The Great Northern Railway's Empire Builder led by No. 361-A in July, 1967. Click to enlarge.

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(Dan Pope Collection / RMP Archive)


Empire Builder drumhead.


The Empire Builder is an Amtrak long-distance passenger train that operates daily between Chicago and either Seattle or Portland via two sections west of Spokane. Introduced in 1929, it was the flagship passenger train of the Great Northern Railway and was retained by Amtrak when it took over intercity rail service in 1971.

The end-to-end travel time of the route is 45–46 hours for an average speed of about 50 mph (80 km/h), though the train travels as fast as 79 mph (127 km/h) over the majority of the route. It is Amtrak's busiest long-distance route.

During fiscal year 2022, the Empire Builder carried 303,568 passengers, an increase of 37.56% from FY2021 but 29.9% below pre-COVID-19 levels (433,372 passengers during FY2019). During FY2022, the train had a total revenue of $49,600,000.


Postcard photo promoting the Great Northern Railway's "new Empire Builder". The train was streamlined circa 1947 (shown), and totally re-outfitted again in 1951.

Click Image to Enlarge.

(Keenan News Agency, Spokane / Photo: Great Northern Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)


The Great Northern Railway inaugurated the Empire Builder on June 10, 1929. It was named in honor of the company's founder, James J. Hill, who had reorganized several failing railroads into the only successful attempt at a privately funded transcontinental railroad. It reached the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, and for this feat, he was nicknamed "The Empire Builder". Following World War II, Great Northern placed new streamlined and diesel-powered trains in service that cut the scheduled 2,211-mile trip between Chicago and Seattle from 58.5 hours to 45 hours.

On May 27, 1931, the eastbound Empire Builder was struck by a tornado in Clay County, North Dakota. The train, carrying 117 passengers, had all of its cars, minus the locomotive and coal tender, thrown off the tracks by the tornado, with one car being thrown 80 feet (24 m) off the track. One passenger died, with 57 others injured.

The schedule allowed riders views of the Cascade Mountains and Glacier National Park, a park established through the lobbying efforts of the Great Northern. Re-equipped with domes in 1955, the Empire Builder offered passengers sweeping views of the route through three dome coaches and one full-length Great Dome car for first class passengers.

In 1970, the Great Northern merged with three other closely affiliated railroads to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, which assumed operation of the Builder. Amtrak took over the train when it began operating most intercity routes a year later. To improve its farebox recovery ratio, Amtrak shifted the Chicago–St. Paul leg to run through Milwaukee via the Milwaukee Road. Before 1971, the Chicago–St. Paul leg used the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad's mainline along the Mississippi River through Wisconsin. The service also used to operate west from the Twin Cities before turning northwest in Willmar, Minnesota, to reach Fargo.

Amtrak added a Portland section in 1981, with the train splitting in Spokane. This restored service to the line previously operated by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. It was not the first time that the train had operated Seattle and Portland sections; Great Northern had split the Builder in Spokane for much of the 1940s and 1950s.

In 2005, Amtrak upgraded service to include a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car for sleeping car passengers and free newspapers in the morning. Amtrak's inspector general eliminated some of these services in 2013 as part of a cost-saving measure.

During summer months, on portions of the route, "Trails and Rails" volunteer tour guides in the lounge car give commentary on points of visual and historic interest that can be viewed from the train.

After running daily for the better part of a century, the Empire Builder was cut back to tri-weekly operation along with most of Amtrak's other long-distance routes on October 12, 2020, as part of a round of service reductions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For most of the fall and winter of 2020–21, trains departed Chicago on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays and departed Seattle or Portland on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. However, in March 2021, Amtrak announced the train would return to its pre-pandemic daily schedule on May 24, 2021.

The westbound Empire Builder derailed near Joplin, Montana on September 25, 2021, with three fatalities.


Route of the Amtrak Empire Builder. Click to enlarge.

