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Empire Builder

Next summer (late May, early June), my lady and I will be hopping a train from New Orleans to Seattle for our anniversary cruise. I'm familiar with routes east of the Mississippi, but I know next to nothing about the western routes.

We'll be taking the City of New Orleans overnight to Chicago, then transferring to the Empire Builder to Seattle. Since one of my major pet peeves is people who book their trains to scoot in minutes before their flight for Europe/Africa/the North Pole is supposed to leave then spend the entire trip complaining (loudly) and hyperventilating that they won't make it, I would like to avoid that issue. I'm trying to pad our schedule a little bit to allow for delays. We would much rather spend three extra nights in Seattle than miss our cruise. (Plus, hostels are cheap and fun.)

We need to be in Seattle by 11:59p on Saturday, June 4, 2011. That is the very latest I'm comfortable arriving to make it onto our cruise. Knowing I'd rather have overlap, how many extra days should I build in? How late does the Empire Builder typically run? I've heard varying horror stories about the western trains...anything from 12 hours to 5 days. (Most of these horror stories come from Chicago Union Station; every time I travel through there, another one of the westbound trains has a HUGE delay and everyone is being re-routed.)


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 2nd, 2010 05:49 am (UTC)
You might go over to


And post there. You'll likely get a better response
Sep. 2nd, 2010 06:23 am (UTC)
One important thing about the Empire Builder - Amtrak shares most of the tracks with BNSF, and BNSF has priority on access for their freight. I have taken the route many times, and while I have not been *terribly* late, I have arrived many hours over schedule.

The Empire Builder usually runs 48-52 hours, and if it's on time, I remember it coming into Seattle around 6-7 pm. (However, that was a few years ago, the schedule may have changed.) I'd budget in 3 days at least, possibly 4, and if you have extra time? You can visit Seattle!
Sep. 2nd, 2010 01:40 pm (UTC)
Heh. Your run to Milwaukee a few years ago on the thing was the latest I've EVER heard of that run being that didn't involve an actual wreck. And that was ... 30 hours or so? That one where the driver to take out your train blew a red signal on the way in and got suspended as soon as he arrived at the station, and they couldn't get a backup crew for a while...

But to answer the OP, the trick with multi-train journeys is twofold:

Part one is that trains that schedules sag in the middle. A lot. A train that's six hours late in Minot ND could pull in to Seattle on-time or early. The cynical would see that on-time performance is measured at the endpoints of the run, and the beatific see that the middle points are where the fewest connections are made, and someone running 30 minutes late to get to the Minot station to meet the train would be MUCH happier if the train were 45 minutes late than were it on time. So Do Not Panic. Let the guys catching planes freak out. Mostly ships depart in the late afternoon and evening. Mostly long-haul trains (are scheduled to) arrive in the morning. Empire Builder is suppose to roll in at about 10:30 AM, so on a typical run, you could wait around for your bags and *walk* to the port from the train station, and *still* arrive before the ship's actually boarding passengers.

Part the second is that where your biggest being late risk is actually in Chicago. While there's a five-hour gap between the scheduled arrival in Chicago on City of New Orleans and departure of the Empire Builder, in practical terms, it takes about 60-90 minutes to reliably get bags transferred from one train to the other (and there's a 30 minute "before SCHEDULED departure" cutoff which still applies even if the departing train hasn't arrived yet), and YOU are wanted to be ready to board roughly an hour before departure time as well. Which means CoNO being more than about three hours late is nail-chewing time. Now, that doesn't happen *often* but if it does, you're going to be booking flights from Chicago Midway to Seattle instead of riding the train. The nice thing is that you've got two days to get there and still not miss your ship. If you really want your train trip, you'll put an overnight in Chicago and go wander through the Field Museum and the Shedd for a day. That'll give CoNO more hours of late to soak up (if it pulls in at 3PM, still not a problem for you). Similar with Seattle: if you want to protect against anything short of a wreck, you'll put one overnight in Seattle and (if the train is on time or close to it) you'll spend a day playing tourist on the Space Needle and wandering Pike Place Market.
Sep. 2nd, 2010 05:22 pm (UTC)
How often do you take the City of New Orleans? Because your information about that route doesn't match mine. I've been riding that route for 11 years now; and barring accidents and blizzards, that train has never run more than an hour late into Chicago.

Amtrak will also hold trains for sleeping car passengers if the overlap is under 2 hours. I've seen it done many times. If the City of New Orleans is late (which I doubt will happen in May or June), the Empire Builder will be held because Amtrak doesn't want to bump a sleeping car passenger. There's too much pain associated with that transaction so they do (literally) everything in their power to avoid it. I've seen people pulled off trains--at Amtrak's request--to make connections that were on sleepers.
Sep. 2nd, 2010 01:26 pm (UTC)
I've only taken the Empire Builder going east (Portland > Chicago) and if I recall correctly it arrived on time. That said, the next day I took the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Austin and it left Union Station 2-3 hours late (although we actually arrived in Austin early).

I agree with bork, give yourself four days and then maybe you'll have a day in Seattle. Worse things have happened lol
Sep. 2nd, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
Oh no! The horrrrrror! Seattle! Having fun! Enjoying ourselves in a city chock full of awesome things to do among awesome people!

Sep. 2nd, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
late trains?
My wife and I have taken the Empire Builder a few times between Seattle and Whitefish(Montana). Only once has it been late, by a couple of hours. Other than that, it's been reliable, for us anyway.
Sep. 2nd, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
Re: late trains?
Long haul timing is very different from short hops, but I appreciate your input. Thank you.
Sep. 2nd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
When I took the Empire Builder from Milwaukee to Portland, I actually got in about four hours early. When the train split in Spokane, though, they ran out of engines (due to a derailment a week or so prior), and I got stuck on a bus for the last leg of the trip.

Enjoy your trip! I need to plan a train trip again soon.
Sep. 3rd, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)
Sep. 5th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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