for VIA Rail Canada’s persistence in operating “The Canadian” throughout their winters.

    In respect to former Rep. Mica’s proclamation that Amtrak was run like a Soviet operation by an entrenched Kremlin, today that sounds much too positive. To update Mica’s statement, we should declare that Amtrak is operated today as if it was controlled by North Korea along the infamous line in the Sinai by apparatchiks requiring a puppy in their lap to make a decision.

    If Congress can ever get its act together and stop lobbing spitballs at each other, given this pathetic move to annul the “Builder,” should be enough for a task force to be delegated to investigate, study, review, and analyze what makes Amtrak tick: how it has interpreted itself as a unique monopoly to prevent any competition; what it perceives as its mission; its decision process; and how it is impacted by a lack of oversight from a Board so conflicted by their focus on their puppet masters of Northeastern politicians.

    It is high time for Congress to present a complete interpretation of PRIIA to allow and encourage open access and bids for franchises-whether in competition to Amtrak, or, to open new routes. Amtrak has dug its hole so deep, we are probably beyond the time when it could have been salvaged by bringing in a competent, vetted outside company to at least operate sleepers, business, diners and lounges; allowing Amtrak to run what it could barely do–coaches and baggage. At least under Reistrup, Boyd, Claytor, and Gun, Amtrak had a fighting chance to turn itself around. Now, it has become a very over-priced, inconveniently scheduled “Peoples Express.”

  7. I don’t think AMTRAK considers the long-distance trains to be basic transportation, rather something akin to a cruise ship. If a major hurricane is approaching, cruise lines will either reroute or cancel if need be. If a train became stuck in a snowbank out in the middle of nowhere, the logistics of trying to rescue stranded passengers and reroute them to their destination or try to put them up in a hotel somewhere would be difficult and expensive. Even with good weather, our return trip on AMTRAK last summer kept being delayed on the California Zephyr. We were so late that our connecting train (Capitol Ltd) left without us. AMTRAK had to put up many disgruntled passengers overnight, provide cab and meal vouchers which drove up their expenses. I understand it’s not that rare that this happens.

  8. How bittersweet to read Prof. Erickson’s account of the Milwaukee’s weather-be-damned passenger service back in the day.

  9. John said, ,”469 flights were cancelled at the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport, yesterday, Sat. April 14″
    Considering MSP has about 1,000 takeoffs and landings every day, it’s a fair statement to say the airport was severely impacted by the storm. But it is also true that, unlike Amtrak, not 100 percent of the service was canceled April 14.

  10. Perhaps Amtrak should change the description from “All Weather Transportation” to “Safe Transportation,” if that is their description. Sheisse happens..

  11. I think Anderson is still use to operating like an airline. Cancel trips in advance of a storm. I see many trips have been canceled this year due to storms too in the NEC. Wonder how many trips the Pennsylvania Railroad canceled in the years they ran the operation. If trees are a problem, as was the concern in the NEC, why not trim them? Amtrak is becoming a causal unscheduled service. Anderson should be able to finish it off at this rate. He is becoming an embarrassment and does not either care or realize it.

  12. O.K. I can understand the rationale for Amtrak cancelling the ‘Builder’ in Montana across Marias Pass when there is a legitimate fear of avalanche danger, but “7 to 12 inches of accumulated snow …” in Minneapolis/ St. Paul? How is that “dangerous” to a long-distance train that could plow through it? Or have a BNSF plow train clear the line in front of the Builder if necessary? I doubt the old days of the GN (and even earlier years of Amtrak) would have tolerated this “cop-out” operating (or non-operating) mind-set of a (presumably) important and vital (?) long-distance passenger train.

    Good points that others have posted here about Amtrak emulating Mr. Anderson’s former employer, Delta Airlines, in annulling trains in advance of inclement or serious weather activity. Will there be cancellations of the Empire Builder later this spring during the height of tornado season on the northern prairies? That might actually make more sense than this silliness …

    Unfortunately, the increasingly erratic and unreliable nature of Amtrak’s long-distance trains in the western United States indicate that they really aren’t a viable mode of transportation anymore. Truly sad ….

  13. It may wise if Amtrak could discontinue their daily schedule of the Empire Builder during the off- summer seasons to ensure their schedules will not be as disruptive to allow another grace day for arrival and due to lesser volume of passenger use. One example: Empire Builder could operate to 3 or 4 days per week between early November and late April.

  14. Andrew Craig, “It may wise if Amtrak could discontinue their daily schedule of the Empire Builder during the off- summer seasons to ensure their schedules will not be as disruptive to allow another grace day for arrival and due to lesser volume of passenger use.” Before we think about reducing the frequency on the most-ridden long distance passenger train in the U.S. twelve of the past fourteen years, I think a bit of reality in the form of a historical perspective needs to be interjected here.

