A romantic depiction of a flawed train

Amtrak couldn’t have hoped for a more sanitized depiction of riding the beleaguered Empire Builder than what they got this morning from CBS News as a result of its invitation to give a free ride to two dozen writers in exchange for their prose.

The network today profiled novelist Bill Willingham, Amtrak’s first writer in its writer-in-residence program, who rode from Red Wing to Seattle (and back, we think). The piece, and Willingham’s blog, never mentioned the long delays and time spent going nowhere in its romantic depiction of the train.

The scourge of oil trains? Not a peep.

Willingham did a nice job of depicting the things that are nice about traveling by train, but he ignored the system’s failures, something he could’ve mentioned by talking to the regulars about the Empire Builder or first-timers who aren’t used to sitting in a terminal for seven hours waiting for a train to arrive.

At least by my limited experience: If you reveal to other passengers that you’re one of the Amtrak Writers they will be fascinated enough by the program to grill you on it for the entire meal in the dining car (for instance). You won’t have a moment to ask them anything. This frustrated the writer part of me, who always wants to ask the questions, in hope of getting inside information on interesting professions, or locations, or anything else that might work it’s way into a story someday. I want to do what I can to promote the program, which I think is a fine one, but also have that need to be the one prying into Bill Willingham Power Cordother lives. It’s a dilemma.

Willingham doesn’t pretend to be a journalist. His intent was to get inspiration for his fictional work. And Willingham indicates on his blog post that he wants the writers program to continue and promote Amtrak.

After he got to Seattle, writing a daily blog along the way even though his primary mission was to work on a novel, Willingham turned around and headed back east.

He says he wrote posts along the way, but Amtrak stopped posting them. He said in a Twitter message today that there might have been “too much oddness and whimsy” in his day-seven report that we never got to see. Now there’s a good train mystery!

Amtrak has not yet responded to a request for an explanation.

[Update 11:08 a.m. – Amtrak says it was an oversight and has now published Willingham’s work]

Today, for the record, the eastbound Empire Builder is five hours late. The westbound train is three hours behind schedule. Yesterday’s westbound train is six hours overdue.

Related: Amtrak’s largest, most effective, and least subsidized services, the long distance trains and how to save them (RailPAC).

  • Robert Moffitt

    So your gripe is with CBS, not with Willingham. Looks like Amtrak scored a real PR coup there. Their evil plan seems to be working.

    • Willingham writes stuff of a fictional nature. The description of riding an Amtrak train through MN and ND seems consistent.

      CBS “News”, on the other hand, has no excuse.

  • johnepeacock

    So, does Amtrak own the tracks that they operate the Empire Builder on? Mostly curious, since I cannot seem to find an answer. If not, what options do they have to keep tighter schedules?

    • Other than the NE corridor, I believe the rail barons still own the tracks, another fact that makes the Obama vision for rail travel a bit of a fantasy. In recent years, the way they’ve kept tighter schedules is to change the schedules.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      Bob is absolutely correct. Most of the track in Minnesota is owned either by CP Rail or BNSF. The trouble spots in North Dakota and Montana are BNSF tracks. BNSF is adding sidings and double tracking to try to improve the throughput of trains in the corridor. The good thing for passengers on Amtrak is that its not only people getting stuck behind the oil trains, its other commodities that BNSF normally transports over those tracks.

      For what its worth BNSF used to be one of the better host railroads. In good weather the Empire Builder made good time. In the middle of the winter there were issues when snow would hit the area. Other hosts (Norfolk Southern comes to mind) were much worse. I take the train to New York and it often would lose time in northern Ohio (Toledo to Cleveland portion of the route) and it was often because NS had trains in the way and the Amtrak, if it was moving, was doing 30mph instead of 75mph in those stretches. One time I was on a west bound train coming into Chicago. We left South Bend, Indiana about 5 minutes behind schedule. (The last stop before Chicago.) We got stuck in a Norfolk Southern yard near Gary, and ended up getting in an hour and half late. The yard controllers failed to leave a track open for trains passing through. This was in part due to stalled engines on the various tracks in the yard. But it also seemed to be a common occurrence on tracks controlled by a company that did take its partnership with the passenger rail service seriously.

      Bob: the goal of improved passenger service can be achieved if the service agreements with host rail services can be written to give the relatively short passenger trains priority. I think a fully loaded Empire Builder is probably 15-20 cars. Most of the freights are at least 3 times that. Right now the rules are “if you’re late you wait” it doesn’t matter what type of train it is. As a result a little behind can become a lot behind over the long haul of cross country trains.

    • jon

      BNSF owns the lines between here and Seattle.
      They are required by law to grant Amtrak access to the tracks when requested.
      Amtrak Pays a nominal fee for use of the tracks.

      Amtrak has priority over freight traffic only for a specified and small window of time. When a passenger train misses that window, for example due to an earlier delay, host railroads may (and frequently do) direct passenger trains to follow slower freight traffic. This means that even minor delays quickly become major delays. In some cases, an unauthorized delay caused by a freight railroad might expose the host railroad to financial penalties by law.”


  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I could get swept away in the romance of a train ride across the country but not with the delays.

    • malachite2

      It is hard to feel the “romance” of any form of transport, say, like flying in commercial aircraft, where the airlines are free to let a plane sit on the ground for 3 hours w/out any kind of penalty or having to return to the airport to allow passengers to deboard briefly.

      Sitting in traffic on a freeway/highway/etc. kinda kills the romance of driving/traveling in a personal motor vehicle and many people have had to add 30-45 minutes (each way) to a commute they’ve done for 10 years because of increased traffic, etc.

      People who ride the NYC subways have seen fares increase and the system once again needs renovation (new cars, etc.). But, at least as October, 2014, it still seems like a good form of transport to me, if noisy.

      All that says is that the US infrastructure’s pretty poor but it’s not like that’s a secret. For sure Amtrak is not the only form of transportation that’s seeing lengthy delays.

  • Bee Ben

    Willingham and CBS appear as shills for Amtrak. The whole Amtrak “writers’ program” was a recruitment for shills.

    • The most newsy takeaway from the piece was that Charlie Rose has no idea how to pronounce Kankakee.

      • jon

        I moved to MN from south side of Chicago land in my teens.

        Kankakee isn’t a city that comes up often in conversations, but at my first job I heard some one trying to read it off over the phone to a location in Chicago heights… I was like listening to a train wreck…

        Of course, in attempting to pronounce Shakopee when moving up here I’m sure the same could have been said about me.

        Des Plaines and Des Moines have since taught me to never try to pronounce a place name until a local says it first.

    • kevinfromminneapolis

      I could be really good.

    • nickl_99

      According to the use of the word shill, you are are well known freelance shill for the Tea Party.