U.S., Amtrak’s Empire Builder: A Multi-Tasking Mobility Machine That Baffles The Experts (Including Amtrak)

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this website in 2018.

By F.K. Plous, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; February 26, 2021

Physicists argue that the bumblebee cannot fly because its body is too heavy and its wings too small. But the bumblebee does not know this, so it flies anyway.

Beware of “experts.” Wherever they look they find another bumblebee.

Take the so-called “passenger train experts.” They claim Amtrak’s Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder shouldn’t work: its route is too long, its speed too slow and its territory too thinly settled to attract today’s travelers.

The Builder doesn’t know this, and so it’s the best performing train west of the Alleghenies.

Looking at what the Empire Builder actually does, not what its critics think it does, explains why.

Not your grandfather’s long distance train

Technically, the critics are right on one point: The Builder starts its run in Chicago, and finishes up in Seattle, 2210 miles and two time zones west after 43 hours and 10 minutes on the road. In that sense it is indeed a “Chicago-Seattle” train.

But that’s not the way its patrons use it. Only about 9 per cent of the Builder’s passengers travel the entire distance.

The remaining 91 per cent of the Builder’s passengers are short- or medium- distance travelers. They ride between any and all combinations of Chicago, Seattle and 45 intermediate stations (A smaller section of the train branches off from the main train at Spokane, Washington, and finishes its run in Portland, Oregon.).

Count ’em: 931 trips on one train!

In fact, the permutations of all those stations yield no less than 931 possible city pairs for which Amtrak’s computers can print a ticket good on the Builder.

So it might be better to think of Amtrak’s Empire Builder not as a long distance train, but as a series of heavily used intercity corridor trains linking places such as Fargo and Spokane, Milwaukee and Glacier National Park, or Winona and Grand Forks.

“And it is heavily used,” says an Amtrak spokesman in Chicago. “I’ve visited every community the Builder serves and the people up there depend on it—college students, business people, tour groups, overseas visitors who want to see the American West, retirees, families visiting relatives, Native Americans traveling between reservations, tourists and skiers headed for Glacier, patients trying to get to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.”

The Builder is their lifeline

“There is no other form of transportation up there that links the big cities with the small towns the way the Empire Builder does,” the spokesman says. “There is very little bus or air service. The Interstate is 100 miles south—all they have is U.S. 2, which is mostly two-lane. The weather up there is terrible in the winter. Without the train there is no way to get around.”

The average trip length on the Empire Builder is 716 miles, about a third of the train’s total route. Station stops sometimes are long because people get on and off at every stop, even tiny rural points that most interstate tourists ignore.

“The Builder is their lifeline,” the spokesman says.

First class few finance many in coach

Interestingly, Builder passengers traveling more than 1,000 miles make up only 23 per cent of the train’s ridership—but they generate 63 per cent of the revenue. The 47 per cent who travel less than 500 miles provide only 20 per cent of the revenue. And sleeping car passengers, who pay premium fares, provide 43 per cent of the Builder’s revenues, despite making up only 16 per cent of its passenger list.

“That effectively refutes the argument you sometimes hear that Amtrak shouldn’t be operating trains for so-called ‘wealthy leisure travelers,’” says an Amtrak official.

“The first class travelers make train travel possible for the coach passengers,” the spokeman said off the record. “I’d call that a good deal. The airlines use the same economics to keep their coach fares reasonable.”

But no matter how the data are sliced, no single market segment dominates. The Empire Builder is everybody’s train, gathering and distributing so many varieties of travelers between so many origin-destination pairs that no other transportation resource can match its versatility or efficiency.

‘A multi-tasking mobility machine’

“I don’t consider the Empire Builder a Chicago-Seattle train,” says James E. Coston, Executive Chairman of Chicago-based Corridor Rail Development Corporation. “That’s just where its rolling stock originates and terminates. The Builder actually is a multi-tasking mobility machine that serves dozens of markets at once.”

Coston, who worked as an Amtrak ticket and baggage clerk when he was a college student and served on the Amtrak Reform Council from April, 2000, to December, 2003, said the Builder’s logistical efficiencies are not unique.

“All the long distance trains have similar demographics and economics,” he said. “I used to sell Amtrak tickets and handle baggage at Chicago Union Station, and the customers we served came from everywhere and went everywhere—not just to the end points. The principle is the same whether you’re talking about the Empire Builder or the Southwest Chief or the California Zephyr or the City of New Orleans. The reservations computer showed the vast majority of the riders originated or terminated at intermediate stops that either did not have air service or were very fatiguing to reach by car.”

90 million Americans won’t fly— they need more trains

And there are lots of potential riders still out there, Coston said.

“Thirty per cent of Americans surveyed have told pollsters they absolutely will not fly, either out of fear of flying or just plain discouragement with the airline system,” he said. “Plus there’s a large and growing number of people who cannot drive or prefer not to drive. That’s a category that used to include mostly senior citizens, but now it includes large numbers of millennials. Add them together and you find there is a very large market for short distance travel on long distance trains. We need at least one more train on each of those routes.”

Why more service?

“Substantial numbers of people already are boarding the westbound Empire Builder at Fargo at 3:49 a.m.” Coston said, “and there are lots of people boarding the eastbound at 2:10 a.m.

“Can you imagine what kind of business Amtrak would be doing at Fargo if another train went through at a decent hour? The Fargo-Moorhead area has more than 100,000 people. And every Amtrak overnight train has between five and 10 stops it serves at an inconvenient time.”

Rolling stock shortage limits travel

Amtrak carried 31.7 million passengers in 2017, up almost a million from 2015.

“Basically, all of the long distance trains are now running full because Amtrak’s long distance fleet has not been expanded since the 1980s and actually has shrunk because several cars have been lost in wrecks while several dozen others have been sidetracked for repairs the company cannot afford,” Coston said.  “It simply hasn’t got the money to accommodate all the people who would like to ride.”

Coston said the plight of the long distance trains is further complicated by Amtrak’s failure to update its reservation computers with an important software upgrade.

“It’s unfortunate, but Amtrak has no way of tracking how many applicants for tickets are discouraged by their inability to find coach or sleeping-car space on the dates when they want to travel,” he said.

“Computers did not have the capacity to measure this phantom demand when I worked at Amtrak Reservations in the 1970s,” he said.  “They do now, but Amtrak has never bought the kind of software that tracks what people do when they can’t find the right match of train and travel date. Do they switch to a different travel date, do they decide to fly or drive, or do they decide not to travel at all? There are way to get this information, but Amtrak seems not to be interested in measuring this kind of unmet customer demand.”

Train watchers have seen the lack of equipment and the lack demand software take their toll. This writer watches the Empire Builder several times a week as it makes its way through the North Side of Chicago. Until 2017 its standard consist in the summer vacation season and over the winter holidays was 12 cars. Then, as age and lack of maintenance ate into car availability, one coach was dropped and the standard number of cars dropped to 11. Even at the height of the summer travel season and the Thanksgiving and Christmas rush periods the 12th car failed to reappear.

“Each day that car failed to run Amtrak lost the capacity to carry 65 passengers,” Coston said. “In fact, because the seats on a long-distance train turn over two or three times per trip as passengers board and leave at intermediate stations, the lack of a 12th car may have kept 100 or 200 people from traveling.”

So were there 100 or 200 people out there every day who wanted to ride the Builder but couldn’t because that car wasn’t there?

“We’ll never know,” Coston said, “Amtrak’s reservation computer isn’t programmed to find out how big the Builder’s market really is. Amtrak doesn’t know the market for its long-distance trains and isn’t interested in finding out.”

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