A fix for always-late Empire Builder: A second train?

Not surprisingly, the Empire Builder eastbound Amtrak train to Chicago is pulling into Winona, Minn., at this hour about four hours and 30 minutes late. The one that’s due through here tomorrow is already around 90 minutes behind schedule.

What might be a solution to the misery? How about a second train each day?

In a news release today, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Amtrak claim that a second train between St. Paul and Chicago each day would add about 50,000 150,000 more passengers a year to the current 104,000 with one train.

They release details of a study that says to do so would require $95 million for the Chicago-to-St. Paul scenario, more if the route would include St. Cloud, Minn., and Minneapolis. If new train equipment is used, toss in another $46.4 million cost.

(Update 7/6/15 2:28 p.m. – Fabulous article from streets.mn on the scenarios in the study. Second Train to Chicago: Still Running Late)

The service would also require $6.6 million from the state each year to pay for the shortfall between ticket revenue and cost. Under federal law, Amtrak is limited to paying for only 15 percent of the operating cost.

The theory is that a second train would provide more reliability on a route that has absolutely none right now.

What are the odds that Minnesota lawmakers would pony up that kind of money?

Do the math. Fifty-five thousand additional passengers with a $6.6 million subsidy works out to $120 per passenger per year, or just about half the amount a passenger pays for a ticket.

Don’t get your hopes up, rail fans.
Archive: At Union Depot, a celebration of a failed transportation option

  • kevins

    I’ve only been on the Empire Builder once in my 62 years, that time heading to St. Louis via Chicago with my wife and infant son. Broke down in a slough in Wisconsin, couldn’t make connection in Chi-town so we were boarded overnight in a noisy hotel. We did make it to the wedding on time, but my souse will never again ride the rail, even if I tell her there might be a second choo-choo.

  • James
  • Gary F

    Greece is the word.

  • Sam

    I love train travel and grew up in the Northeast, where Amtrak is often a welcome alternative to driving or flying. That said, I doubt it’s worth trying to make long-distance train travel a viable concern in a metro area as remote as ours. One extra train to and from Chicago wouldn’t be enough to build a real rail network. You’d need connections to St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Winnipeg, and all points in between. And as much as the idea of that excites me, Bob’s right. Not gonna happen in today’s world.

  • MrE85

    I knew this would catch Bob’s attention. I just knew it.

  • boB from WA

    The problem is and has been for the last few years, the amount of freight traffic that is getting in the way of the Empire Builder west of the Twin Cities (which BNSF does little to help expedite the passengers) . Another train between ORD and MSP won’t change that fact. What it will do is maybe add some reliability and options for travel between the two cities. However, Amtrak will also be competing against the likes of Megabus as well as the individual auto. To that end I’m not sure that a 2nd train could be viable. (this does leave out the part about how each of our transportation options are or are not subsidized).

  • Mike Hicks

    I’m not sure why you have to lock onto the highest subsidy number. Your math also appears to be wrong. Dividing $6.6 million by 117,800 riders gives me $56, not $120. That’s “Scenario 4A”. I believe the best option is “Scenario 3B”, which would extend the train to Minneapolis and depart at a somewhat different time of day to grab the largest share of passengers possible. That one pulls in 177,600 annual passengers with an annual subsidy of $4.5 million, or $25 per passenger. In that scenario, the total operating expense (including passenger revenue) works out to $73 per passenger, which is cheaper than any airline on the route that I’m aware of.

    • 50,000.is the additional ridership. Use that in the calculation of the additional subsidy.I believe you’re calculating total ridership and additional subsidy.

      As I read it, the $6.6 million would be required for the additional service, not the current one. But they didn’t give me the full report/study. I have to go off the wording of the news release.

      Either way, the state isn’t going to put a dime into this method of solving the problem of trains not arriving on time.

      My guess is once one train a day can arrive on time, politicians — local politicians, that is — will consider their role in providing a second one.

      • Mike Hicks

        The news release says “Annual ridership on the additional daily train … is estimated at
        about 155,000 passengers. This is an increase over the current Empire Builder ridership of approximately 104,000 between St. Paul and Chicago…”

        I have to interpret “on the additional train” to mean that the new round-trip by itself would get all those passengers. I’m very disappointed that the study isn’t more clear about this, though. The study is pretty poor for taking over three years to complete.

