For the first time in a generation, a brand-new locomotive will lead Amtrak’s Empire Builder across the prairies and mountains of Montana.

This month, Amtrak began using its newly acquired ALC-42 locomotives on the Empire Builder, the daily long-distance passenger train connecting Chicago with Seattle and Portland that runs across the Hi-Line and through the Flathead Valley. The brightly painted red, white and blue engines built by Siemens Mobility in Sacramento, Calif., are the first new locomotives Amtrak has purchased for its long-distance train services in the West since the early 1990s. 

The first two ALC-42 locomotives departed Chicago Feb. 8, and arrived in Montana the following day. After laying over on the West Coast, the locomotives returned east on Feb. 13. Amtrak officials told the Montana Free Press the new locomotives will be making more frequent appearances in the coming weeks and eventually will be found on the point of every Empire Builder. 

Amtrak decided to put the locomotives on the Empire Builder first, before any of its other 14 long-distance trains, because of the challenging territory the train traverses, including Marias Pass on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. The mountain grades and cold temperatures of Montana are the perfect conditions to put a new locomotive to the test. 

The debut of a brand-new diesel locomotive in Montana is in some ways a throwback to another era when the Empire Builder was one of the premier passenger trains in the country. When the Great Northern Railway inaugurated the train in 1929, it featured many exclusive amenities, including private changing rooms in the sleeping cars and the latest icebox technology in the dining car. In the 1930s, the Empire Builder was one of the first trains on the Great Northern Railway to get air conditioning, and then sleek, streamlined diesel locomotives in the 1950s. In 1971, after America’s railroads decided to rid themselves of their money-losing passenger trains, the Empire Builder was taken over by government-backed Amtrak. 

One of Amtrak’s newest locomotives, photographed in Whitefish on Feb. 9, 2022. The engine is wearing a one-of-a-kind paint scheme to celebrate the railroad’s 50th anniversary in 2021. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

Long strapped for cash, Amtrak has often had to use its equipment for decades on end, particularly on the long-distance routes in the West that cover thousands of miles. Most of Amtrak’s passenger cars date to the 1980s, and each one travels enough miles annually to circle the earth seven times. The locomotives at the front of the train date to the early 1990s and will reach retirement age within a few years. 

The number of locomotive builders in the United States has dwindled in recent decades, but Germany-based Siemens Mobility has emerged as one of the primary producers of passenger trains. In 2018, Amtrak announced it would purchase 75 long-distance passenger locomotives from Siemens. The new locomotives are based on another model called the SC-44 “Charger” that has been popular on Amtrak’s shorter state-sponsored routes, including the Cascades between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The new ALC-42 locomotives are built to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s highest standards, and compared to the locomotives they’re replacing will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 89% and particulate matter by 95%, while using less fuel. The new locomotives can reach speeds of 125 miles per hour (though on the Empire Builder they’ll only get to reach 79 mph, the top speed on the route). 

The same day the first two locomotives departed Chicago on their maiden journey, Amtrak announced that it’s doubling down on the ALC-42 and will purchase 50 more, for a total of 125 — enough to replace much of its current fleet. 

Amit Bose, administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the new locomotives are part of a wider push to modernize Amtrak and the national rail system as a whole. 

“These new locomotives serve as another step forward to advance safe, clean, reliable and efficient passenger rail across this country,” Bose said. “With President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’re positioned to make even more investments in modernizing rail infrastructure that will make a difference in the lives of Americans.”

Sen. Steve Daines said in a press release that Amtrak’s new locomotives will help connect Montana with the rest of the nation. Prior to the pandemic, about 428,000 people rode the Empire Builder annually, and Whitefish was the most popular destination on the route between the Twin Cities and Seattle. 

“The Empire Builder helps connect Montanans and brings visitors from across the country to our great state,” Daines said. “Amtrak’s new locomotives will support Montana jobs, our tourism economy and folks along the Hi-Line who rely on Amtrak to access critical services.” 

latest stories

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.