(Image: Jkan997, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


An Empire Builder Galley

Click on image to enlarge

Postcard photo of the Great Northern Railway's "Empire Builder" as it crosses the Minneapolis stone arch bridge. This version of the train is the original train set as it's using a steam locomotive, ca. 1929. (Great Northern Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

"The crack passenger train, Empire Builder, bound from Seattle to Chicago, was struck by a tornado. The train was traveling nearly 60 miles an hour when struck. Only the 136-ton locomotive remained on the track." May 27, 1931. (Photo: NOAA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the Great Northern Railway's "Empire Builder" on the border of Glacier National Park in Montana. (Great Northern Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the Great Northern's Empire Builder at Winona, Minnesota in 1958. One of the dome cars is shown in the photo. (Audio-Visual Designs, Earlton, NY., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The GN's Empire Builder or Western Star in blue livery at Glacier National Park circa 1970. (Photo: Great Northern, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fireman (left) and engineer (right) aboard Amtrak's Empire Builder in 1970. (National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A short 4 car Builder with heritage loco 156 leaves St. Paul behind on June 5, 2011. Amtrak stubbed the Builder at St. Paul because of flooding on the high plains. (Jerry Huddleston from Hampton, Minnesota, US, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Eastbound Empire Builder crossing Two Medicine Trestle at East Glacier, Montana. (Steve Wilson, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Empire Builder at Maple Springs, Minnesota, in September 2018.

(Photo: Jerry Huddleston from Hampton, Minnesota, US, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Empire Builder is Amtrak's most popular long-distance train. Over fiscal years 2007–2016, Empire Builder annual ridership averaged 500,000, with a high of 554,266 in FY 2008. Revenue peaked in FY 2013 at $67,394,779. About 65% of the cost of operating the train is covered by fare revenue, a rate among Amtrak's long-distance trains second only to the specialized East Coast Auto Train.


The current Amtrak Empire Builder passes through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It makes service stops in Spokane, Washington; Havre, Montana; Minot, North Dakota; and Saint Paul, Minnesota. Its other major stops include Vancouver, Washington; Whitefish, Montana; Williston, North Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It uses BNSF Railway's Northern Transcon from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial Railway from Minneapolis to St. Paul, the Canadian Pacific (former Milwaukee Road) from St. Paul to Rondout, Illinois, and Metra's Milwaukee District / North Line (former Milwaukee Road) from Rondout to Chicago. The St. Paul to Chicago portion currently follows the route of the former Twin Cities Hiawatha. In pre-Amtrak days it used the Twin Zephyrs routing.

The Seattle section uses the Cascade Tunnel and Stevens Pass as it traverses the Cascade Range to reach Spokane, while the Portland section runs along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The cars from the two sections are combined at Spokane. The combined train then traverses the mountains of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and northwestern Montana, arriving in Whitefish in the morning. The schedule is timed so that the train passes through the Rocky Mountains (and Glacier National Park) during daylight – an occurrence that is more likely on the eastbound train during summer. Passengers can see sweeping views as the Builder travels along the middle fork of the Flathead River, crossing the Continental Divide at Marias Pass. After crossing Marias Pass, the Empire Builder leaves Glacier National Park and enters the Northern Plains of eastern Montana and North Dakota.

The land changes from prairie to forest as it travels through Minnesota. From Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Builder crosses the Mississippi River at Hastings, Minnesota and passes through southeastern Minnesota cities on or near Lake Pepin before crossing the Mississippi again at La Crosse, Wisconsin. It passes through rural southern Wisconsin, turns south at Milwaukee, and ends at Chicago Union Station.

The westbound Empire Builder leaves Chicago in early afternoon, arriving in Milwaukee just before the afternoon rush and in St. Paul in the evening. After traveling overnight through Minnesota, it spends most of the following day traveling through North Dakota and Montana, arriving at Glacier National Park in the early evening and splitting late at night in Spokane. The Seattle section travels through the Cascades overnight, arriving in Seattle in mid-morning. The Portland section arrives in the Tri-Cities just before breakfast and in Portland in mid-morning. The eastbound Seattle and Portland sections leave within five minutes of each other just before the afternoon rush, combining in Spokane and traveling through Montana overnight before arriving at Glacier National Park in mid-morning and Williston at dinner time. After traveling overnight through North Dakota and Minnesota, it arrives in St. Paul at breakfast time, Columbus/Madison at lunch time, Milwaukee in early afternoon and Chicago just before the afternoon rush.

Stops at Milwaukee Airport and Sturtevant were added beginning March 21, 2020 to replace Hiawatha Service trains suspended due to the COVID-19-related drastic drop in demand. Additionally, local travel was allowed between Chicago and Milwaukee. These adjustments lasted until the train resumed its normal schedule in May 2021.


