Empire Builder is an
Amtrak passenger train that operates daily
Chicago and – via two sections west of Spokane –
Seattle and Portland.
The end-to-end travel time of the route is 45–46 hours for an
average speed of about 50 mph (80 km/h), though the train
travels as fast as 79 mph (127 km/h) over the majority of
the route. It is Amtrak's busiest long-distance route.
3.2 Freight train interference
3.3 Former stops
4.1 Current equipment
4.2 Historical equipment
8 Further reading
9 External links
See also: Great Northern Railway (U.S.)
Empire Builder on the Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis, c. 1929.
The train at Winona Junction,
Wisconsin in 1958
On June 11, 1929, the Great Northern Railway inaugurated the Empire
Builder in honor of the company's founder, James J. Hill. Known as
"The Empire Builder," Hill had reorganized several failing railroads
into a transcontinental railroad that reached the Pacific Northwest in
the late 19th century. Following World War II, Great Northern
placed new streamlined and diesel-powered trains in service that cut
the scheduled 2,211-mile-trip between
Chicago and Seattle from 58.5
hours to 45 hours.
The schedule allowed riders views of the Cascade Mountains and Glacier
National Park, a park established through the lobbying efforts of the
Great Northern. Re-equipped with domes in 1955, the Empire Builder
offered passengers sweeping views of the route through three dome
coaches and one full-length Great
Dome car for first class
In 1970, the Great Northern merged with other railroads to form the
Burlington Northern Railroad, which assumed operation of the Builder.
One year later,
Amtrak assumed operation of the train and shifted the
St. Paul leg to the
Milwaukee Road route through Milwaukee
along the route to St Paul. Before 1971, the Chicago–
St. Paul leg
used the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's mainline along the
Mississippi River through Wisconsin. The service also used to operate
west from the Twin Cities before turning northwest in Willmar,
Minnesota, to reach Fargo.
Amtrak added the Spokane–Portland section in 1981, restoring service
to the line previously operated by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle
Amtrak upgraded service to include a wine and cheese tasting
in the dining car for sleeping car passengers and free newspapers in
the morning. Amtrak's inspector general eliminated some of these
services in 2013 as part of a cost-saving measure.
During summer months, on portions of the route, "Trails and Rails"
volunteers in the lounge car comment on points of visual and historic
interest that can be viewed from the train.
Empire Builder is Amtrak's most popular long-distance train. Over
fiscal years 2007–2016,
Empire Builder annual ridership averaged
500,000, with a high of 554,266 in FY 2008. Revenue peaked in FY 2013
at $67,394,779.[a] About 65% of the cost of operating the train is
covered by fare revenue, a rate among Amtrak's long-distance trains
second only to the specialized East Coast Auto Train.
The Portland section of the
Empire Builder at Union Station in
The train passes through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North
Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It makes service stops in
Spokane, Washington, Havre, Montana, Minot, North Dakota, and Saint
Paul, Minnesota. Its other major stops include Vancouver, Washington,
Whitefish, Montana, Fargo, North Dakota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It
uses BNSF Railway's northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis,
Minnesota Commercial from
Minneapolis to St. Paul, the Canadian
St. Paul to Rondout, Illinois, and Metra's Milwaukee
District / North Line from Rondout to Chicago.
The Seattle section uses the
Cascade Tunnel and
Stevens Pass as it
Cascade Range to reach Spokane, while the Portland
section runs along the north side of the
Columbia River Gorge. The
cars from the two sections are combined at Spokane. The train
continues into the mountains in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.
The schedule is timed so that the train passes through the Rocky
Mountains (and Glacier National Park) during daylight – an
occurrence that is more likely on the eastbound train during summer.
Passengers can see sweeping views as the train skirts the southern
edge of the park, crossing the
Continental Divide at Marias Pass.
