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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / Amtrak’s western long-haul routes experience disastrous start to July

Amtrak’s western long-haul routes experience disastrous start to July

By Bob Johnston | July 12, 2022

California Zephyr and Southwest Chief especially hard hit; late Chicago departures an issue

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Passenger train seen from onboard with snow-capped mountains in distance
Passenger train seen from onboard with snow-capped mountains in distance
The Southwest Chief descends Cajon Pass into the L.A. Basin in the early-morning hours of Jan. 27, 2017. In July so far, the entry has generally taken place at midday or later. (Bob Johnston)

CHICAGO — The first 10 days of July have seen significant departure and timekeeping issues for Amtrak’s long-distance trains traveling west and south of Chicago, with few passengers able to make planned transfers at the end of their trips. And even those who did make connections often faced significant timekeeping delays.

An example: Passengers riding the California Zephyr that departed Chicago 20 minutes late on July 8 who planned on switching to the northbound Coast Starlight at Sacramento, Calif., did manage to make the connection — even though train No. 5 arrived almost 9 hours behind schedule.

More Chief trouble

Freight congestion on BNSF Railway’s Transcon west of Albuquerque has been especially worrisome. Despite generous schedule padding into Los Angeles, not one of the eight Southwest Chiefs departing Chicago from July 1 to July 9 managed to make a 1-hour, 51-minute cross-platform transfer to the Seattle-bound Coast Starlight. Seven of the eight trains suffered delays ranging from 4 hours, 16 minutes, to a whopping 12 hours, 58 minutes.

That especially tardy westbound Chief, which arrived into Los Angeles at 8:58 p.m. Sunday, July 10, instead of 8 a.m., lost more than 3 hours at Winslow, Ariz., and another 5 hours before departing nearby Flagstaff, Ariz. Delays worsen if engineers and conductors exceed the daily maximum federally allowed on-duty time and must be relieved far from a crew base .

Eastbound Southwest Chiefs during the same period fared somewhat better. Only one train missed the New York-bound Lake Shore Limited, arriving at 10:30 p.m. instead of 2:50 p.m. on July 8. But four others arrived too late for the eastbound Capitol Limited and all Midwest regional service. That includes the Chief into Chicago more than 5 hours late on Monday, July 11.

Zephyr tardiness

Passenger train in city with apartment building in background
The eastbound California Zephyr arrives into Chicago on time on June 2, 2022. Delays have plagued the train during the first 10 days of July. (Bob Johnston)

Substantial delays also plagued the California Zephyr, mostly on the Union Pacific in Colorado and further west. Eight eastbound Zephyrs leaving California from July 1-9 were more than 4 hours late into the Windy City. Meanwhile, passengers on four of nine westbound Zephyrs arrived at the Emeryville, Calif., endpoint more than 6 hours late, including those who transferred to a bus at Green River, Utah, for Salt Lake City following a washout. They switched to another bus when the make-up Zephyr that had taken them from Salt Lake terminated at Reno, Nev.

Missed connections not only inconvenience travelers but cost the company money for alternate transportation or hotels, and lost revenue from suddenly unsold space on a connecting train. One passenger tells News Wire that he received vouchers or Guest Rewards points valued at $980, $1,100, and $600 from Amtrak Customer Relations as a result of three disrupted trips in 2022.

Issues leaving Chicago

 The Empire Builder, Texas Eagle, Coast Starlight, City of New Orleans, and Sunset Limited also suffered occasional en-route delays in early July, but few as consistently debilitating as those encountered by the Zephyr and Chief.

Table showing delays for Amtrak long distance trains leaving Chicago Union StationHowever, trains leaving from Chicago were not immune from terminal tardiness. Amtrak does not provide data other than attributing delays to “mechanical issues,” though multiple late inbound arrivals can cause shop staffing, inspection, and maintenance protocols to be rearranged.

The table at right shows delays for long-distance trains heading west or south from trains from Chicago between July 1-10. These late departures can place a train out of its scheduled slot on routes with heavy freight train activity or single track, exacerbating delays by shuffling normal meets or overtaking.

28 thoughts on “Amtrak’s western long-haul routes experience disastrous start to July

  1. Leadership and management of Amtrak are a sad, sad joke. Is there no one in the US capable of managing this railroad in the manner it and we taxpayers deserve?

    1. The problems with the SW Chief have absolutely nothing to do with Amtrak management and everything to do with the state of the BNSF. I was along the Southern Transcon between Needles, CA and Seligman, AZ the end of 4th of July week and trains are stacked end to end in the dozens along the line. Some trains have to see-saw around others, multiple trains are coupled together and still end up sitting. For an example, just outside of Kingman, AZ I saw 6, yes 6, Westbounds with no crews tied up on one of the mains…that’s a recipe for disaster. It wasn’t much better farther west either…do not blame Amtrak for the failures of the railroads. Also remember that BNSF does not eschew the PSR hoopla that everyone else does…there’s other issues at work here, such as lack of crews.