The line has come under threat from flooding from the Missouri, Souris, Red, and Mississippi Rivers, and has occasionally had to suspend or alter service. Most service gets restored in days or weeks, but Devils Lake in North Dakota, which has no natural outlet, is a long-standing threat. The lowest top-of-rail elevation in the lake crossing is 1,455.7 ft (443.70 m). In spring 2011, the lake reached 1,454.3 ft (443.27 m), causing service interruptions on windy days when high waves threatened the tracks.

BNSF, which owns the track, suspended freight operations through Devils Lake in 2009 and threatened to allow the rising waters to cover the line unless Amtrak could provide $100 million to raise the track. In that case, the Empire Builder would have been rerouted to the south, ending service to Rugby, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks. In June 2011 agreement was reached that Amtrak and BNSF would each cover 1/3 of the cost with the rest to come from the federal and state governments.

In December 2011, North Dakota was awarded a $10 million TIGER grant from the US Department of Transportation to assist with the state portion of the cost. Work began in June 2012, and the track is being raised in two stages: 5 feet in 2012, and another 5 feet in 2013. Two bridges and their abutments are also being raised. When the track raise is complete, the top-of-rail elevation will be 1,466 ft (446.84 m). This is 10 feet above the level at which the lake will naturally overflow and will thus be a permanent solution to the Devils Lake flooding. In the spring and summer of 2011 flooding of the Souris River near Minot, North Dakota blocked the route in the latter part of June and for most of July. For some of that time the Empire Builder (with a typical consist of only four cars) ran from Chicago and terminated in Minneapolis/St Paul; to the west, the Empire Builder did not run east of Havre, Montana. (Other locations along the route also flooded, near Devils Lake, North Dakota and areas further west along the Missouri River.)

Freight train interference

An oil boom from the Bakken formation, combined with a robust fall 2013 harvest, led to a spike in the number of crude oil and grain trains using the Northern Transcon in Montana and North Dakota. The resulting congestion led to rampant delays for the Empire Builder, with the train running on time 44.5% in November 2013, the worst on-time performance of any Amtrak route and well below congressional standards. In some cases, the delays resulted in an imbalance of crew and equipment, forcing Amtrak to cancel runs of the Empire Builder. By May 2014, only 26% of Empire Builder trains had arrived within 30 minutes of their scheduled time, with delays averaging between 3 and 5 hours. In some cases, freight congestion and severe weather resulted in delays as long as 11 to 12 hours. This was a marked change from past years in which the Empire Builder was one of the best on-time performers in the entire Amtrak system, ahead of even the flagship Acela Express.

Due to the increasingly severe delays, Amtrak adjusted the route's schedule west of St. Paul on April 15, 2014. Westbound trains left St. Paul later, while eastbound trains left Seattle/Portland approximately three hours earlier. Operating hours for affected stations were also officially adjusted accordingly. The Amtrak announcement also said that the BNSF was working on adding track capacity, and it was anticipated that sometime in 2015 the Empire Builder could be returned to its former schedule. In January 2015, it was announced that the train would resume its normal schedule.

Even during the worst of the delays, the train has seen frequent patronage from workers in the Bakken fields and their families who board and detrain in Williston. Passengers travel from as far as the Pacific Northwest.

Former stops

In 1970, the construction and filling of Lake Koocanusa necessitated the realignment of 60 miles of track between Stryker, Montana, and Libby, Montana, and the construction of Flathead Tunnel, leading the Empire Builder to drop service to Eureka, Montana. The Empire Builder also served Troy, Montana, until February 15, 1973.

On October 1, 1979, the Empire Builder was rerouted to operate over the North Coast Hiawatha's old route between Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota. With this alignment change, the Empire Builder dropped Willmar, Minnesota; Morris, Minnesota; and Breckenridge, Minnesota, while adding St. Cloud, Minnesota; Staples, Minnesota; and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

Another alignment change came on October 25, 1981, when the Seattle section was rerouted from the old Northern Pacific (which had also become part of the BN in 1970) to the Burlington Northern Railroad's line through the Cascade Tunnel over Stevens Pass. This change eliminated service to Yakima, Washington, Ellensburg, Washington, and Auburn, Washington. This change also introduced the Portland section, which returned service to the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad line (which became part of BN in 1970) along the Washington shore of the Columbia River. The route kept Pasco, but added Wishram, Bingen-White Salmon, and Vancouver (all in Washington) to the route. From Vancouver, the Portland section of the Empire Builder uses the same route as the Coast Starlight and Cascades trains to Portland Union Station.