After three stops near Glacier National Park – Whitefish,
Montana, West Glacier, Essex (a flag stop), and either East Glacier in
the summer or Browning in the winter – the train crosses Marias
Pass and enters the
Northern Plains of eastern
Montana and North
Dakota. The land changes from prairie to forest as it travels through
Minnesota. From Saint Paul Union Depot, the train crosses the
Mississippi River at Hastings,
Minnesota and passes through
Minnesota cities on or near
Lake Pepin before crossing
the Mississippi again at La Crosse, Wisconsin. It passes through rural
southern Wisconsin, turns south at Milwaukee, and ends at Chicago
Empire Builder (interactive map)
GE Genesis in 40th-anniversary Phase I paint leads a stub Empire
Builder out of St. Paul,
Minnesota after floods suspended service
The line has come under threat from flooding from the Missouri,
Souris, Red, and Mississippi Rivers, and has occasionally had to
suspend or alter service. Most service gets restored in days or weeks,
but Devils Lake in North Dakota, which has no natural outlet, is a
long-standing threat. The lowest top-of-rail elevation in the lake
crossing is 1,455.7 ft (443.70 m). In spring 2011, the
lake reached 1,454.3 ft (443.27 m), causing service
interruptions on windy days when high waves threatened the tracks.
BNSF, which owns the track, suspended freight operations through
Devils Lake in 2009 and threatened to allow the rising waters to cover
the line unless
Amtrak could provide $100 million to raise the track.
In that case, the
Empire Builder would have been rerouted to the
south, ending service to Rugby, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks. In
June 2011 agreement was reached that
Amtrak and BNSF would each cover
1/3 of the cost with the rest to come from the federal and state
In December 2011,
North Dakota was awarded a $10 million TIGER grant
US Department of Transportation
US Department of Transportation to assist with the state
portion of the cost. Work began in June 2012, and the track is
being raised in two stages: 5 feet in 2012, and another 5 feet in
2013. Two bridges and their abutments are also being raised. When the
track raise is complete, the top-of-rail elevation will be
1,466 ft (446.84 m). This is 10 feet above the level at
which the lake will naturally overflow and will thus be a permanent
solution to the Devils Lake flooding. In the spring and summer of 2011
flooding of the Souris River near Minot,
North Dakota blocked the
route in the latter part of June and for most of July. For some of
that time the
Empire Builder (with a typical consist of only four
cars) ran from
Chicago and terminated in Minneapolis/St Paul; to the
Empire Builder did not run east of Havre, Montana. (Other
locations along the route also flooded, near Devils Lake, North Dakota
and areas further west along the Missouri River.)
Freight train interference
An oil boom from the Bakken formation, combined with a robust fall
2013 harvest, led to a spike in the number of crude oil and grain
trains using the BNSF tracks in
Montana and North Dakota. The
resulting congestion led to terrible delays for the Empire Builder,
with the train receiving a 44.5% on-time record for November 2013, the
worst rating on the
Amtrak network. In some cases, the delays resulted
in an imbalance of crew and equipment, forcing
Amtrak to cancel runs
of the Empire Builder. In May 2014, only 26% of Empire Builder
trains had arrived within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, and
delays averaged between 3 and 5 hours.
Due to the routine severe delays,
Amtrak changed the schedule for
stations west of
Minneapolis on April 15, 2014. Scheduled times for
westbound trains from
Minneapolis were made later, while eastbound,
the train departed Seattle/Portland approximately three hours earlier.
Operating hours for affected stations were also officially adjusted
Amtrak announcement also said that the BNSF Railway
was working on adding track capacity, and it was anticipated that
sometime in 2015 the
Empire Builder could be returned to its former
schedule. In January 2015, it was announced that the train would
resume its normal schedule.
In the cab of the Empire Builder, 1974. Photo by Charles O'Rear.
In 1970 the flooding of
Lake Koocanusa necessitated the realignment of
60 miles of track and the construction of
Flathead Tunnel forcing the
Empire Builder to drop service to Eureka, Montana. The Empire Builder
also served Troy,
Montana until February 15, 1973.
On October 1, 1979,
Amtrak moved the
Empire Builder to operate over
the North Coast Hiawatha's old route between
Minneapolis and Fargo,
North Dakota. With this alignment change, the
Empire Builder dropped
Willmar, Minnesota, Morris, Minnesota, and Breckenridge, Minnesota,
while adding St. Cloud, Minnesota, Staples, Minnesota, and Detroit
Another alignment change came on October 25, 1981, when the Seattle
section moved from the old
Northern Pacific (which had also become
part of the BN Railroad in 1970) to the
Burlington Northern Railroad's
line through the
Cascade Tunnel over Stevens Pass. This change
eliminated service to Yakima, Washington, Ellensburg, Washington, and
Auburn, Washington. This change also introduced the Portland
section, which returned service to the former Spokane, Portland and
Seattle Railroad line (which became part of BN in 1970) along the
Washington shore of the Columbia River. The route kept Pasco, but
added Wishram, Bingen-White Salmon, and Vancouver (all in Washington)
to the route. From Vancouver, the Builder followed the same route as
Coast Starlight and Cascades trains to Portland Union Station.
