Facebook Page
75th Anniversary Empire Builder Page 2

Amtrak Empire Builder 75th Anniversary

Chicago Illinois to Seattle Washington

June 11 to June 13, 2004

By Richard Elgenson, RailNews Network

After I stowed my larger bag on the lower level of the dorm car, I headed to check out the dome car.  Again, I bumped into Mr. Gunn and he said “let me show you something.”  I followed him into one of the older sleeper cars where he pointed out how it was different from the newer rebuilt sleeper cars.  The old ones have carpeted walls while the rebuilt ones have a smooth light colored surface like Formica.  The deluxe sleepers are receiving newer improved water closet facilities.  Five or six years ago, the Amtrak railroad shops were almost shut down doing only essential maintenance such as rebuilding trucks.  News of Amtrak finally beginning to return damaged cars to service was announced in 2003.  I recall reading this last year that Mr. Gunn had declared that the wrecked and out of service cars were to be rebuilt and put back into service.  Amtrak has a fleet of 1500 cars of which 700 or so are stainless steel single level Metroliner type.  More cars put back onto the rails and into service will drastically improve the inventory of seats and improve service. The plan is to rebuild 200 cars in 2004.  As far as timing, once they are up to speed one previously wrecked car will be placed into service per week.  Other improvements to the physical plant (track) include having replaced 60 miles of rail of which 45 miles were done in spring 2004 on the racetrack line.  Other maintenance projects include replacing 35,000 wooden and 180,000 concrete ties and improving drainage.  Concrete ties are to be placed into the track structure from Philadelphia to Wilmington which will allow for faster train speed.  The board of directors has just approved a contract to purchase 80 new autorack cars for the Auto Train which runs from Lorton, Virginia (outside Washington D.C.) to Sanford, Florida near Orlando.

The Amtrak staff and invited guests had the run of the train plus access to the ex-Great Northern Great Dome car "Ocean View", Amtrak #10031, and the Beech Grove car, Amtrak #10001.  Soon after departure, most invited guests migrated to the living room end of Beech Grove to chat business with Mr. Gunn.  This continued for almost an hour rolling towards Milwaukee, the first celebratory event after departure from Chicago.  The landscape the Empire Builder traverses became somewhat rural almost immediately outside of Chicago.  I noticed a lot of standing water in fields as the midwest had gotten large amounts of rain in late May and early June. 


Amtrak has diesel multiple units (DMU) on their wish list to run on the inland route from New Haven, Connecticut to Springfield New Hampshire.  A DMU is a self-propelled train without locomotives.  Diesel motors  power traction motors on the axles move it.  Amtrak is interested in the Colorado Railcar Manufacturing Company  DMU’s which toured the country in 2003.  The advantage of a DMU is that it is a self contained piece of equipment that is revenue producing, versus a locomotive which is not.  A set of DMU cars is completely revenue producing assuming passengers utilize it.

Mr. Gunn briefly discussed Amtrak’s Board of Directors.  Amtrak’s Board usually meets about once a month.  At present there are only three members serving on the Amtrak Board, including the Secretary of Transportation.  There are four vacancies as a result of previous members Board terms expiring.  The Bush Administration has nominated individuals to fill each of those four vacant seats.  While Mr. Gunn has met most of the nominees, the Senate has not yet confirmed any of those nominees.  He stressed how important it is that the new board members have some knowledge of the railroad.

There was some discussion by Mr. Gunn regarding converting certain pieces of Acela passenger equipment to produce more revenue by removing tables and installing seats.  Also, Acela may lose a locomotive on its trainsets as they can run with one.  The Harrisburg line will be upgraded to attain 110 mph and 5 or 6 round trips.


If you can believe it more cake was brought onto the train.  What was not finished by the private section, therefore another whole cake, was taken to the public portion of the train.  I assume it was given away.  The decorative icing on the cake says "Happy Birthday Empire Builder".

About 50 minutes into the trip, we were encouraged to return to the Ocean View  #10031 Great Dome car to attend a brief lecture which featured author Joe Welsh who did a brief introduction of the Empire Builder train.  The Amtrak press kit included a reprint from Trains Magazine written by Joe Welsh from 1998.  Mr. Welsh in turn introduced Craig Thorpe who happens to know much history of the Empire Builder and produced the poster commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Empire Builder train.  Mr. Thorpe mentioned how important the Empire Builder is an alternate to the automobile on asphalt.  Mr. Thorpe is trying to "change the way we think about trains."  He feels that art has the power to inspire people.  The railroads in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s had the interest in developing these remote locations such as the Rocky Mountains and in fact helped with the young National Park System.  They had a vested interest in helping make certain locations into National Parks such as Glacier National Park.  The artwork, such as posters helped motivate people to visit the parks in the past and present.

At Milwaukee, some of the guests including me could not find the press conference.  Oh, well, there were more stops with more dog and pony shows later this day and Saturday.


