The Denver Crossover for the Southwest Zephyr and the California Chief.

By Noel T. Braymer

A major problem since the creation of Amtrak is there are so many places it is impossible for passengers to get to by Rail in this country. It isn’t for lack of stations with over 400 Amtrak Stations over most of the continental United States. But you can’t take a train from Los Angeles to Denver or Omaha. You also can’t get from St. Louis to Salt Lake City or Sacramento by passenger train. The problem is most long distance trains run east-west between Chicago and the West Coast. Practically the only north-south trains are at the ends between Los Angeles and Seattle and Chicago to New Orleans. There is a simple way to solve this problem by running connecting trains as sections of some of these long distance trains.

In Colorado we have two long distance trains that run less than 200 miles apart from each other and travel in the same direction at roughly the same time. Running connecting sections between these trains will add dozens of new stations and markets to these trains. But to make this happen will require some schedule adjustments. Naturally this is easier said than done because often you create 2 problems for every problem you solve changing a schedule.

The closest point the eastbound Southwest Chief from Los Angeles gets to Denver is at Trinidad, Colorado at 193 miles. The eastbound Chief is now scheduled in Trinidad at 5:40 PM while the eastbound California Zephyr is scheduled at to leave Denver at 7:10 PM. Clearly this is not enough time to travel 193 miles. The Chief will need to arrive in Trinidad earlier and the Zephyr leave Denver later to make a connections. It takes a car about 3 hours and 10 minutes to drive from Trinidad to Denver, but  by train for now it will require at least 4 hours or a little more,

Going westbound the Zephyr now departs Denver at 8:05 AM while the Chief departs Trinidad at 9:50 AM. Again schedule adjustments would be needed but are not impossible. Notice the time between connections is over 12 hour now from 5:40 PM to 9:50 AM. This gives over 12 hours for one train set to make a round trip from Trinidad and back. That means one set of equipment can make the connection in a day to and from the Chief. If a trainset ran as a shuttle this would require passengers changing trains twice from the Chief to the Zephyr and vice versa. There isn’t a maintenance base to service this one trainset in Colorado. It would take 3 trainsets to run this train as a section of the Chief to transfer passenger to the Zephyr and back. To run this section on the Zephry would likely require at least an additional 3 more trainsets but would attract the most passengers and make it easier for them to transfer between these two trains.

Such a connection between the Zephyr and Chief would likely rule out rail passenger service to the populated area north of Denver around Boulder, Loveland, Fort Collins,  and Cheyenne. Trying to serve these cities would mean very early morning and late evening service. Although bus connections are a strong possibility to these towns. But in terms of increasing passenger miles connecting between the Chief and Zephyr has a higher priority than a non-connecting section of the Chief just to Denver and Cheyenne.

Now lets look at connections on the Chief from Chicago to the Zephyr. The closest point from Chicago to Denver on the Chief is at La Junta, Colorado at 174 miles. The westbound Chief arrives at La Junta at 8:15 AM while the westbound Zephyr leaves Denver at 8:05 AM. Again to make this work for a connection changes to the schedule will be needed. Eastbound the Chief arrives at 7:31 PM while the Zephyr leaves Denver at 7:10 PM, again this would need an readjustment to the schedules. To make this section work better it should leave Chicago before the main Chief and go first to St. Louis and connect with the Chief at Kansas City. This creates a direct service for the Chief on the Zephyr from Denver west to the existing stations in Missouri and Illinois. Like the Los Angeles section the equipment could overnight in Denver or continue on westbound from Denver while the Los Angeles Section continues on to Chicago on the Zephyr.

Central to making all of this work is money. Particularly money to rebuild the BNSF tracks east of Grant, New Mexico through Albuquerque to Hutchinson, Kansas. These connections between the Chief and Zephyr won’t work if the Southwest Chief is rerouted to Belen, New Mexico through Armarillo, Texas on the BNSF Mainline. To provide more reasons to spend this money it is best to increase the benefits from doing so. By including connections between the Chief and the Zephyr as part of the deal to rebuild the route of the Chief between New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas this greatly increases the benefits to more places and trains. Improving these tracks will also allow higher speeds which will give more scheduling flexibility to making the connections between the Chief and Zephyr possible. With track improvements this can make possible additional future local service between New Mexico and Colorado.

This isn’t and shouldn’t be a question of benefiting just the three States of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. But also California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois can also benefit. This would make extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to connect with the Chief an even better idea. The biggest problem if this is done is getting enough equipment to carry all the new passengers these improvements will bring to these trains.

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