Commentary, Issues

How is the California Zephyr doing since its schedule was lengthened?

Issues Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

We all know that Amtrak trains 5 and 6, the California Zephyr, have been late regularly. From August, 2006 to June, 2007, the combined on time performance of both trains at their endpoints, Chicago and Emeryville, was 0.0%. On June 21, 2007, after arduous negotiations with the Union Pacific the schedule was lengthened. Before that date the scheduled arrival time for train 5 in Emeryville was 4:49 PM, including a generous pad of almost an extra hour between Martinez and the endpoint 27 miles away. The scheduled arrival time for 6 in Chicago was 3:30 PM, including a generous hour of pad time for the 28 miles from Naperville.

The new schedule has train 5 arriving in Emeryville at 7:50 PM, with very little extra pad from Martinez, and train 6 is scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 4:25 PM, but with almost 90 minutes of extra pad from Naperville. Since the 21st of June trains 5 and 6 endpoint OTP has “improved” and as of July 4 it was 0.5% for the year to date. Train 5 arrived in Emeryville only 40 minutes late on July 3, 24 minutes late on June 23, and 42 minutes EARLY on July 2. Train 6 arrived in Chicago only 10 minutes late on June 25. ALL OTHER endpoint arrival times have been in excess of an hour late and most in triple digit minutes.

The need for the schedule lengthening was the 129 miles between milepost Alazon and Battle Mountain, Nevada, on what is nominally a double track railroad. That stretch encompasses the historic Central Pacific line and the parallel Western Pacific line that are both now owned by the UP. The official reason is “temporary speed restrictions” (slow orders). The UP has plans to repair the tracks in this area over the next two years, so there was little for Amtrak to do. It chose to lengthen the schedule of the Zephyr running through that area, with # 5 arriving in Sacramento at 5:50 PM instead of 2:15, and train 6 arriving in Salt Lake City at 4:15 AM instead of 3:15 AM. It is this segment that is of interest here, so how has it been doing since June 28 (we’ll give them a few days leeway)?

Train 5 Scheduled at Sacramento at 5:50 PM.
Train 6 Scheduled at Salt Lake City at 4:15 AM
Time actually Arrived

6/28 #5 6:51 #6 3:40 (early)
6/29 #5 8:51 #6 4:55
6/30 #5 5:12 (early!) #6 5:00
7/1 #5 1:54 AM #6 3:22 (early)
7/2 #5 6:55 #6 3:35 (early)
7/3 #5 6:01 #6 12:09 PM
7/4 #5 3:30 AM #6 8:02
7/5 #5 10:27 #6 6:40

So, what has happened? The planning for the segment between Salt Lake City and Sacramento appears to be correct and achievable. However, actual operations are proving to be something else again. Without detailing all the incidents it is apparent that it can be done, but the same old factors of freight interference, on board incidents, locomotive failures, and other variables enroute, some UP’s fault and some Amtrak’s fault, and in many cases controllable by neither of them, continue to cause major delays. The maintenance base at Emeryville has been able to turn the 5/6 trainset in an emergency in a commendable four hours, but only the basics are accomplished then.

The official Endpoint OTP since October 1, 2006 for the other long distance trains toJuly 4, 2007, showed #1/2, the Sunset Limited 16.5%; #3/4 the Southwest Chief 63.7%; 7/8 the Empire Builder 74.3%; and 11/14 the Coast Starlight 21.7%. Each of those is a bit less than the previous month, and the hot summer has just begun. Amtrak has said it will restore the shorter running time on the California Zephyr when the UP repairs to the line are finished. We can only hope.

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