        • Yep, you’re right. I misread the release and saw 55k. Have corrected.

          But, yeah, it’s a bad sign when they pump it out the afternoon before a holiday.

          It’s interesting to me that the second train is described as a “mid day departure.” Isn’t that basically what the one train now is?

          Today’s eastbound is 3 hours late. Should leave a little after 11 a.m.

      • Alex Bauman

        Good to know how the sausage is made: company sends MPR a news release, MPR reprints it. How much state subsidy per factual error does MPR get?

        • Send me your address and I”ll send your 3 cents back.

  • Alex Bauman

    Wow, congrats to Bob Collins on single-handedly dragging down MPR’s reputation for journalism. Awful lot of strikethrough in this short little article. Bob, when you get down from your high horse, you may want to research the reason for the Empire Builder’s extreme tardiness — very poor rail conditions and very high traffic in the Dakotas (let’s not get into why that would be, might be a little too much actual information for you to deal with at once). So let’s say it together, “A train between MSP and Chicago would not be subject to North Dakota’s delays because… it doesn’t go through North Dakota.” Amtrak, the Empire Builder, and a second daily train between the midwest’s two largest economies deserve a fairer shake than this uninformed hack job of an article.

    • Oil trains don’t stop running at the North Dakota border. In fact, 10% of the delays on the Empire Builder is on Canadian Pacific track. Amtrak runs on BN track in ND. It runs on CP tracks in Wisconsin.

      Where do the oil trains go? Refineries. Perhaps like the big one in Chicago.

      Moreover, what would be the point of adding, say, a 1pm train to Chicago when for all practical purposes, the 8 am training to Chicago is already the 1pm train to Chicago?

      As for researching the reason for the Empire Builder lateness, what we’ve already written about it many times.


      Amtrak doesn’t get priority anywhere between here and Chicago. Freight does.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        If I was the one making the schedule the second train would leave for Chicago just after the regular west bound train left St Paul headed for St. Cloud. This would get people to Chicago early enough to catch the westbound trains that leave in the early afternoon. You then turn that train around and send it back. Basically leaving Chicago at the time the train is scheduled to leave St. Paul. It doesn’t help with the turn around connections, but it would provide a morning train and afternoon train out of Chicago to St Paul.

        • The westbound train leaves STP at 10:10 p.m. Although, it’s interesting that Amtrak lists its departure as 10:10 p.m. – 12:30 a.m.

          • Jack Ungerleider

            My thinking is that the scheduled departure of an overnight train to Chicago would be 11:00 PM. That would get it into Union Station around 7AM (if on time). That would provide plenty of time to make the late morning westbound departures.

      • Alex Bauman

        Well, yes and no. Oil trains go to refineries, but there are far more refineries on the Gulf Coast than there are in Chicago, so a big chunk of oil trains turn south and go through western MN rather than along the Empire Builder’s route. How many? There isn’t a lot of good information on that, and it fluctuates a lot. Lately it seems that traffic to the East Coast has spiked, causing delays on the Lakeshore Limited.

        But a bigger factor for Empire Builder delays than sheer traffic is track conditions, which are far worse in ND for the simple fact that there wasn’t as much of a market for rail there prior to the Bakken boom than there was in MN and points east. BNSF has been working on this, but that causes problems for the Empire Builder also, as repairs often require detours or track closures.

        As for the 10% of delays on CP track, do the math. For the 5 hour typical delay you mention, that works out to be a half hour delay. In other words, insignificant.

        But adding a 1pm train that starts in or near the Twin Cities is huge, because it means you can count on it to leave at that time. Realistically, you can’t buy a ticket for the 8am train and just assume it’s going to leave at 1pm.

        You’re right that the freight priority is a huge deal, and hopefully you were following the recent Supreme Court case that turned out favorably for Amtrak. That, along with declines in Bakken production, are good news for Amtrak. But if you think a little bit harder about it, you’ll realize how much of a boon a 2nd daily train would be for Twin Cities travelers.

  • Gary F

    That’s a lot of new riders. I bet all those new riders are also playing video lottery to support the stadium too.