75 years later, Amtrak’s Builder gets rapt attention

by Leo King

A Destination:Freedom Feature

June 21, 2004

Destination:Freedom - June 21, 2004 - Page 1 - Here

Story © 2004 - Leo King

  The National Corridors Initiative, Inc.

No. 7 departs Milwaukee enroute to the Pacific Northwest. It will be a 2,527-mile journey for the Empire Builder to Seattle. No. 27, the Portland section, will journey 2,206 miles until it can rest. Empire Builder

For NCI: Thomas J. Van Haag


75 years later

Amtrak’s Builder gets rapt attention

By Leo King

No. 7 departed Chicago and milepost 0.0 on the mark at 2:10 p.m. CDT. No one dared delay this train on this day. The boss was aboard the 75th anniversary Empire Builder on June 11. This was also a three-day journey for many aboard from Chicagoland to Seattle, while other folks would turn southward at Spokane and travel on to Portland, Ore. on No. 27.

At MP 86, the train paused in Milwaukee on Canadian Pacific Railway iron. This was a special edition of the Empire Builder. Engineer Craig Willett and Road Foreman Larry Allen guided the 75th anniversary edition of “America’s Train.”

Somebody somewhere really thought ahead and got P-42 engine No. 7 into Chicago to lead the train.

Allen stayed on the engine to St. Cloud, Minn., but engineer Larry Abfalder operated the train as far as Milwaukee. At Milwaukee, engineer Craig Willett took over the duties to Winona, Minn. Conductor April Layburn, off the Milwaukee Extra Board and Assistant Conductor Mitch Ginsberg, also worked to Winona.

Among the places this train would make scheduled station stops were Milwaukee and La Crosse, Wis.; Red Wing and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minn.; Fargo, N.D.; Havre, Mont.; Spokane, Wash. In all, the trains would travel 2,257 miles to Portland, and 2,206 miles to Seattle, and stopped at 47 places, including its starting point at Chicago Union Station.

Amtrak and residents along the route celebrated the train at several stations along the journey. The train began running across America’s northern tier on the former Great Northern Ry. route – but in Montana it was some two hours off the carded schedule. Good thing there’s rubber in the schedule. Its arrival time in Seattle was much better.

Photographer Tom Van Haag, who is a former Amtrak conductor, said he rode the train between Chicago and Milwaukee, and “had the opportunity to visit the full dome and met David Gunn twice. Out on time, into Milwaukee three minutes early; left a few moments late due to getting everyone on the business car at the rear of the train.” How early the train arrived in Milwaukee depends on who’s talking.

David Gunn is Amtrak’s president and CEO. Sources for D:F counted 141 people getting on in Chicago that Friday.

75th anniversary edition of the Empire Builder

For NCI: Thomas J. Van Haag

The 75th anniversary edition of the Empire Builder makes a station stop in Glenview, Ill., just 18 miles from Chicago.


Some railroaders were caught up in the excitement.

“I was fortunate today to ride the Empire Builder on its 75th anniversary,” wrote a railroad man in an online e-mail message on the “A_A” list.

Poster Mike Monroe, writing on “ http://groups.yahoo.com/group/All_Aboard ,” noted “I worked on train 251 from Pontiac, Mich., to Chicago, which got me into Chicago in time to ride train 7 back to Milwaukee. No. 7 was being brought into Union Station just as I was arriving. There was a birthday party in Lounge G, which was open to the public. Mr. Gunn and other railroad officials were there.”

Monroe is a brand-new assistant conductor with all of one month in service in his new job. He was a clerk before he went to conductor school. He also snapped a few photos along the way on this day.

The AC noted the train “departed Chicago on time. I rode in the dome car and in the Beech Grove,” Amtrak’s business car.

“I spoke to Mr. Gunn briefly in Chicago and on the train. It was a great, though brief, trip, and I’m glad I got to be a part of this historic day.”

