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Amtrak’s Empire Builder Portland connection, mid 1990s

Amtrak’s Empire Builder Portland connection, 1981-mid 1990s

Fred Klein, 2010, 2016

Amtrak took over most of America’s passenger trains in 1971, and at first ran and gradually repainted the “heritage” cars inherited from individual railroads in variations of the phase I paint scheme (schemes have red, white and blue stripes on stainless steel or aluminum). To have a standard passenger fleet where cars on the western railroads could be interchanged among different trains, Amtrak ordered “superliner” cars, which were delivered beginning in 1979. The superliners emulated the success of the high level passenger cars of Santa Fe’s El Capitan introduced in 1956. The first superliners were delivered in the phase I paint scheme, but the phase III scheme pictured here appeared in the early 1980s and lasted into the 2000s. The phase IV scheme began appearing in the late 1990s, and different schemes were often mixed in trains. The phase III paint scheme on the model passenger cars is thus correct for c1980-c2000.


The Portland section of the Empire Builder leaves Portland Oregon, travels eastward on the BNSF (formerly Spokane, Portland and Seattle tracks) along the north side of the Columbia River, and meets the main section of the EB in Spokane. This Spokane joining of trains is similar to what the Empire Builder has been doing back to the 1940s or earlier. As the Portland section travels east for 381 miles, so does the main EB train go from to Seattle to Spokane, where the trains are switched together in the wee hours of the night while passengers sleep. The diner is typically in the Seattle section and the lounge is in the Portland section, but they make a complete train for the two day run from Spokane to Chicago. A box dinner is just fine for Portland passengers.


The locomotive on the model train and prototype train in the photo is an Electromotive F40PH. It became the standard power on Amtrak starting in 1976. The train as pictured in the photo in phase III paint is appropriate for the 1981-mid 1990s era. Phase III paint on the superliner cars became standard in the early 1980s, though the lounge car behind the locomotive is still in phase II paint.



Amtrak’s Portland section of the Empire Builder on the open grasslands of eastern Washington State. The locomotive is an EMD F40PH. Photo and article from “8 pikesize passenger trains”, Model Railroader’s passenger special. Photo by Ben Bachmann.


Amtrak superliner passenger cars are truly interchangeable between different trains, and the modeler needs to assemble the right number of cars of different types to make almost any train west of Chicago. The train modeled here is a relatively short one as published by Andy Sperandeo in Model Railroader’s passenger special article “8 pikesize passenger trains”. This is one of the smallest Amtrak superliner trains, and works on smaller layouts as the word pikesize implies. The model train matches the consist of the Portland section in the photograph, except for a different paint scheme on the lounge car. The train can be modeled with factory decorated cars right out of the box. The locomotive is from Kato, and all cars are from Kato, though Con cor makes superliner cars also.


Power, lounge car and coach


The lounge car has large picture windows, windows in the roof for viewing mountains and forests, and a mini-café in the lower level. It is followed by a standard coach.


Coach, sleeper and material handling car


The coach above has a passenger baggage compartment in the lower level. The sleeping car is an Amtrak standard with a family room, luggage storage, rest rooms and showers in the lower level. Material handling cars are added as needed, and positioning on the end of the train makes for easy removal at station stops, or when the train is switched in Spokane.





“Amtrak’s Superliners”, article in Model Railroader. November 1982.

Sperandeo, Andy. Passenger special article “8 pikesize passenger trains”, Model Railroader.