After the above brief presentation, I introduced myself to June Tarpley, Senior Executive Assistant to Amtrak President Gunn.  Ms. Tarpley has had a career mostly in the railroad industry including the Southern Railway.  When the Norfolk and Western Southern Railway merger happened, she chose to stay in Washington D.C. and moved on to General Telephone and then back into the railroad industry with Amtrak.  She feels that the railroad industry is family oriented.  Good things happen to good people and eventually Ms. Tarpley was asked to be an executive assistant to a previous Amtrak president.  When Mr. Gunn took the reins (throttle) of Amtrak, several assistants including June were asked to continue working in the president’s office.  A prior chief executive had run the office top heavy with managers and Mr. Gunn reduced the office from twenty persons to just three.  They would be Mr. Gunn and two executive assistants.  In essence, the layers were peeled off to an essential three people. The reduced number of people lowers the chance for arguments between them.  The previous administration was controversial and embattled and now that the rhetoric has subsided, the personnel work together amicably on making the railroad work.  Mr. Gunn is an early morning type person and precedes everyone into the office and even makes the coffee!  The executive assistants show up later and stay later.

Amtrak had set up buss bins on tables in Ocean View that were stocked full of soft drinks, bottled water, bagged snacks of pretzels, nuts, chips, and candy.  Nearby was a table with tea and coffee.  A refigerator with sliding glass doors contained packaged sandwiches, self contained salads, fruit cups, and yogurt cups.  The counter was manned by "Curly" who was more than happy to serve up selections which could be microwaved.  After the Milwaukee stop, I succombed to the offer of a bratwurst and took it upstairs to consume.  After a few bites, some dignitaries walked by me and one person, who happened to be the Governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, quipped "enjoying a bratwurst are you?" which I was.  I have gotten into the habit of barbequing bratwurst at home, so maybe I am an honorary citizen of Wisconsin. 

A continual cycle of dignitaries boarding and exiting the train began.  Some rode the train then caught a ride back home and others backtracked to a station, boarded the train and disembarked at their home station.


The Mayor of La Crosse Wisconsin, John Medinger,  wearing a top hat with the ace of spades tucked in to the outer band, gave Mr. Gunn a proclamation declaring June 11 Empire Builder day in La Crosse.  Also here, a newsman briefly interviewed Mr. Gunn.  We reboarded the train and enjoyed the scenery until the next stop.  Late in the afternoon, train met the Mississippi River and paralleled it for quite a few miles.  Just before exiting Wisconsin, an Amtrak employee who boarded told me to expect some rain.  Within five minutes, we were in a thunderstorm with lots of lightning.  Just as quickly, we passed the storm.


Further up the line, along the Mississippi River in Minnesota, between Winona and Red Wing, nature treated the 75th Anniversary Empire Builder passengers to a spectacular sunset.  Red Wing is home of the famous boot maker.  I have several pair.  One set is going to make its first trip to Alaska soon!


Amongst the Empire Builder staff that I had contact with included Mitch Ginsberg on the Chicago to Minneapolis stretch who was concerned with an extra board conductor doing the work properly.  He was funny saying that I looked familiar to which I replied “never been here before.”  While walking through the train, I passed another on board service member Tim Noel of the Portland section who noticed my TrainWeb golf shirt and asked me if I knew Steve Grande, one of the principals of the TrainWeb internet site.  He said he had met Steve through some historical organization, possibly WashARP.

At another point the first day, I joined a tour of the sleeping car refurbishment project where Mr. Gunn was with Mark Ramsay and Michael McNamara of Canadian Pacific Railway.  He led us through 3 or 4 cars commenting about the refurbishment and rebuild projects.  Mr. Gunn led us to the dining car, showing off the menus which have five cycles with differences between them.  Paul Albers, the dining car manager, explained the same thing to me when I visited him.  Mr. Gunn even took us to the downstairs galley and said hello to the chef staff.

The next major station stop was the Twin Cities of Minneapolis Saint Paul.  Just before pulling into the station, Marc Magliari, Manager of Media Relations in Chicago, ie Amtrak spokesperson, pointed out a building which was now used as a post office. Chatting with another person, they decided that this building has been a train station in its past.  The St. Paul  stop was long enough to at least exit the train for 15 minutes to make a few phone calls.  Since I represent a friend in Alaska, we discussed the souvenir situation.  Amtrak handed out 75th Anniversary Empire Builder buttons and invitations to the kickoff receptions. Everyone who boarded the train, public and private, received a goodie bag with a button, a Trains Magazine reprint about the Empire Builder and a nice coffee mug.  While exiting the station, I noticed a table staffed by two members of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society table who were handing out different buttons and selling gray Empire Builder tee shirts for 12 dollars. I picked up one for Steve and one for myself.  I can't wait to wear my shirt on the Alaska Railroad in late June and early July! The skyline of Miinneapolis St. Paul was beautiful.  Take that Peter Himmelman!



The new passengers boarded the train and we were on the road again just after 11 pm.  This stop ended the first days festivities and marked my first night aboard any train with sleeping car accomodations.  The Empire Builder also switched from Canadian Pacific Railway tracks to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway lines.  I had noticed some traffic on CPR, but BNSF was quite busy and we met a few trains before I fell into a restless sleep.  For the record, I just do not sleep well on airplanes, trains or even my sailboat at its slip.  The  engineers did a great job starting and stopping the train, but I seemed to wake up every time we started.  I recall pulling into St. Cloud or Detroit Lakes and seeing people in heavy coats returning to their automobile. Overnight, some people entered my car and I heard a female voice counting the room numbers from one to five, which was, apparently, her room.  Even at overnight or early morning hours, people do use this train!

Page 3 of  Amtrak 75th Anniversary Empire Builder