Mike Monroe with David Gunn

For NCI: Harold Krewer

Now off-duty assistant conductor Mike Monroe asked the boss if he could pose with him. The “gunner” said yes. Monroe had worked No. 251 from Pontiac, Mich., to Chicago.


Rules examiner Harold Krewer snapped a couple of photos for Monroe – the one with Gunn and another at a travel display.

Another poster, Robert Madison informed his readers, “Prior to the arrival of the Empire Builder, I was able to get a brief tour of the station (like I had never seen the place before!) by some guy whose name and position I don’t really know, but he was telling the folks gathered there about the plans for renovating the station and converting it to a multimodal facility.”

Jim Sponholz of Milwaukee responded, “That was Randy Wade of the Wisconsin DOT giving the tour. He said that renovation of the aging structure is set to begin next January.”

The Wisconsin’s Assn. of Railroad Passengers put two sheet cakes on board, and Amtrak had some birthday trinkets for everyone aboard, “so there should be some extra happy passengers on 7 tonight,” Madison said. That was true throughout the journey – folks at station stops bringing gifts.

Guests on the business car included historian Joe Walsh, artist Craig Thorpe, two Canadian Pacific officers, Mark Ramsey and John Huber, United Transportation Union Illinois legislative representative Joe Szabo, Midwest High-Speed Rail Assn.’s Nicolai Schousboe and the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Kevin Brubaker, who has been a frequent speaker at NCI’s meetings in Washington.

Stanley Brandt, the operations manager for the 20th Century Railroad Club of Chicago, had specifics.

“Amtrak added Great Dome no. 10031 and Amtrak ‘bizcar’ 10001, Beech Grove, to No. 7’s consist, with P-42 No. 7 on the point. Before departure (precisely on time, of course), a reception was held in Chicago Union Station.”

Brandt wrote, “David Gunn was on hand, meeting and greeting Amtrak employees, managers, customers and fans. Commemorative badges and literature were given out, along with cake and coffee.”

Invited guests riding from Chicago to Milwaukee “also received autographed commemorative posters from the artist J. Craig Thorpe, who gave a presentation on the history of the Builder,” he said.

“As Mr. Gunn made his way to the train, he greeted every Amtrak employee he saw. At one point, he spoke with a coach passenger who told him he’d never been inside a railroad sleeping car. Gunn immediately gave the man a tour of the sleeper they had been standing next to.

“At the reception, I asked Gunn if I could photograph him on the porch of 10001 before we left. He said ‘Yes,’ and showed up just before departure and posed. Then he told me I might as well board his business car and take a seat, as the car was open to all the guests anyway.

“As the socialite Eleanor Belmont said back in the 1920s, ‘Riding on a private railcar is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately.’ Belmont’s husband, August Belmont, built a New York City subway line, as well as the Belmont Park racetrack.”

Brandt wrote that Gunn pays attention to details.

“As he entered the 10001’s lounge, he immediately adjusted the swivel chairs and the overhead lights to his liking. Earlier, he had mentioned that when he took possession of his business car, he ‘cleaned it out’ to learn what was on it, and was shocked to find out no emergency flares were on board.”

David Gunn is handy in a kitchen, as it turns out, as well as on a coach.

He enjoys a “reputation as a good cook and baker. His staff raves about his lemon-meringue pies,” Brandt wrote.

“His personal assistant also told us Gunn hosts a potluck luncheon at Amtrak headquarters about twice a month, and everyone looks forward to them. When I asked her how she manages to keep up with this vigorous, busy, friendly man, she just shook her head, sighed, and grinned – as did his business car attendant.”

“As we rode between Chicago and Milwaukee, Bob Johnston of Trains magazine, sitting next to editor Mark Hemphill, whose resignation took effect at 11:59 p.m., interviewed Gunn, and several of us got to listen in.

“Probably the key point was his reiteration that, if forced to annul any long-distance train, Gunn will quit his job. He also discussed the four candidates nominated to Amtrak’s board, and was complimentary about them all. He also pointed out that, as of the end of June, the board will have only two members left – and noted that ‘the three of us could meet in a telephone booth.’