    On the one hand, we have Amtrak annulling the trains with some people thinking this gives the act some form of legitimacy. But this must be weighed against the fact that the Empire Builder has been operating with its Superliner equipment this more or less current schedule since 1982 (except for 1995-1997 due to budget concerns and in part of 2014 and 2015 due to delays in the Bakken). This schedule can be protected with five sets of equipment (like in GN/BN days 1947-1971), that not only allows the typical connections in Chicago, but also connects with the Coast Starlight in Portland. (1971 to 1982 was the era of the greatest flux as an Amtrak train, with varying routings, frequencies, and schedules. And no Portland section of the train 1971-1981).

    The salient point is that the Empire Builder since becoming streamlined in 1947 has been operating on its current schedule (time of the day – not exact to-the-minute, of course – and daily) with the same amount of equipment (5 sets) for 57 years without any significant disruptions in service. To then suggest a major cutback in the service is warranted simply because of some recent decisions by Amtrak is ludicrous compared the long history of this train serving the Northern Tier.

  15. Mark Meyer:
    Thank you for your insights here regarding the Empire Builder operating schedule, I was almost going to suggest that Mr. Craig’s suggestion of off-season scheduling of not daily service might make sense, but as you say, they (GN/BN/Amtrak)have been operating the Empire Builder in this fashion for almost 60 years. So why does a “little” blizzard of 10 -12 inches of snow in the Twin Cities cause Amtrak to annul the Builder for several days?

    Makes no sense and again tends to confirm my worst fears that Amtrak is no longer capable of running a viable long-distance passenger rail network in the United States.

    And yes, as you also indicate, the Empire Builder is one of Amtrak’s most-heavily patronized long-distance trains in the U.S. and its performance metrics (revenue passenger miles, etc.) reflect this. Sadly, Amtrak doesn’t seem to understand this. A friend of mine told me recently that it is not possible to reserve a sleeper for intermediate segments along the Empire Builder route (I.e. Seattle – to – Glacier Park), Chicago -to- Fargo, etc.), they are only (supposedly) allowing potential customers to reserve sleeping accommodations all the way from Seattle-to-Chicago or Chicago-to-Seattle. Again , this makes no sense what so ever and Amtrak doesn’t appear to really want to serve its customers demands.

  16. Thomas: Fortunately, not the case with regard to where space can be reserved on the Empire Builder. The fare in a roomette from Glacier Park (East Glacier) to Fargo departing on April 29 is $271. April 29, by the way, is the first day of seasonal service to Glacier Park Station where the train will stop (instead of at nearby Browning) through the first week of October.

    I also neglected to verbalize the significance of the five sets of equipment used in Empire Builder rotation today. The turnaround time in Seattle and Portland (train 7 to 8, train 27 to 28) is the shortest of any Amtrak long distance train: 6.5 hours or less. Yet, for the most part, this is done day in and day out. When train 7 is exceptionally late, the train can be terminated in Spokane and a bus bridge provided, but the mere fact that the 6.5 hour turnaround has been status quo all these years is a testimony to what works. Also, I should add that when the Pioneer operated, its equipment could be used on Seattle section of the Empire Builder, but unfortunately that train disappeared 21 years ago next month.

  17. Once again, Amtrak is showing how limited and timid its operations are. Whatever happened to the concept of trains being an all weather mode? Amtrak just doesn’t cut it.

  18. Amtrak is showing itself to be the Goldilocks railroad; the weather must be neither too cold nor too hot, but just right, before it will send its trains forth. Amtrak doesn’t need Trump to do a hatchet job on it — it’s managing that quite nicely all by itself.

  19. Maybe it is time to consider terminating the two daily EB trains (one east, one west) at St.Paul instead of Chicago. The train takes EIGHT scheduled hours (add an hour to get to airports). A straighter, faster, shorter route could be made from StP to Eau Claire to WI Dells to Madison to Janesville to Arlington Heights to Ohare, then Chicago in FIVE & 1/2 or so.

  20. I doubt that in the old days of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads otherwise known as the “Hill Lines” that James J hill would allow or let a snowstorm or blizzard stop his trains from going through or be shut down. An army of men shoveling snow as well as snowplows, locomotives and whatever equipment would be utilized to keep the tracks clear and the trains moving. Its true that in certain parts where the Empire Builder operates that there are dangerous conditions especially in the Cascades and we have well documented history of stuck trains, and trains being buried by avalaches but that goes with the territory. If amtrak would cooperate with some of the freight carriers where the Empire Builder operates on, there would “snow trains as well as extra motive power operating on a regular schedule to keep tracks clear. Im afraid that we live in an age where there is too much caution and fear and not being strong or daring. Imagine if every time there is bad weather or upper air disturbances if the airlines wanted to suspend or cancel every flight . They too shut down when things get very bad but at least every attempt is made to keep things running. Oh and by the way every time Amtrak cancels service or shuts down operations , that is some more potential riders that they are pushing over to the plane or an intercity bus. Just imagine the disappointment of a small child (or adult) who wants to experience the thrill of a
    train ride and can’t only because the suits at Amtrak are overly cautious or afraid to operate their trains because of some bad weater or snow. The railroads are destroying their own histroy and legacy of being the only all weather and reliable means of travel in bad weather

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