It is proposed that the
Empire Builder and
Hiawatha Service trains
would shift one stop north to North Glenview in Glenview, Illinois.
This move would eliminate stops which block traffic on Glenview Road.
Glenview station would have to be modified to handle
additional traffic, and the move depends on commitments from Glenview,
Illinois General Assembly and Metra. In Minnesota, the Builder
Saint Paul Union Depot
Saint Paul Union Depot on May 7, 2014, 43 years after it
last served the station the day before the start of Amtrak. Renovation
of the 1917 Beaux Arts terminal was undertaken in 2011, continuing
through 2013, resulting in a multi-mode terminal used by Jefferson Bus
Lines, Greyhound Bus lines, commuter bus and most recently light rail
to and from Minneapolis. The station replaced Midway Station which
opened in 1978 after the initial abandonment of Saint Paul Union Depot
in 1971 and the demolition of
Minneapolis Great Northern Depot in
July 4, 1963
A-B-B-A set of
EMD F7 diesel units
Railway Post Office #37
Storage-Mail Car #276
Flat top coach #1212
Dome coach #1330
Dome coach #1320
Ranch car #1241, Running Crane Lake (Coffee-shop dinette lounge)
Flat top coach #1224
Flat top coach #1221
Dome coach #1331
Sleeper #1376, Hart Pass (6-roomette, 5-double bedroom, 2-compartment)
Sleeper #1380, Suiattle Pass (ditto)
Diner #1251, Lake Wenatchee
"Great Dome" lounge #1394,
Prairie View (the only car in the consist
with six wheel trucks)
Sleeper #1260, Skykomish River (4-section, 7-duplex roomette, 3-double
Sleeper #1374, Park Creek Pass (6-roomette, 5-double bedroom,
Sleeper lounge #1192, Corral Coulee (6-roomette, 4-double bedroom, 1
The train along the
Columbia River circa 1947.
The train skirting Glacier National Park before the introduction of
Like all long-distance trains west of the Mississippi River, the
Empire Builder uses Amtrak's double-deck Superliner equipment. The
Empire Builder was the first train to be fully equipped with
Superliners, with the first run occurring on October 28, 1979. In
Summer, 2005 the train was "re-launched" with newly refurbished
Empire Builder consists of the following equipment (with the
assigned section west of Spokane shown in parentheses):
GE Genesis P42 Locomotives
Baggage car (Seattle)
Transitional Crew Sleeper (Seattle)
Sightseer Lounge/Café (Portland)
Chicago - St Paul) - This car is train number 807/808.
In Spokane, the westbound train is split: the locomotives, baggage
car, and first six passenger cars (including the diner) continue on to
Seattle, while a single locomotive from Spokane is used to take the
rearmost four cars (including the lounge/cafe) to Portland. Eastbound
the sections are combined in a reverse fashion.
To add capacity during peak travel periods, an additional coach is
added to the rear of the train between
Chicago and St. Paul. It is
St. Paul for the next day's return trip to pick up. This car
is designated train 807/808, while the cars in the Portland section
are designated train 27/28 and the Seattle section is designated train
7/8. This adds capacity during especially busy times in the year.
Car ownership on this train was by-and-large split between the Great
Northern and the
Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad
Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q),
though a couple of cars in the original consists were owned by the
Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway
Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway (SP&S). In this consist, one
of the 48-seat "chair" cars and one of the 4-section sleepers were
used for the connection to Portland, while the rest of the consist
connected to Seattle.
