It's 2:33 p.m. on Saturday, and we just started rolling out of Chicago, 18 minutes late, on the Empire Builder. This train, the eponymous benefactor of the Great Northern railway's founder James Hill, has traveled between Chicago and the West Coast for the past 77 years. For much of its history, it simply was the link between the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the country.
By Monday morning, when the train arrives at the Pacific Ocean, I will have journeyed some 2,200 miles. Our route takes us from Chicago, through Milwaukee and Minneapolis, then to Fargo and places ever northward. We'll spend all of Sunday skimming along just below the Canadian border before turning slightly southwards into the Cascade mountains and down to the sea.
Although the Empire Builder originated with the Great Northern railway, it's no longer a product of it. The Great Northern ceased to exist in the early 1970s, merged into the Burlington Railroad to become the Burlington Northern and then, as railroad merger mania continued, into its present form, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), one of the last remaining Class I railroad powerhouses.
A powerhouse that long ago lost its taste for passenger travel. Amid steady losses that began in the 1940s, the United States' railroads began to shed their passenger service where they could. Where they couldn't, because of government requirements that they maintain service, they let their passenger service go into steep decline from malignant neglect.
The result was the famous collapse, in 1970, of the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads (which had, less than two years earlier, merged together in a kind of mutual suicide pact) — a collapse that took with it most of the other eastern railroads as well.
Government, a dollar or a billion short and a day or a decade late, stepped into the fray. In exchange for an equity position in a new passenger rail corporation, Amtrak, it offered to take the passenger rail business over from those bankrupt and on-their-way-there railroads.
Virtually all of them, the Great Northern included, took Uncle Sam up on his offer. The result was Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation with a handful of private shareholders (the BNSF corporation is one of the larger).
And it's Amtrak that today owns the train called the Empire Builder and who serves as my (somewhat) gracious host. More on that later.
Amtrak's train uses Amtrak's own cars, from a series called the Superliner, built in two batches — one the late 1970s and the second batch during the mid 1990s. Superliner cars, whether they're first-class sleepers, coach cars, diners or lounges all share a similar outward appearance, and that appearance is huge.
A Superliner is 16 feet tall and 85 feet long. Depending on the type of car (coach, sleeper, etc.) they each weigh between 60 and 80 tons apiece. To put that in perspective, each Superliner is nearly as long as a Boeing 737 airliner and more than twice as heavy.
Our train today consists of three Superliner sleepers, three Superliner coaches, a Superliner lounge car, a Superliner diner car and a Superliner dormitory car for the train's crew. In addition to those, we also have a baggage car and two locomotives.
In all, this train is over a thousand feet long and nearly one and a half million pounds. If every seat and sleeper were occupied, we'd have over 350 people aboard. As it is, we're about three fourths of that.
Pulling the Empire Builder are a pair of General Electric Genesis locomotives. Together they bring 8,000 horsepower to move us along. The locomotives also provide all of the rest of the train's electrical power, including the power to light, heat and cool each Superliner. One locomotive alone could provide enough electricity for a 160-home neighborhood.
Which is exactly what one did not too long ago. During Katrina, Amtrak hooked up a locomotive to the station in New Orleans, providing electric power for the station and its immediate surroundings.
We're moving along through the Wisconsin Dells now, doing about 80 mph. I'm sitting in coach, out of my sleeper room due to a somewhat severe infestation of mildew — which the train crew is trying to address (moving to a new room isn't an option, we're full).
This annoyance is par for the course — again, even the newest Superliner is old enough to drink.
And it's an annoyance against a railroad that constantly has to struggle for its funding, and thus its maintenance. Which is curious, given the dollars involved.
Yes, Amtrak loses money. Always has, always will. Since its inception three-and-a-half decades ago it's lost somewhere north of $30 billion total. Sounds like a lot, until you realize that the nation's airlines lost that amount in 2002.
In other words, they lost in one year what it's taken Amtrak over a generation.
All transportation is subsidized. Whether it's airline bailouts and a federal air traffic control system. Whether it's trucking and $100 billion in federal highway assistance every year. Or Amtrak and a billion or so per annum.
I gotta go back and see how my room smells.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.