Other topics included trackwork in the Northeast Corridor and on the Harrisburg line.

When the latter is completed, Gunn predicted, ridership would double. Another item: adding some seating may modify the café cars on the Acela Express trainsets.

Brandt said they arrived in Milwaukee about 10 minutes early.

“Our group of deadheads got off, and a new group boarded, including Wisconsin’s governor, who was to ride only as far as Columbus, about 65 miles; plus a bunch of Wisconsin ARP members.”

The Chicago deadheads got complimentary tickets back to Chicago on Hiawatha train No. 340, he noted.

Brandt observed Gunn used the 75th anniversary “to publicize Amtrak’s long-distance trains indicated he is not only serious about keeping them, but understands that generating favorable publicity and involving local politicians can be a big help.

“What a wonderful day!” Brandt exclaimed.

11-car consist

Engines 7 and 31; P-42s

Baggage 1708

Sleeper 32044, to Spokane

Baggage 31086, to Spokane

Superliner 34024, to Spokane

Lounge 33020, to Spokane

Coaches 31519, 34005

Diner 38014

Sleepers 32049, 32063

Crew dorm 39039

Dome-lounge 10031

Inspection Car Beech Grove, 10001

Meanwhile, D:F learned a “phantom train” was a second section carrying mail from Chicago to Minneapolis. Assistant Superintendent John Hall told the extra’s crew “This train does not exist – we do not want Mr. Gunn to know you are out there. You will depart at 2:30 and go to A-2 where they will hold you for a while.”

They ended up waiting at Lake Street Tower for their paperwork and an okay to go. The extra was on the move when the Builder was about five minutes out of Milwaukee. It had a coach attached so the train could move at passenger train speeds. After the coach got to St. Paul, it would be tacked on the next eastbound No. 8.

Gunn got off at Whitefish, Mont., much later, 1,620 miles west of its starting point, at around 9:00 p.m., and returning without his business car on No. 8 the next day – at 7:46 a.m.

St. Cloud train crews at one time ran to Milwaukee, Van Haag explained, but they were making eight hours hold time because they arrived in Milwaukee at 2:30 p.m. and did not sign up until 3:25 the next day, thus they went to the Winona change on the train crews. The engine crews were already doing so.

There are nine more crew change points, which means 11 separate crews keep the train moving west – and on the reverse trip – at Minot, S.D., Shelby, Utah, Whitefish, Mont., Spokane, Wenatchee, Wash., and Seattle, for No. 7, and Portland for No. 27.

The Milwaukee Sentinel reported Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi were on hand in a brief ceremony at 3:30 p.m. at Milwaukee’s downtown Amtrak station. The ceremonies in the Wisconsin city and at other Empire Builder stops offer Amtrak a chance to tout the benefits of its often-assailed cross-country service, the newspaper reported.

Rear View

For NCI: Mike Monroe

The single-track landscape flashed by quickly in the view out the theatre-car back window between Glenview (MP 17.4) and Sturtevant, Wis. (MP 61.8).
To varying degrees, all of Amtrak’s long-distance lines have been under attack from critics in Congress and the Bush administration, who say those trains cost the federal government too much for the number of riders they carry.

Gunn has called the criticism of long-distance lines “a red herring.” Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman from Chicago, explained that was because shutting them down would save little money, after accounting for lost passenger revenue and fixed overhead costs.

The Great Northern Ry. started the Empire Builder on June 10, 1929, giving it the nickname of railroad founder James J. Hill. When Amtrak was created in 1970, the National Passenger Railroad Corp. took over the Empire Builder and rerouted it through Milwaukee.

Amtrak reported the train carried 415,722 passengers between October 1, 2002 and September 30, 2003, which was up 13 percent over the earlier one-year period.

The spiffy passenger train greeted St. Cloud, Minn., around 12:40 a.m., and by 7:19 a.m. was passing through Rugby, N.D.