It has been proposed that the Empire Builder and Hiawatha Service trains servicing Glenview, Illinois have their station stop be shifted one station north to the Metra station at North Glenview, to eliminate stops which block traffic on Glenview Road. North Glenview would have to be modified to handle additional traffic, and the move depends on commitments from Glenview, the Illinois General Assembly, and Metra. In Minnesota, the Empire Builder returned to Saint Paul Union Depot on May 7, 2014, 43 years after it last served the station the day before the start of Amtrak. Renovation of the 1917 Beaux Arts terminal was undertaken in 2011, continuing through 2013, resulting in a multi-mode terminal used by Jefferson Lines, Greyhound Lines, commuter bus and the Metro Green Line, providing a light rail connection to downtown Minneapolis. The station replaced Midway Station which opened in 1978 after the initial abandonment of Saint Paul Union Depot in 1971 and the demolition of Minneapolis Great Northern Depot in 1978.


Current equipment

Empire Builder crosses the Two Medicine Trestle at East Glacier Park, Montana, 2011
Like all long-distance trains west of the Mississippi River, the Empire Builder uses bilevel Superliner passenger cars. The Empire Builder was the first train to be fully equipped with Superliners, with the first run occurring on October 28, 1979. In Summer, 2005 the train was "re-launched" with newly refurbished equipment.

A typical Empire Builder consist is configured as follows (with the assigned section west of Spokane shown in parentheses):

Two or three GE Genesis or Siemens Charger ALC-42 locomotives
Viewliner baggage car (Seattle)
Transitional Crew Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Diner (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Sightseer Lounge/Café (Portland)
Coach/Baggage (Portland)
Coach (Portland)
Sleeper (Portland)
Coach (Chicago–St. Paul)

In Spokane, the westbound train is split: the locomotives, baggage car, and first six-passenger cars (including the diner) continue on to Seattle as train 7, while a single P42 locomotive from Spokane is used to take the rearmost five cars (including the lounge/cafe) to Portland as train 27. Eastbound the sections are combined in a reverse fashion, with the Seattle section numbered as train 8 and the Portland section as train 28.

During peak travel periods, an additional coach is added to the rear of the train between Chicago and St. Paul. It is left overnight in St. Paul for the next day's return trip to pick up. This car is designated train 807 westbound and train 808 eastbound.

Amtrak’s Siemens Charger ALC-42 locomotives were first used in revenue service on the Empire Builder on February 8, 2022.

Historical equipment

When first launched in 1929, the Great Northern provided new heavyweight consists. When the railway received five new streamlined trainsets in 1947, the old heavyweight sets were used to reintroduce the Oriental Limited. In 1951 the Empire Builder was re-equipped with six new streamlined trainsets; the 1947 cars were used to launch the Western Star, while the Oriental Limited was retired. When the GN acquired dome coaches in 1955, the 1951 coaches went to Western Star, while the 1947 coaches went to the pool of spare and extra-movement cars. Ownership of the cars on the Empire Builder was by-and-large split between the Great Northern and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), though a couple of cars in the original consists were owned by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway (SP&S). In this consist, one of the 48-seat "chair" cars and one of the 4-section sleepers were used for the connection to Portland, while the rest of the consist connected to Seattle.

The Great Northern coaches eventually found their way into state-subsidized commuter service for the Central Railroad of New Jersey after the Burlington Northern merger and remained until 1987 when NJ Transit retired its last E8A locomotive. Some of these cars remain in New Jersey. Some coaches were acquired from the Union Pacific; these also went to New Jersey. One of the 28 seat coach-dinette cars also remains in New Jersey and is stored near Interstate 78 wearing tattered Amtrak colors.


