Commentary, Reports

Trip Report: Commentary and Comparisons

By Ralph James

Railroad Operations.All three routes we used, California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Coast Starlight, incurred very substantial delays enroute. The causes of delay, however, were very different on each route, as were the operating responses of the host railroad.

California Zephyr, Union Pacific-The actions taken by the UP dispatcher and/or management observed east of Sacramento defy any logical explanation. The Zephyr was operating in its assigned time slot and had no equipment-related issues. According to the conductor on board, they had been following the slow drag all the way from Roseville where it presumably originated. At least four opportunities exist east of Roseville to re-order traffic in CTC territory before entering Track Warrant and manual switching territory at Bowman-upgrades financed at least in part by Amtrak/Caltrans for the Auburn extension of Capitol Corridor service. None of these opportunities were utilized. The freight in question was not a priority Q or Z train, but rather an underpowered drag with many empty cars, no DPUs and an ailing unit permitted to enter the eastbound sequence up the hill directly in front of Amtrak. I suspect there is more to the story and would welcome additional information regarding Extra UP5197 East of June 17 from anyone in the know.

Once the stall occurred, the dispatcher and train crews did everything they could to untangle the mess but it was too late to avoid a massive delay.

Between Salt Lake City and Denver, freight traffic was relatively light and no abnormal interference was noted. Operation west of Grand Junction was excellent with a significant amount of time made up. Slow orders east of Moffat Tunnel all the way to Denver were a problem and the last few miles into Denver were excruciatingly slow.

California Zephyr, BNSF-A few sections across Iowa had short slow orders or work crews that required manual switching. There was a small net loss of schedule time but no single incident or situation created undue delay all the way to Naperville.

Empire Builder, CP-Relatively good time was kept from Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul, although routine freight traffic and maintenance activities chopped several minutes here and there. Only one freight meet on double track between Chicago and Milwaukee caused a short delay to single-track around a work area.

Empire Builder, BNSF-All operation into Minot ND kept time with no abnormal delays. Schedule padding allowed almost all lost time to be made up. Track and track speeds were good, even on the light-density line between Grand Forks and the Surrey Cutoff.

The broken axle on the BNSF freight west of Stanley ND caused a huge bottleneck on the Minot-Havre main line but the delay to Amtrak was limited to the period of total line closure plus a half hour or so used to ferry relief crews to stranded freights. Every siding for miles on either side of the incident was occupied. Once the line was open and the crews were delivered, Amtrak was given straight rail at all locations and track speed was maintained. No significant length of slow order running was noted at any point on the BNSF to Portland. Only one ten minute delay west of Spokane was noted for freight interference. All other meets had freights in sidings, even though Amtrak was running about three hours behind its assigned slot.

Coast Starlight, UP-What more can be said, given the trip log as reported? I had read about the problems UP is having in Oregon and Northern California, but nothing prepared me for the actual conditions we saw. I have never experienced such a significant section of railroad in such gridlock. Nothing was moving at track speed for miles and miles at a time. We did not just pull into sidings for routine meets; we sat for an hour or more at each location while opposing traffic approached at a crawl. Mechanical problems and dead-on-law crews were frequent and only served to exacerbate an already-bad situation. The Starlight had to be recrewed twice between Portland and Sacramento due to hours of delay in each crew district. As a retired mechanical engineer and field supervisor in the power generation industry, I can appreciate the frustration that must be felt by the line supervisors and crew foremen who are trying to make this machine work with so many parts broken and damaged. The dispatchers did make an effort to snake Amtrak around slow freights when there was reasonable opportunity, but such opportunities were few and far between.

Amtrak Equipment

We had an unanticipated and valuable opportunity to experience three different generations of Superliner sleeping cars on our three trains. The comparisons were enlightening.

Car 32025 on the California Zephyr was an unrefurbished Superliner I which was showing its age. The floor and interior details were looking a bit ratty. We used the shower on the first night out and found it serviceable but difficult to control. The drain was partially plugged and an inch or two of water would accumulate whenever the water was turned on. The restrooms were OK but looked a bit worn. Water in the basins was under too high pressure and squirted and splashed everywhere when the tiny handles were pressed. There was no way to modulate a partial stream.

Car 32011 on the Empire Builder was a Superliner I rebuilt by Beech Grove in 1995. It was in very good shape and clearly the best of the three sleepers we rode. Restroom modules were completely different from the original style and worked well. New sinks and water controls provided a smooth stream of hot or cold water and allowed normal rinsing with a delay-off feature. The only problem was an extremely slow water heater that took overnight to recover warm water for the shower. It was inspected during our stop in Minot and the water tank refilled but for no improvement.

Our car on the Starlight (number unrecorded) was a Superliner II. Like the unrefurbished Superliner I version, it was starting to show wear. Restroom modules were of yet another design more similar to the S-I equipment than the Beach Grove equipment. Water pressure was OK but the faucets did not have the delay-off feature. The shower worked well.

The lack of the Pacific Parlour car on three out of the five Starlight equipment sets is, in my opinion, a classic example of the fallacy of Congressional micromanagement. The specific car removed from the trainset we rode was reported pulled due to an air conditioning problem, a relatively minor fix. Rather than spend a small amount of money to keep the quality of service up and the customers happy, however, the short-term mandate is to cut costs anywhere possible in the sleeping car budget with no value placed on the long-term effects for future revenue.

