Commentary, Rail Photos

OTP on the Southwest Chief lately

How has Amtrak train 3/4, the Southwest Chief, (and others) been doing lately?
Commentary by Russ Jackson
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When a long distance train has a very good on time performance it’s a time to celebrate, and while the Southwest Chief regularly has one of Amtrak’s best records it’s good to look once in a while.

Southwest Chief #3 is arriving at Los Angeles Union Station at 1:30 PM on August 9, 2007, an unusually late arrival. (Photo by Mike Palmer)

For the year to date, starting October 1, 2006 through September 1, trains 3 and 4 have been “on time,” (meaning no later than 30 minutes late according to the timetable), 60% of the time. That still means, however, 4 out of every 10 Chiefs arrive at their endpoints late. The relatively good record shows “on time” can be done by these trains, and the BNSF works with Amtrak to run them that way.

For the two weeks between September 8 and 21, Train 3 arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago “On Time or Early” 9 times. For the same period, Train 4 arrived in Albuquerque from Los Angeles “On Time or Early” every day but one. However, for the last four days of that reporting period #3 has been late one to two hours. Regular early arrival in ABQ for #3 and 4 has been experienced for some time. When this writer rode it in October, 2006, BOTH 3 and 4 were early at ABQ. “Reliable”? If you are planning a long distance train trip, the Southwest Chief is the one to select. Compared to the other western long distance trains entering/leaving California it stands head and shoulders above them.

Southwest Chief #4 has arrived at the Albuquerque, New Mexico, train station early on Ocober 8, 2006, a nearly normal occurrence. (Photo by Russ Jackson with Jon Messier)

Followup: The past two months we have checked and reported on time performance for the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight. What has been their results in the same two reporting weeks, September 8 to 21? Not as rosy, but not too bad for three of the four affected trains. For the year to date trains 5/6 are on time 8.8%, although for the first half of September it is 47%, while trains 11/14 are 21%, and the first half of September are at 31.3%.

Specifically for train 6, from September 8 to 21 it was on time or a few minutes late into Salt Lake City 6 times, and no more than 30 minutes late 7 times. Train #5, the westbound Zephyr, arrived in Salt Lake City from Chicago and Denver 8 times, and into Sacramento “on time or early” 5 times with 4 others under 45 minutes late. Again, this proves that the extended schedule is workable. At the RailPAC September 15 meeting Amtrak’s Jonathan Hutchison said Amtrak will return 5/6 to the regular schedule when the Union Pacific completes its track projects in Nevada.

RailPAC Associate Director/InterMountainRail, John Dornoff, rode 5/6 round trip between Salt Lake City and Denver for a meeting earlier in September. He reports that eastbound 6 was on time despite it leaving Elko almost 2 hours late and the train must back in and out of the SLC station because of track construction. It was 20 minutes late at Denver. Westbound it was 2 1/2 hours late out of Denver but arrived SLC only two hours late. For a colorful trip report, see his trip posted on

The Coast Starlight is another matter, however. The southbound train, #11, arrived in Los Angeles “EARLY” 10 times! Only two days, the 12th and 13th, was it very late. Then we look at the northbound #14. Its record of arrival during the same two weeks at Sacramento showed three days it was two minutes early or no more than 11 minutes late. The other days it was late within a reasonable time of 60 minutes or less. Going north from there, however, #14 encounters Union Pacific track gangs working inside defined windows, more freight interference and other delays more often, so it arrived in EUG 66 minutes late on September 9, but was late in TRIPLE DIGIT minutes every other day!

As they say, three out of four means you are batting .750. Just wait until next month when we report on the Sunset Limited. As of September 15, 2007, trains 1/2 have been on time only 14% since October 1, 2006.

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