2257 mi / 3632 km - Portland, Oregon

2247 mi / 3616 km - Vancouver, Washington
2182 mi / 3512 km - Bingen-White Salmon
2151 mi / 3462 km - Wishram
2025 mi / 3259 km - Pasco (Tri-Cities)
2206 mi / 3550 km - Seattle
2188 mi / 3521 km - Edmonds
2173 mi / 3497 km - Everett 
2072 mi / 3335 km - Leavenworth
2050 mi / 3299 km - Wenatchee
1996 mi / 3212 km - Ephrata
(Train divides at Spokane)
1877 mi / 3021 km - Spokane

1807 mi / 2908 km - Sandpoint

Troy (Closed 1973)
1723 mi / 2773 km - Libby
1620 mi / 2607 km - Whitefish
1599 mi / 2573 km - West Glacier
1573 mi / 2531 km - Essex (flag stop)
1542 mi / 2482 km - East Glacier Park (Summer only)
1528 mi / 2459 km - Browning (Winter only)
1495 mi / 2406 km - Cut Bank
1471 mi / 2367 km - Shelby
1366 mi / 2198 km - Havre
1277 mi / 2055 km - Malta
1211 mi / 1949 km - Glasgow
1162 mi / 1870 km - Wolf Point
1055 mi / 1698 km - Williston
989 mi / 1592 km - Stanley
935 mi / 1505 km - Minot
874 mi / 1407 km - Rugby
817 mi / 1315 km - Devils Lake
732 mi / 1178 km - Grand Forks
658 mi / 1059 km - Fargo

610 mi / 982 km - Detroit Lakes
548 mi / 882 km - Staples
482 mi / 776 km - St. Cloud
Minneapolis (Closed 1978 )
Midway (1978–2014)
417 mi / 671 km - Saint Paul
371 mi / 597 km - Red Wing
308 mi / 496 km - Winona
281 mi / 452 km - La Crosse
240 mi / 386 km - Tomah
195 mi / 314 km - Wisconsin Dells
178 mi / 286 km - Portage
150 mi / 241 km - Columbus
86 mi / 138 km - Milwaukee

18 mi / 29 km - Glenview
0  / 0 - Chicago


Great Northern Railway's "Empire Builder" train No. 31, westbound, traverses the route along Puget Sound, nearing Seattle, 1929. Click to enlarge.

(Photo: ["Empire Builder" at Puget Sound]photograph1929; ( March 13, 2023), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Museum of the American Railroad.)

Great Northern Railway's "The Empire Builder" train No. 1, westbound, headed by Engine No. 2517, a Mountain type 4-8-2 locomotive, at St. Paul Union Depot, 1929. This world renowned train was operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad from Chicago to St. Paul and it was a Great Northern train from St. Paul to Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. Click to enlarge.

(Photo: ["The Empire Builder" at St. Paul, Minnesota Depot]photograph1929; ( March 13, 2023), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Museum of the American Railroad.)



Service type: Inter-city rail
Locale: Midwestern and Northwestern United States
First service June 10, 1929
Current operator: Amtrak
Former operator: Great Northern (1929–1970), Burlington Northern:(1970–1971)
Annual ridership: 303,568 (FY22) Increase 37.6%.
Route Termini: Chicago, Illinois / Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon
Stops: 38 (Seattle–Chicago) / 37 (Portland–Chicago)
Distance traveled: 2,206 miles (3,550 km) (Seattle–Chicago) / 2,257 miles (3,632 km) (Portland–Chicago)
Average journey time:
45 hours, 10 minutes (Portland to Chicago)
45 hours, 15 minutes (Seattle to Chicago)
45 hours, 55 minutes (Chicago to Portland)
46 hours, 10 minutes (Chicago to Seattle)
Service frequency: Daily
Train numbers: 7, 8 (Seattle–Chicago); 27, 28 (Portland–Chicago)
On-board services
Classes: Coach Class, Sleeper Service
Disabled access: Train lower level, all stations
Sleeping arrangements
Roomette (2 beds),  Bedroom (2 beds), Bedroom Suite (4 beds), Accessible Bedroom (2 beds), Family Bedroom (4 beds)
Catering facilities: Dining car, Café
Observation facilities: Sightseer lounge car
Baggage facilities: Overhead racks, checked baggage available at selected stations
Rolling stock: GE Genesis, Siemens Charger, Superliner; 1951 EMD E7
Track gauge: 4 ft 8-1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Operating speed: 50 mph (80 km/h) (avg.); 79 mph (127 km/h) (top)
Track owners: BNSF, CP, Metra, MNNR


A "Coulee" series observation-sleeper on the Empire Builder. Photo by Ed Wojtas. Click to enlarge.

(Lyman E. Cox, Sacramento, CA, via W. Lenheim Collection)