The CZ: Amtrak’s forgotten train

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

As of the date this was written on February 20, 2007, the On Time Performance (OTP) of Amtrak trains 5 and 6, the California Zephyr, was 0.0%. That’s ZERO per cent, meaning NOT ONE of the trains has reached either end point within 30 minutes of its scheduled arrival time since October 1, 2006!

In August, 2006 it was 7.7% counting from October 1, 2005. On October 1, 2005 it was 24% for the whole year since October 1, 2004. On the other hand, in the time period since October 1, 2006, the Empire Builder has been OT 68% of the time, and the Southwest Chief 69%.

So, why is it that the CZ has such a poor record and, more important, why is that problem continuing year after year? The past few years OTP attention was focused on the Coast Starlight, trains 11 and 14 and on the Sunset Limited, trains 1 and 2. This year the Starlight, once dubbed the “Starlate” is a poor but improved 23.7% and the Sunset 22%. The Zephyr’s zero OTP problems are hardly noticed, except by the passengers who ride this most scenic of all Amtrak trains. In a companion trip report of his January trip on trains 4 and 5 published in this issue of the Western Rail Passenger Review and on RailPAC.ORG, Bob Snow says, “On the down side, travel on UP tracks, particularly in Nevada, is frustrating due to ‘slow time’ and what appears to be needless delays from slow moving freights. By contrast, delays on BNSF tracks used by the Southwest Chief were minimal.”

The reasons given by Amtrak usually can be narrowed down to that 129 mile stretch of double track on the Union Pacific in Nevada, between Alazon and Battle Mountain, where the condition is called “temporary speed restrictions.” These “slow orders” have been in effect now for a very long time, and can cause delays for the trains of up to 3 1/2 hours. True, there are other delays on the system, some that are Amtrak’s responsibility and others beyond their control. But, day after day, month after month, these Nevada slow orders are in effect due to poor track conditions.

Back in November, 2006, we learned that a high level Union Pacific official rode the Zephyr across this territory, calling dispatchers and other UP officials and loudly wanting to know why the train was being delayed. Amtrak and the UP have held meetings to discuss the issue. The results of those meetings were obviously inconclusive and not reflected in changing the OTP. They actually discussed rerouting the CZ, which Amtrak rejected, and of course lengthening the running time to reflect reality. The UP told Amtrak that despite some work they have done the remaining slow orders will be in effect for some time. Amtrak reportedly agreed to an “experiment” of lengthening the CZ schedule by 2 more hours, which has not yet occurred.

RailPAC member Ralph James, who lives along the route of 5/6 above Colfax in the Sierra, did some research showing in 1979 the running time for the San Francisco Zephyr westbound from Chicago to Oakland was 48 1/4 hours. In 1991 the CZ had grown to 52 hours, in 1998 it was 53 hours which it is today. Mr. James asks, “Isn’t that enough schedule padding? Compared to the early times via the DRGW, today’s times appear to be about 2 hours slower westbound. It appears from the different times the freight trains pass my house now that the slow orders plaguing Amtrak are also affecting UP’s ‘hot’ freight trains on the Central Corridor.”

Dennis Larson in Minneapolis adds, “In December of 2005 the Zephyr had an on time record of 5% and the average delay minutes per trip was 552 minutes. Figure in the recovery time of 299 minutes and the train arrived on
average 4 hours 13 minutes late. In November of 2006 the train arrived on average 5 hours and 29 minutes late. At this rate of decline, the train will not only be standing still longer than it is rolling, but every single mode of transport including horseback and a very slow boat on the river will operate at higher average speeds than the Zephyr in a very short time. All this on
the all-weather mode that is suppose to save America from highway and air gridlock.”

Amtrak President Alex Kummant has said that he is “serious about the performance of the long distance trains,” but so far as the California Zephyr is concerned the situation remains stagnant. How much longer?

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