News & Reviews News Wire Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Carl Sandburg see cancellations (updated)

Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Carl Sandburg see cancellations (updated)

By Bob Johnston | August 3, 2022

Freight delays, equipment shortage hit one Builder round trip, elimination of one Quincy, Ill., frequency through Sunday

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The westbound Empire Builder leaves Chicago on July 5, 2019, with four coaches, four Superliner sleeping cars (including 2two to Portland, Ore.) and one transition sleeper. The 2022 version is missing a coach and two sleepers. (Bob Johnston)

CHICAGO — A line blockage earlier this week and equipment shortages have led to the cancellation of westbound Empire Builder departure from Chicago today (Wednesday, Aug. 3), as well as the eastbound Builder departures from Seattle and Portland on Friday, Aug. 5.

The move comes after the Builder slated to arrive in Chicago on Tuesday, Aug. 2, was delayed nearly 12 hours because BNSF Railway’s line in western Montana was blocked early on Sunday, July 31, and also reflects the reduction in the number of operable cars and locomotives available this summer.

Meanwhile, a shortage of serviceable rolling stock also led to cancellation of the morning Chicago-Quincy, Ill., round trip of the Carl Sandberg. Originally, that was scheduled to continue through Sunday, Aug. 7; as of Aug. 5, Amtrak has announced it will offer substitute bus service for those two trips through Tuesday, Aug. 9.

The Builder’s cascading problems began Friday, July 29, when late-discovered mechanical issues delayed the westbound Chicago departure for 3½ hours. Another 3 hours were lost out of St. Cloud, Minn., before a 4½-hour stop east of Libby, Mont., caused by a disabled freight train.

Because equipment that arrives in Seattle and Portland in the morning is turned for a departure the same afternoon, eastbound trains scheduled to depart July 31 were badly delayed. The Seattle section of the Builder left King Street Station at 4:07 a.m. on Aug. 1, more than 11 hours late. That equipment, which should have arrived in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon, was not expected until after 2 a.m. today. Uncertainty over its availability triggered the Wednesday cancellation because not enough extra cars are available.

Each of the five Empire Builder Superliner equipment sets this summer operates with three coaches, two sleeping cars, a transition sleeper, dining car, Sightseer lounge, and baggage car split between the Portland and Seattle sections. This is one coach and at least one sleeping car less than what the train typically provides.

Train at station platform
The eastbound Carl Sandburg arrives into Galesburg, Ill., on the afternoon of July 22, 2021. Insufficient serviceable equipment has resulted in cancellation of one Chicago-Quincy, Ill., round trip through Aug. 7. (Bob Johnston)

Systemwide mechanical and onboard staff reductions in 2020 and 2021 have meant the company has a substantial number of revenue-producing assets sitting idle that need safety overhauls before they can be returned to service.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells News Wire the Carl Sandburg is not running because “we have exceeded the margin of spare equipment, so we had to suspend that round trip. We expect the release of enough usable equipment to be able to restore that service next week.” The Aug. 5 plan for substitute bus service with the extension of the cancellation of the trains through Aug. 9 “will allow our shop forces more time to provide a larger number of usable railcars to avoid cancellations,” he says.

Federally prescribed maintenance requirements mean cars must be taken out of service periodically. The slow introduction of Siemens’ Venture coaches, and the fact that they must be bracketed with either Horizon or Amfleet cars until a door defect is rectified, has exacerbated the shortage.

Other limiting factors include utilization of Horizon equipment in the Pacific Northwest after the Washington Department of Transportation cancelled its maintenance agreement with Talgo, and Canadian National’s insistence that Superliners must be used on Chicago-Carbondale trains. That route’s second round trip has not been reinstated.

Outright cancellations mean lost bookings and inconvenience for trainloads of customers. Between Chicago and St. Paul, the next coach seat is available on Wednesday, August 10. And as of Tuesday evening this week, no seats could be purchased this Friday through Sunday on any of the three trains remaining between Chicago and Galesburg, Ill. — the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, and Illinois Zephyr.

— Updated at 2:10 p.m. CDT on Aug. 5 with extension of Carl Sandburg cancellation and substitute bus service.

8 thoughts on “Amtrak’s Empire Builder, Carl Sandburg see cancellations (updated)

  1. Report in today’s NY Times is all about the huge “performance” bonuses that Amtrick senior management has been paid over the last 5 or so years. Too bad that there is not a real management in place–and come to think of it a good functional board that includes membership with strong backgrounds in non commuter rail passenger operations.

  2. AND, the RPA sends me requests for donations a least once a month. They do NOTHING! Love to see a financial statement.

  3. Meanwhile we are on Acela 2.0, which is delayed itself. But nothing for LD except way overpriced Siemens locomotives that most engineers do not like. That’s why the expansion plans Amtrak trotted out are a teenage wet dream.

    1. Every time I drive or take the train into Philly I see the new Acela train set sitting on the same track in the coach yard. I wonder if it is rusted to the rails yet?

  4. It would be interesting to see who the US Senate use as their advisors on transportation policy, and if they have any rail experience or education on rail.

    Did everyone just simply rely on what DeFazio sends up from the US House?

    I think a survey is in order.

  5. I vote with my rear end in the seat. I’ve not ridden Amtrak outside of Wisconsin and Illinois in twelve and a half years. And may never again.

    Sorry folks I’ve been to a lot of airports. We know about DEN and MSP where I’ve seen airlines outvote by the hundreds the single daily train (if it runs), or DTW where the gates at one concourse of one terminal outvotes the number of platforms at Amtrak New Center 74 to one.

    I’ve also been at BWI near Baltimore watching people board flights to New York State and New England, Amtrak’s natural market.

    Also I know enough to pick an airline by the number of daily flights, avoiding an airline with only a one daily flights on a given route. But people are supposed to ride Amtrak which runs tri-weekly?

  6. It just gets worse and worse and worse. And there seems to be zero accountability. NY Sen. Charlie Schumer made sure his NEC-centric buddy Anthony Coscia got another term as Amtrak’s Board chair. FRA administrator Amit Bose is sitting around playing with fire with the crew size NPRM and smiling all the while. SecTrans Buttigieg plays hands off all the troubles at Amtrak as ably reported since late 2020 by Trains’ Bob Johnson. But he shows up for well-publicized ceremonies like the ground-breaking for the new Portal Bridge. But go out and ride, even in the NEC and see first-hand the good, the bad, and especially the ugly out where the steel wheel meets the steel rail? Fugetiboutit. It’s trains for thee but not for me.

    1. Not to mention Congress being AWOL regarding Amtrak’s woes this year. As I’ve said before, Amtrak has no champions in Congress anymore. Sad.

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