Is it dumb to take the Empire Builder Amtrak train this week?
July 25, 2023 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Thinking about doing a last minute Chi—>Minneapolis—>Chicago, leaving tomorrow and returning Friday. I’m not pressed for time (lol obviously) but not looking to court a living nightmare. Three hours late, okay; 13 hours late, no thanks. Is this a terrible idea? I know about the derailment/delays yesterday, not sure how they’re impacting things at this point… What should I expect in terms of lateness leaving Minneapolis and heading east? Choo choo, my friends.
posted by Charity Garfein to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (9 answers total)
13 hours late would not be particularly abnormal for an Empire Builder getting into Chicago, simply because the train starts in Seattle and has a couple days to get delayed yielding to freight trains and waiting for replacement crews because the current crew can't work more hours, etc. I'd check out buses or flying.

Because the westbound trip starts in Chicago, that leg is likely to be close to on-time, if you'd like to ride the rails one way.
posted by momus_window at 11:39 AM on July 25, 2023

I would ring Amtrak (800-USA-RAIL / 800-872-7245, or TTY 1-800-523-6590) and ask them — they’ll have the best information on how, if at all, tomorrow’s and Friday’s journeys might be affected in terms of staffing/railcar availability for your outbound.

Once underway, you can check Amtraker’s Chicago Union Station page here and St Paul-Minneapolis Union here to see how on schedule all the Amtrak trains going to/from the station are.
posted by mdonley at 12:25 PM on July 25, 2023

Best answer: This (unofficial) page has current location of all 5 Empire Builder trains currently en route, and how far behind schedule they are. Currently it looks like one of the two trains headed towards CHI is 5hrs 28 mins behind schedule, and the other 40 mins behind schedule.

It looks to me like both of those trains were set back by the derailment/delays yesterday that you mentioned, and they are now both actually gaining time back towards normal. (However, I don't know the details of the derailment etc, so that is a bit of a guess.)

This page allows you to search past arrival data for any Amtrak train, and get the average (mean) & median delay for arrival at any station.

Searching Train 8 for arrival times at Chicago over the past year, the average (mean) delay is just over 120 minutes and the median is 60 minutes.

Based on that, it is fair to say that in the vast majority of trips you are going to be 0-120 minutes late getting into Chicago, but there is the occasional very long delay (3-8-ish hours as a guess) - which is the reason the average is so much higher than the median. Those very, very long delays are very likely caused by unusual stuff like derailments, very bad weather, etc.

Personally I wouldn't hesitate to take it, as long as a 1-2 hour late arrival in CHI is tolerable, and the off chance of a 4-6 hour late arrival wouldn't be disastrous. Something like a 10-15 hour delay COULD happen but would be quite rare.

FWIW I have occasionally been delayed a lot longer than 4-6 hours when flying. And occasionally means like 4-5 times in my life, and I only fly like 2X a year at most. So really not that occasional. Sometimes weather and other unusual stuff like severe breakdowns or crashes happens. The very long delays on Amtrak might be a bit more common than they are flying, but they tend to be caused by the same type of fairly unusual events (weather, crashes) and are really, don't happen that much more often than similar delays when flying.

What IS more common on Amtrak is the run-of-the-mill 1-2 hour late arrival at the end of a long route like Empire Builder. Whereas airline flights tend to run 15 mins-0 mins early, and quite rarely something like 30-60 mins late. Airline schedules tend to run either quite perfectly OR (occasionally) quite disastrously as the entire system gets tied in a knot. Whereas the long Amtrak routes tend to run a little late always and then occasionally have their own type of disaster.

Upshot, I would plan to be 1-2 hours late as a likely occurrence, and figure that the 4-6 hour or longer delays is possible but quite rare - something that happens seldom enough that I'll just deal with it on the off chance it happens. Exactly the same as if I were flying.

Also, as other have said, the trip back to CHI is your problem point, as it is the end of a long haul from the west coast.

CHI to MSP looks to have a median late arrival of only 15 minutes. So not bad at all.

