Passengers Wait Hours For Empire Builder, America’s Least Reliable Train

By Jessica Robinson

And now we’re going to take you on the worst train in America. And yes, it’s right here in the Northwest. We’re talking about the famed Empire Builder. It’s been around since the early 20th century and takes passengers from Seattle to vistas in Glacier National Park and the Rockies, all the way to Chicago. But the sudden rise in freight traffic in and out of North Dakota's oil fields has made the Empire Builder the country's most unreliable train.

Tracy McKee of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and her kids, 11-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Katie, wait out a five-hour delay at 3 a.m. in the Spokane train station. Photo by Jessica RobinsonIt's 2:45 in the morning at the Spokane train station. The janitor has just started vacuuming. And Tracy McKee is taking stock of how much food she has.

Tracy McKee: “We have three apples, three water bottles, a few crackers and a couple handfuls of nuts. I guess we'll start rationing out – three nuts every 15 minutes or something.”

McKee is in for a long night. She's here with her two kids, 11-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Katie. They were supposed to be boarding the overnight train to Portland, where McKee’s older daughter just had a baby. But the train’s delayed. By five hours. Tracy McKee: “At least, they don't know. They're guessing.”

The delay might not be so bad if other things hadn't gone wrong. On this particular night, Amtrak can't find a charter bus to take the passengers. And for some INEXPLICABLE reason the Amtrak text notifications McKee signed up for never went out.

Photo: Tracy McKee of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and her kids, 11-year-old Cole and 14-year-old Katie, wait out a five-hour delay at 3 a.m. in the Spokane train station. Photo by Jessica Robinson

McKee looks up the nearly deserted corridor. Spokane's train station is known for being – well, not the sort of place you want to take your kids in the middle of the night.

Tracy McKee: “There's a guy sleeping over there. Completely comfortable. I'm not. I'm not.”

Across the station, Joel Yallup fortifies himself behind his duffel bag. He tells me this place IS “hunting grounds” for drug dealers and muggers.

Joel Yallup: “You've seen the characters all running around here, all amped out and stuff.”

Yallup travels a lot to construction jobs. He opted for the train to Pasco tonight because he thought it would be faster and more comfortable than a Greyhound bus. He now sees he was wrong.

Joel Yallup: “Public transportation is just going to hell, you know.”

Marc Magliari: “Well I’ve been here 13 years.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Marc Magliari: “There was a time when you could set your clock, as they say, by the Empire Builder.”

Clearly, that time has passed. The Empire Builder's on-time performance rating is the worst in the country: 31 percent for the last year. In December, it dipped to 15 percent. Magliari says passengers have seen 8, 10, even 12 hour delays.

Marc Magliari: “This is extremely frustrating to them and to us. And frankly can hurt future business. You'll get people who'll say 'never again' after going through that and you and I can certainly understand why.”

Amtrak is in talks with BNSF, which actually owns the tracks AND decides which trains go and which trains wait. Some of the snags ARE TEMPORARY LIKE – weather and track closures. But the longer-term problem facing passengers is that the Empire Builder uses the very same set of tracks the booming oil industry needs to transport long, slow-moving freight cars – and that shows little sign of letting up.

The whistle of passing freight trains can be heard several times an hour in Charles Mutschler's office in the library of Eastern Washington University. Mutschler is the archivist here by day, but by night he's an avid train historian – He has a handlebar mustache and he CAN TELL YOU EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT TRAINS - PAST AND PRESENT.

Mutschler: “wonk”

At least once a year, Mutschler TAKES THE EMPIRE Builder. But he knows not everyone wants to go down to the station to catch a train that leaves at 2 in the morning ... and Mutschler worries the massive delays could make train travel even less appealing.

Mutschler: “I don't think it's a good thing. But I think there's a reality element to this.”

The reality being the primary function of trains. In the U.S. it’s not moving people, it's moving stuff. And before you get too nostalgic, Mutschler says even back in those sepia-toned days of train travel’s past, the big money was always in freight.

Charles Mutschler: “So from the business perspective of the railroad industry, they're all looking at what is going to pay them the most profit at the end of the day and passenger trains, alas, have never been in it.”

The National Association of Railroad Passengers has asked the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to step in to ensure BNSF gives Amtrak trains priority access the tracks. This is a priority Congress wrote into law back in the ‘70s when Amtrak was created.

In a written statement the BNSF says passengers ARE a top priority for the company and that it’s spending $900 million to, among other things, build a second track in western North Dakota. This should increase capacity.

It's now 7 a.m. at the Spokane Train Station. Sunlight floods in through the windows. Passengers with wheely bags now fill the waiting area where Tracy McKee and her kids spent the night.

Tracy McKee: “We're really tired, yep we're tired.”

They're all a little poorer too from emptying their change into the vending machines. At some point during the night, security escorted three transients out of the station. McKee says she managed to stay awake.

Tracy McKee: “We played 20 questions – we've exhausted all of the like car games. We've done them all, done them all.”

And there may be more car games in their future, only, in the car. Just before McKee and her family finally board their train, she says next time? She's probably driving.

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