The Great Northern coaches eventually found their way into
state-subsidized commuter service for the Central Railroad of New
Jersey after the
Burlington Northern merger and remained until 1987
NJ Transit retired its last E8A locomotive. Some of these cars
remain in New Jersey. Some coaches were acquired from the Union
Pacific; these also went to New Jersey. One of the 28 seat
coach-dinette cars also remains in
New Jersey and is stored near
Interstate 78 wearing tattered
^ Compiled from Amtrak's annual ridership and revenue
Amtrak Ridership Rolls Up Best-Ever Records" (PDF). Amtrak. 13
October 2011. Retrieved 7 February 2012.
^ Hidy et al. 2004, p. 180
^ Hidy et al. 2004, p. 244
^ Hidy et al. 2004, p. 272
Empire Builder Timeline". Great Northern Timeline. Great Northern
Railway Historical Society. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
^ "Through Your Car Window - Westbound - On the Streamlined Empire
Builder, Western Star and other Great Northern Trains". Great Northern
Railway Page. Great Northern Railway. June 1953. Retrieved
Empire Builder Relaunch".
Amtrak Empire Builder.
trainweb.com. August 1, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-14.
^ "To See Why Amtrak's Losses Mount, Hop on the
Empire Builder Train".
msn.com. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
^ "Trails & Rails". National Park Service. Archived from the
original on 2010-02-09. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
^ "2016 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-11-06.
^ "2015 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2014 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2013 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2012 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2011 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2010 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
^ "2006-2009 ridership" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved
^ "2007-2008 Revenue" (PDF) (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-03-07.
North Coast Hiawatha
North Coast Hiawatha Passenger Rail Study" (PDF). Amtrak. October
16, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-02.
^ "Railroad Grade Raise Planning and Feasibility Study" (PDF). April
8, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
^ "Devils Lake Gauge at Creel Bay". Retrieved 2012-05-22.
^ "Devils Lake threatens Empire Builder". KFGO. April 23, 2010.
Retrieved 2010-04-30. [permanent dead link]
Amtrak Service To Continue". WDAZ. June 15, 2011. Archived from the
original on September 17, 2012. Retrieved 2012-05-22.
^ "ND Leaders Review Strategy to Raise DL Rail Line". February 15,
2012. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved
^ Bonham, Kevin. "Railroad raising underway in Devils Lake area".
Grand Forks Herald. Bakken Today. Archived from the original on 19
October 2015. Retrieved 14 January 2013.
^ Tate, Curtis (December 23, 2013). "Freight trains force repeated
delays on popular
Amtrak route". Seattle Times. Archived from the
original on 29 July 2014. Retrieved 31 August 2014.
^ McCartney, Scott (June 18, 2014). "
Amtrak Sees Delays Increase". The
Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
Empire Builder back on schedule". Great Falls Tribune.
January 13, 2015. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
^ Sanders 2006, pp. 163–172
Amtrak eyes moving Ill. station". Railway Track & Structures.
November 11, 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-08.
^ Black, Sam (December 10, 2009). "Mortenson team picked for $150M St.
Paul Union Depot transit hub".
St. Paul Business
Journal. Retrieved 16 December 2009.
^ Dubin, Arthur, D (1964). Some Classic Trains. Milwaukee: Kalmbach.
^ "Superliners Go Into Service On
Empire Builder Route".
6 (12): 1. November 1979.
Hidy, Ralph W.; et al. (2004) . The Great Northern Railway: A
Minnesota University Press.
ISBN 978-0-816-64429-2. OCLC 54885353.
Sanders, Craig (2006).
Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, Indiana:
Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34705-3.
Wayner, Robert J., ed. (1972). Car Names, Numbers and Consists. New
York: Wayner Publications. OCLC 8848690.
Yenne, Bill (2005). Great Northern Empire Builder. Great Passenger
Trains. MBI. ISBN 0-7603-1847-6. OCLC 57142776.
Morgan, David P. (2016). "The Clean-Window Train". In McGonigal,
Robert S. Great Trains West. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing.
pp. 96–107. ISBN 978-1-62700-435-0.
Welsh, Joe (December 2000). "The Empire Builder: Seven decades of
service". Trains. 60 (12): 72–80. ISSN 0041-0934.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Empire Builder.
Empire Builder travel guide from Wikivoyage
Amtrak — Empire Builder
Empire Builder 75th Anniversary page
Brochures and History of GN's Empire Builder
Information and photos of GN's
Empire Builder equipment
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