Finally, I love traveling by train and absolutely hate flying. I would pay good money and spend good time to take a pleasant, scenic, enjoyable train trip any day of the week, vs being crammed into a tiny, cramped airplane seat. In the train, the journey is a enjoyable part of your trip, whereas on an airline, it's merely something to be endured. So a long-ish train trip is well worth doing, especially if you haven't tried it before. IMHO.
posted by flug at 1:00 PM on July 25, 2023 [9 favorites]

Doing some quick statistics on flug's data can give you a sense of how likely various levels of delay are:
  • One in four trains listed had its arrival delayed by 2h33m or more.
  • One in ten of the trains had its arrival delayed by 5h34m or more.
  • One in twenty of the trains listed had its arrival delayed by 8h40m or more.

posted by Johnny Assay at 1:28 PM on July 25, 2023 [2 favorites]

I took the Empire Builder six months ago and lost 15 hours. The cause was that two different freight trains had substantial maintenance issues in the middle of nowhere. Amtrak just can't do anything about the fact that our nation's rail barons don't care to upgrade or maintain their capital. Best way to travel, but a bit of a crapshoot.
posted by kensington314 at 1:38 PM on July 25, 2023

I love Amtrak and have taken it for years and years and these days, possibly with some unfair bias from reading reddit where people are complaining, would be hesitant to take any long western route. You can find pages that tell you the average lateness of a route, but there's always that not infinitesimal chance you'll be on one of those hell trains where you sit in some state you don't want to be in for five hours and then are lined up for cascading delays. There's no way to know and you might have a pleasant, uneventful trip as I very often did, but I find myself very gun-shy. The times I was on a very delayed train it was kind of agony because there weren't many announcements and even so, there was nothing you could do.
posted by less-of-course at 2:44 PM on July 25, 2023

By way of comparison, this report compiles airline on-time arrival/departure percentages and flight cancellation info for U.S. airlines.

On-time performance - defined as arriving/departing within 15 minutes of schedule time ranges from 56% to 82% by airline. Most airlines seem to be around 75% on-time. (Page 6.)

Unfortunately, I can't see any exact information about flight delays beyond that. But a truly lengthy delay flying is usually the result of a flight cancellation, and they do have that information:

By airline, the flight cancellation rate ranges from 0.9% to 3.6% (page 26).

This at least somewhat bolsters my opinion that a 1-2 hour delay on the Amtrak cross-country routes is roughly equivalent to airline on-time performance. Both happen about 75% of the time.

And it similarly bolsters my opinion that truly long delays are a little more frequent on the Amtrak long routes than on airlines, but perhaps not as dramatically more common as you might think. Airlines cancel flights, which is the type of thing that might cause you an unexpected overnight wait, spending the night in the airport, and that type of thing - a several hour delay at absolute minimum and very often a 12-24 delay - altogether about 2.5% of the time, which is about 1 flight in 40.

Whereas, as Johnny Assay calculates above, the similar type of lengthy delay (longer than 8:40) happens on the Empire Builder about once in 20 trips.

So airlines are better, yes, but not as dramatically better as one might think. We hear the occasional horror story about an Amtrak train being stuck in the desert for hours on end, but we also hear the occasional story of people being stuck in airports for literally days on end waiting to find a flight home. Sometimes this is due to nationwide bad snowstorms etc but it also happens randomly as airline reservation systems suffer some kind of collapse etc.

Apologies for the rather lengthy answers here, but this is something I've actually been curious about for a while and it is helpful to have actual data for both sides of it instead of merely anecdotal speculation.
posted by flug at 3:22 PM on July 25, 2023 [3 favorites]

Anecdotally, once when flying back from Europe my flight had to divert from Chicago to Detroit due to a massive thunderstorm. This led to missing the connecting flight, and unexpected overnight stay, and about an 18 hour total delay.

A couple of times flying to Washington DC in March, my flight has been cancelled due to bad weather, leading to 24 or 48 hour delays. Earlier this year, my daughter's flight to Texas was delayed due to bad weather. She switched to a different flight - not cancelled - but the connection was cancelled mid-flight, leaving her stranded in the connecting city, which was many hours from either home or her intended destination. That was also an overnight delay, over 18 hours. And as a result the airline lost all of her luggage and it didn't catch up to her until the very end of her week-long vacation.

None of my immediate family members have ever experienced anything like this type of really extended delay riding Amtrak - even though we have ridden cross country routes like the California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief a number of times and more local Amtrak routes quite frequently.
posted by flug at 3:49 PM on July 25, 2023

Response by poster: (I'm aware of the many issues plaguing Amtrak; I'm asking if this week in particular seems fraught, or if it's all woven into life's rich pageant.)
posted by Charity Garfein at 4:24 PM on July 25, 2023 [1 favorite]

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