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Originally published September 10, 2012 at 10:48 AM | Page modified September 10, 2012 at 1:56 PM

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Seattle-Chicago train was zero percent on time in July

Amtrak's Empire Builder cross-country train has had epic lateness this summer.

Detroit Free Press

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EAST GLACIER PARK, Mont. — Someone needs to help Amtrak's Empire Builder. The train route has been suffering many years from Amtrak's budget woes — but this summer, train disruptions have been epic.

During July, the eastbound No. 8 train from Seattle to Chicago had a zero-percent on-time record and was usually late by at least three hours. The westbound No. 7 train had a dismal 16 percent on-time record.

"With Amtrak, you go by the calendar, not by the clock," says cross-country passenger Peg Bethany of Arlington, Va. "They always have a reason they are late, and some reasons are better than others."

The reason, mainly, is that the U.S. passenger rail system limps along on a wheel and a prayer. Although the Empire Builder is the nation's premier long-distance train with nearly 500,000 riders a year, it is forced to share poor tracks with 110-car freight trains for 2,000 miles across the country, plodding along at 50 miles an hour.

Last summer, North Dakota floods covered tracks near Devil's Lake and Minot, closing all service for weeks. This summer, it was a saga of heat-bent rails, brush fires, wrecks, cars on the track, you name it.

The line shut down both ways for nearly two days after a July 17 freight train derailment in North Dakota and 700 Empire Builder passengers had to be bused past the wreck, arriving 23 hours late to their destination. Empire Builder passengers may face continuing delays because of track work and extreme heat, Amtrak warned this month.

"Amtrak can't control heat, landslides, mudslides and derailments; you have to have patience," said Jackie Benrud of LaCrosse, Wis., as she waited at the East Glacier Park Station for the Empire Builder to arrive on July 27. It was 7 1/2 hours late. It had been halted by a grass fire outside Spokane. She was philosophical, knowing that Amtrak operates on its version of "island time" — it gets there when it gets there.

Forced to bear everything from cattle on the tracks to flash floods, the trip on the Empire Builder retains the low-level thrill that something could go wrong at any moment.

However, in a twisted way, the seat-of-the-pants uncertainty may attract a certain kind of traveler.

"I think people kind of enjoy the adventure," said a desk clerk at the Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier Park, who wondered why people tolerate such bad on-time record from Amtrak when they scream if their plane is 10 minutes late. The lodge, across from the tracks, is so used to the Empire Builder's erratic schedule that it holds guest room reservations no matter how late they are. It also will keep guest luggage all day or night if the departing train home doesn't show for hours.

Yet what some travelers see as kind of romantic, others take as a sign that one trip on the Empire Builder is enough. And what about our push to attract international tourists? Can you imagine putting 100 Chinese tourists aboard and expecting them to be happy about a seven-hour delay?

And remember, the Empire Builder serves not just tourists but is a lifeline to many along this northernmost ribbon of America, called the Hi-Line.

If only Amtrak had its own tracks. I heard people lamenting that over and over again.

That's not going to happen. But the oil industry that is drawing thousands of workers to two boom towns that are stops on the Empire Builder route — Williston and Stanley, N.D. — should contribute to the improvement of the tracks. The industry is benefiting from both Amtrak's passenger service and freight shipped along those busy and ailing rails.

BNSF Railway, which owns most of the tracks, also is raking in the dough from the boom.

The day I rode Empire Builder, at least 100 people, mostly men, boarded in Williston. The train had to stop for at least 20 minutes to accommodate the crowd.

One of them was Donna Rash, who moved to Williston from Oregon last November. She and her family are living in an RV, but like thousands of others who have swamped the town, she has a job. She takes the Empire Builder to get back home to visit family near Portland.

"It's better than flying," she said, as she sat back in a comfy seat and looked out at the blue-sky landscape of Montana streaming past from the observation car.

If any oil folks are listening, pick up the phone and offer to help Amtrak's Empire Builder, on behalf of your workers.

You can afford it.

Until then, all passengers should think by the calendar, not by the clock.

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