  2. “Leadership and management of Amtrak are a sad, sad joke. Is there no one in the US capable of managing this railroad in the manner it and we taxpayers deserve?”

    Not sure it is that easy. Once Amtrak trains leave Chicago Union Station and are out of the yard, does Amtrak management have any control over them? In other words, how much of the delay is due to host railroad issues vs. Amtrak’s control over equipment, staffing, etc. Sounds like the problems are snowballing with one late arrival causing delays to other outgoing trains.

  3. “Leadership and management of Amtrak are a sad, sad joke…?”

    Not sure it is that easy. Once Amtrak trains leave Chicago Union Station and are out of the yard, does Amtrak management have any real control over them? In other words, how much of the delay is due to host railroad issues vs. Amtrak’s control over equipment, staffing, etc. Sounds like the problems are snowballing with one late arrival causing delays to other outgoing trains.

  4. Ponder this: If more of Amtrak’s TOP mgmt were actually on the property, that is “Riding the LD trains”, do you think the delays would be so egregious? Personally I don’t. Back in the day when President Claytor rode the rails, trains he was on were virtually NEVER late. Now, I know there are a LOT of other factors involved, but the dearth of ridership by top brass is alarming, ESPECIALLY when it is entirely possible to “work remotely” today, more so than in the past.

  5. It’s not Amtrak alone, is it? All those “precision scheduled” railroads seem to have no end of congestion, derailments, waits for crews, etc., etc.. Management do need to get out and manage, and those who do the real work need to be motivated, and not subject to unfriendly conditions of work.

    1. Gotta have equipment (turnaround time) inbound trains become outbound trains.
      Gotta have crews
      With older equipment, more failures and better to find them in Chicago, than out on the route where help is scarce.

  6. And where is oversight by DOT and its management/leaders? If they were actually on the property, maybe they would see what the rest of us have to put up with.

    1. Just how many people do you think DOT (actually FRA specifically) has on staff to do on site inspections. With decades of stinginess, I would bet the authorized number is low and with at least a decade of civil service freezes and govt furloughs the actual number is even lower. Anyway its not the regulators who are directly responsible but management of the Class 1s and Amtrak and they can only manage within the bounds of the resources, incentives and limitations they were given.

      1. So what does DOT really do? I assumed that a federal regulatory agency would monitor how federal dollars are spent AND that taxpayers are getting value for the dollars spent. On site inspections are not the issue, rather value for the tax dollars spent. I myself can monitor Amtrak train timeliness from my computer at home. Reliability of service is what should be monitored. Inspect what you expect. Alas, no one at DOT seems to care what the traveling public is experiencing, by rail or by air (which as far worse). Both modes receive not inconsequential tax dollars.

    2. USDOT is clueless and so is FRA administrator Amit Bose. And SecTrans Buttigieg won’t even bother to ride in the NEC. He drove WAS-NYC after his flight was cancelled. But he will tell you with a straight face that Amtrak service is a vital ingredient in American transportation.

  7. If former Senators Lott and Bailey Hutchinson were still in the Senate, Gardner and Coscia would have been caked on the carpet long ago. No one in Congress cares about Amtrak except for occasional lip service. Amtrak is dying a slow death and no one seems to care.
    President Carter presided over the loss of 6 trains, Clinton 3 trains and so called Amtrak Joe (I want to vomit by just typing that) looks to be presiding over the demise of Amtrak.

    1. I’m with you Mike Lusting. I can’t get past the letter “J” in Joe Biden’s name without vomiting. Every cell in his body makes me sick. I’d vote for Joe Stalin before I’d vote for Joe Biden.

      Richard M. Nixon, a/k/a/ Dirty Dick, didn’t want Amtrak. Ironic that the best Amtrak trains west of Chicago were when Dirty Dick was U.S. president.

  8. Two or three times a week the WB Empire Bldr out of Chicago arrives at Glenview its first stop 3-4 hrs late I assume it is due to equipment issues whether it is problems with the old locomotives or the new ones or the cars or all of the above I don’t know but they never make up that lost time.

    1. Mike Lustig — You do bring up a point, maybe inadvertently. We not only have a useless president (and useless SecDOT), we also have a useless Congress.

      The recent SCOTUS ruling curbing the executive agencies (specifically EPA) wasn’t only aimed at the executive branch. It was also aimed at Congress. The reason the executive branch is so out of control with making laws, is that Congress doesn’t do anything.

