Trip Report on the Southwest Chief and the Empire Builder
Commentary by Andrew C. Selden, MinnARP, Minneapolis
Recently I rode Los Angeles-Chicago on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief #4 over a weekend and it was jammed the entire way. There were two sleepers and just two coaches, which the crew—conductor and service crew alike—reported was a standard seasonal move only rarely supplanted with a single-trip appearance of a third coach. Thanks to there being only two coaches, there was only one coach attendant, who spent part of her day barking at passengers in the lounge car to pick up after themselves and throw all their trash away, evidently so that she wouldn’t have to pick up any of it, as she unilaterally closed the lounge car and evicted all the paying passengers at Mendota, 90 minutes out from Chicago; not just closing the service bar—the lounge guy did that—but closing the CAR. Amtrak has clearly lost control of the service environment on board their own trains.
The Southwest Chief diner was operated by a crew of four—two chefs and two waitresses, who worked their tails off to feed everyone, fortunately for the passengers who had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of riding. That is not an exaggeration—the last bedrooms sold for the astonishing price of $1,478 on top of the rail fare, and roomettes were offered at an equally astonishing $661. And still #4 was full—literally every coach seat occupied for substantial parts of the trip, and the sleepers almost completely occupied. Amtrak, one suspects, chose not to operate a third sleeper or a third coach in order to avoid the costs associated with the incremental car attendants, an extra waiter, and the wheelage costs. Yet THIS is where the money is to be made in this business.
The Southwest Chief often misconnects even with the Kansas City-St. Louis train, and connections to St. Louis are not referenced in the timetable. We saw the Denver bus waiting at Raton. On several occasions, we saw BNSF dispatchers using their best efforts to expedite movement of the Southwest Chief, even at the cost of halting their own (numerous) doublestack trains. The best example was at Dalies Junction, west of Belen, NM, where the “new” Transcon diverges towards Belen and the old main heads northeast to Albuquerque. As our No. 4 approached on the southerly track at full track speed, we saw three eastbound stack trains stopped more or less on each other’s markers on the northerly track so we could cross over in front of them to the line to ABQ. At the junction, we saw two westbounds also stopped, waiting for us to pass. BNSF obviously cares about meeting their obligation to keep the passenger trains moving. By the end of the trip, we arrived at Chicago 25 minutes early, which says more about the timetable than it does Amtrak’s train operations.
So, here’s my question-of-the-day: Why does the official Amtrak timecard for the Southwest Chief show every bus that comes near the route, and even the New Mexico RailRunner, but offers no mention, hint, or clue that one can connect at KC to and from the Missouri River Runner service to St. Louis, and it’s even a legal connection both ways as far as I can tell? And, for extra credit, why does the bus to Denver connect at Raton instead of Trinidad?
The Empire Builder is not what it was even four years ago. Crews have been downsized even more, especially the practice of short-turning one diner waiter from train #8 to #7 in Wisconsin (with 8 always late, it goes short a waiter during lunch on its last day into Chicago, and 7 is short a waiter during dinner coming west out of Milwaukee). The use of a summer-season “upstairs guy” in the lounge car Chicago-Whitefish was discontinued. That position didn’t do enough sales to be worth the cost, and they never figured out how to have the upstairs attendant spell the downstairs one for breaks to keep the car always open due to cash-handling responsibilities. The dedicated assignment of the newest cars to Route 25 is now only a theory, not a practice. Food quality is inconsistent. Seattle-based crews are still the norm, but quality still varies noticeably. And timekeeping is really bad not always Amtrak’s fault, of course, with track issues in North Dakota, and the occasional BNSF wreck in single-track, no-detour route, territory. So, is the Empire Builder worth the premium fare? Just barely, and not anywhere as much as it was a few years ago.
On the plus side: the mid-day sleeper passenger wine-tasting during the middle day in Montana is a huge success. Everyone loves that, even the sleeper attendants who staff it. The new business at Williston and Stanley, ND is a mixed blessing, as these are mostly oilfield roughnecks who fill otherwise empty coach seats, but have caused management issues for the crews as they are not always the best-behaved passengers on the train. And, the Empire Builder has NO additional capacity in sleepers where the money is to be made, and have had only the seasonal Chicago-Minneapolis local coach, train #807/808, which is quite helpful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough west to help with the new crowding in North Dakota.