As the train continued westward, Montanans held banners and lined up to wave at the Empire Builder as it traveled across the state’s northern tier, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

“People have been turning out all along the line, even at spots where we don’t stop,” Magliari said. “It’s very gratifying to us and our employees who work 12 months a year to deliver this service.”

The train made stops in Havre and Shelby, and Gunn spoke at a stop in Havre.

About 100 people took part in the Havre celebration, Magliari said. Montana Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs greeted the train in Havre. The celebration continued at Havre’s Railroad Museum.

The Empire Builder, known for its timely stops, celebrated its 75th a smidgen late. Two disabled freight cars on the tracks in North Dakota set the train close to two hours behind schedule.

“Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the tracks,” Magliari said. “They were trying very hard to help us make up time.”

Jerry Smith of Galata, Mont., said about 50 people were at the depot in Shelby. Smith is chairman of a grassroots group called “Save Amtrak,” which helped restart daily passenger train service on the Hi-Line in 1995. He said throughout the various communities, people worked hard to organize this weekend’s celebrations.

“We had a great time,” Smith said. “It was a community effort in each town.”

Gunner in the dome car

For NCI: Mike Monroe

Amtrak president and CEO chats with fellow riders aboard the dome-lounge 10031, just ahead of the Beech Grove inspection car on No. 7.

For NCI: Harold Krewer

The crew set up a display for the Empire builder travelers to read. Now off-duty, assistant conductor Mike Monroe looks over the paraphernalia.


The Havre Daily News told its readers more than 100 people were waiting for the westbound Empire Builder as it pulled into Havre on Saturday, nearly two hours late – and 75 years to the day since the first copy came into town.

Some folks were waiting to board the train when it pulled in about 4:30 p.m. Its scheduled arrival time is 2:39 p.m., and its scheduled departure time is 3:04 p.m. Other people came to celebrate and see the anniversary train arrive.

Dignitaries at the event gave very short speeches, saying they wanted to try to get the train back on schedule. That freight train had broken down west of Williston, N.D., and the passenger train had to wait until the track was cleared.

Montana Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs and state Department of Commerce director Mark Simonich joined Amtrak’s Gunn on the train and rode with him to celebrations in Shelby and Whitefish.

The Havre celebration began earlier in the day at the Havre Railroad Museum. Gunn said that Friday wasn’t the first time he had boarded the Empire Builder.

“I first rode this train in the ’40s, believe it or not,” he said. “I remember going through here.”

Gunn added that he has ridden the Empire Builder some 20 times since then, including three or four times after he became Amtrak president.

“I’m glad to be here and we’re going to keep it running,” Gunn said.

Simonich said people on the Hi-Line understand the importance of the Empire Builder to the rest of the state.

“Those are dollars that are very, very important to our economy in the state, especially on the Hi-Line,” Simonich said.

Ohs said continuing the passenger rail service is crucial for Montana, where towns and stops are “long and far between,” and in some cases no other public transportation is available.

Train Departs - Bye Bye

For NCI: Mike Monroe

Amtrak business car Beech Grove pulls out of Milwaukee, and is like the exclamation point at the end of a sentence for No. 7, the Empire Builder, enroute to the Pacific Northwest on the train’s 75th anniversary.


Gunn was scheduled to detrain at Whitefish and deadhead back to Chicago on No. 8.

The train rolled on, passing Sandpoint, Idaho at mile 1,807, and arrived Spokane with 1,877 miles behind them. The Portland section cut off with just 329 miles left to go. The Seattle section moved its final 380 miles.

The train was only about 25 minutes late arriving in Seattle, according to Altamont Press News – but Amtrak’s on-time performance standards allow 30 minutes for long-distance trains.


Destination:Freedom - June 21, 2004 - Page 1 - Here

|| Home || Rail Headlines || Newsletters Archive || Meetings & Conferences || White Papers || Features ||

|| Search || Links || Directors || Our Mission || Staff Bios || Join Us || Contact Us ||

This article has been read by || || people since date of release.