  9. All of this demise of Amtrak started after Boardman retired. Now we have fewer experienced managers, fewer employees, fewer operable and aging Superliners combined with PSR on all of the Class Is except BNSF, and CEOs from the airline industry. About the only thing not wrong with the western and southern LD trains are the new locomotives.

    1. Gratuitous comments about President Biden are certainly unhelpful and substitute for focusing on real problems. I was recently subject to a five hour delay on no. 5 out of Denver. I was notified by text, but when I called Amtrak to ask why the train was running so late, the clerk had no answer. It turned out to be a bad air conditioning unit that had to be fixed before the train could leave Chicago. It would seem that equipment accounts for some terminal delays, but I have to wonder about middle management in the yards and shops-why was a car with a bad air conditioner even in the consist that morning unless they worked all night to try and fix it, which I doubt. The other problem is the host railroads. When one is on a late train, there doesn’t appear to be an effort by the railroad to prioritize the train’s movement via dispatching choices. The railroads just don’t appear to try very hard to get Amtrak trains over the rails on time.I recall riding on the Santa Fe when a late train was a true exception. Not true anymore by a mile.

  10. Too many damn freight trains! And in the case of the Union Pacific, they’re too damn long! The railroads operating practices have made their mainlines incompatible with Amtrak’s higher speed long distance passenger trains! Nobody on the federal level wants to do anything, especially if it means slowing down the supply chain! The freight railroads don’t want to park trains with millions of dollars of products and crews often short on hours, just to let Amtrak get by. Plus, there’s no resiliency left in the railroad! One bad storm, pedestrian or auto incident, and the railroad is backed up for hours, sometimes days! Amtrak just can’t keep sending these trains without a chance of maintaining any semblance of a schedule or connections. Post notices and send emails regarding potential freight delays. At least, let people know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

  11. Delays, are posted on line in the National Alerts and the Northeast Corridor Alerts. It’s disgusting every day to look at the “on-time” performance of the long-distance trains and even a couple of the corridors, Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis. I am starting to become numb to the Crescent, the Sunset, Texas Eagle, Southwest Chief and the CZ.

  12. Just remember, that as far as the freight railroads are concerned, Amtrak is one big nuisance they’d love to be rid of. Only when Amtrak owns the track and controls the dispatching, will passenger trains run on time. On the NEC trains general run close to on time.

  13. The answers to this repetition compulsion issue created by, and tolerated by Amtrak, that a blind man could see them; a nitwit could recite them by heart chapter and verse.

    1) Corporate management lacks the railroad experience credentials required in this industry.
    2) Compounding that vacuum in leadership is a Board of Directors missing the requisite expertise to hold management accountable.
    3) Lacking Board oversight and stewardship, corporate management pushed out the remnants of competent senior and middle management to achieve their annual bonus predicated upon simply cutting costs, without regard to the negative impact on the operation.
    4) This unbridled self-serving aggrandizement at the expense of being able to function was clearly displayed in the panic reaction to COVID by drastically cutting experienced ops and maintenance/repair staff that directly impacted and prevented Amtrak from re-railing itself, due to equipment being mothballed instead of maintained; skilled staff discharged; experienced HR put on the bricks and not around to recruit/train ops and maintenance replacements; consists severly restricted and revenue impacted.
    5) Neither Congress nor any GAO has figured out how the excessively padded and late schedules prevent the fullest use of limited resources (equipment); indeed, leadership and Congress tolerate such a pathetic utilization of assets that any idea of increasing frequencies or new start-ups is only a joke. This explains the horrific scheduling of the eastbound “Capitol Limited” and “Lake Shore Limited;” both directions of the “City of New Orleans,” as Amtrak obviously acknowledges its total inability to run trains that meet their connections from the west.
    6) Has the GAO figured out what Amtrak is paying performance bonus dollars for to the Class 1s? Why has the GAO not commented on the lack of management riding the long distance trains; given the extreme level of supervision missing en route due to the lack of interest by corporate management. With no mandate to ride these trains, anything goes, nobody cares; least of all anyone at HQ?

    Hands-on, knowledgeable leadership is long gone, as evidenced by Reistrup, Claytor, and Gunn

    Given these hard facts, no wonder Amtrak supplies long distance diners with so many cans of liquidfied beef to cover constantly late trains.

  14. Before Amtrak I was on the Cal Zephyr which had been delayed (on WP) and the on board passenger rep checked the ticket coupons and saw I was connecting in SF with ATSF to Barstow. He suggested I make the connection in Stockton instead of SFO.

    Actually I had schedulled a day in SFO so I was good but it was nice they had noticed and come up with an alternate plan.

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