Pleasantly, there were no major Amtrak equipment or air conditioning failures on any of the trains ridden. The only serious problem was a failure of all toilets in the adjacent sleeper 32099 “New Mexico” approaching Denver on our eastbound California Zephyr. To my knowledge the problem was not corrected for the remainder of the trip to Chicago.

Dining & Meal Service

Our trip gave us the chance to sample two versions of the simplified dining service (SDS) plus the traditional service on the Empire Builder. Although my wife and I do not always see the same things in food service-I have been accused of being willing to eat “anything” and she has a number of allergy and caloric restrictions-we did reach general consensus that the simplified service is not too bad but does not meet expectations for “first class” or the prices charged. Following are some specific observations:

  • The biggest drawback to SDS is the lack of cooked egg selections at breakfast and the lack of grilled meat entrees at dinner. We and most of our tablemates on the Empire Builder chose the steak for dinner as the other selections appeared to be quite similar to those available under SDS.
  • The eggless SDS breakfast selections and scrambles were quite good, although a bit too salty.
  • Broccoli under SDS was rubbery and sometimes very difficult to cut with a fork while the same vegetable on the Builder was noticeably easier to handle. Both tasted good.
  • The hamburger selection was always a winner for the lunch menu. The chicken sandwich was OK under SDS but not quite as filling as the burger.
  • The chicken dinner under SDS was inconsistent-my wife had a bird that seemed to get bigger and tougher with every chew but I had one at a later meal that was just fine.
  • Reservations for meals were handled politely and effectively in all cases. Since we were not in coach on any segments of our trip we cannot vouch for the service to coach passengers.
  • We were impressed in all cases by the efficiency with which all dining crews handled their customers and served meals.
  • SDS seating filled only about half of the dining tables at any one time. People rotated in and out every 15 minutes or more often if space and food availability permitted. More tables were in use at any given time under traditional service.
  • As far as we could tell, everyone who desired to eat in the dining car was accommodated on all trains, although the last dinner seating was often very late around 9 o’clock.
  • without exception, all dining car personnel were cheerful and on the ball at all times on all trains. We never saw a surly waiter or had food thrown at our table. Refills for drinks could be obtained in reasonable time. Dining personnel under SDS were more harried and took longer to respond but still gave acceptable service.
  • Over-salting and sneak MSG in sauces were minor problems not unique to Amtrak. My wife has learned to stay away from suspect dishes no matter where she eats.
  • In timeless Amtrak tradition, many entrees were out of stock on the last day of travel on the CZ. In fairness, however, the CZ serves more meal periods per trip than the Builder or Starlight.
  • Others we observed seemed to have the typical range of reactions from “not eating that if you paid me” to “delicious” in about the same proportion as always.
  • Menu prices are steep, certainly significantly higher than one would find for casual dining on “dry land”. SDS fell short for the quality expected for first class service.

Bottom Line: Is SDS a noticeable step down from traditional dining service? Absolutely yes, but not a fatally large step in our experience. Would SDS prevent us from using Amtrak with other factors being equal? Absolutely not. Other factors such as cleanliness of cars, attitude of crew members and condition/functionality of equipment would be much more important to that decision. Predictably, my wife was more concerned with the “reheated TV dinner” concept than I was.

Other Amtrak Service Personnel

We had one lazy and two excellent sleeping car attendants in our travels. Our CZ attendant let restroom supplies run out until asked and did not keep bottled water available for car occupants. His first response to any request for seat covers, water, etc. was always that the item had run out, but if pressed he was always able to find more somewhere. We caught on to this game early on and never backed off until we got what we wanted. Our final exposure to his self-proclaimed “forty years doing this job” was approaching our stop at Naperville when he asked us to carry our four large bags to the upper level and to the next car to get off because he had already positioned a dozen pieces of luggage in front of the vestibule door that would have to be opened. We declined his suggestion and started moving the bags ourselves until he got the message. Our other two attendants were great and had everything in place and available at all times.

The conductors on all crew districts of all trains gave informative and timely, sometimes humorous announcements and updates whenever we were stopped or delayed unexpectedly. In California and Oregon the message was repeated at every opportunity that the tracks and dispatching were controlled by the Union Pacific Railroad and that Amtrak had no control over the delays encountered. That message seemed to be well-received by most passengers.

Closing Comments

In 2000 we made a trip on the Starlight from Seattle to Klamath Falls to Sacramento which arrived over eight hours late and became known as the Trip from Hell. We were given inaccurate information as to the arrival time at Klamath several times, had to sleep on the concrete platform for several hours, experienced a/c and mechanical problems after boarding and were treated to a “free lunch” of cold French fries, cold chicken nuggets on bare white bread and had to battle the lounge attendant to substitute bottled water for soda. This year, although an hour and a half later, we were already on board for the delays, had no mechanical problems or a/c issues and were fed good meals for breakfast and lunch which would not normally have been part of our package. We were late because of Union Pacific’s problems but reasonably satisfied instead of being frazzled, hot, hungry and totally disgusted at Amtrak’s problems.

Despite the typically late running we encountered, we thoroughly enjoyed all of our travel, as did most of the other people we encountered. Even those on the hopelessly mired Starlight seemed to have a such-is-life attitude and were adapting to a better arrival in San Diego the next morning instead of at midnight on schedule. All three trains we rode were reported as completely sold out, including the guaranteed hours-late Starlight. Imagine the latent demand that could be tapped if Amtrak could court those customers who actually placed a value on timeliness!

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