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‘California Zephyr’ route closed by Colorado mudslides

By Bob Johnston | August 2, 2021

Bus alternative unavailable because of slide on I-70

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Man unloads luggage from Superliner car
Man unloads luggage from Superliner car
Baggage is unloaded from the westbound California Zephyr at Glenwood Springs, Colo., on October 15, 2020. Mudslides east of Glenwood Springs have blocked the Zephyr‘s route. (Bob Johnston)

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Massive mudslides have washed out Union Pacific’s former Denver & Rio Grande Western route through Glenwood Canyon, east of Glenwood Springs, while also blocking part of adjacent Interstate 70.

The slides not only have disrupted Amtrak’s California Zephyrs, which normally pass in the area between crew change points in Denver and Grand Junction, Colo., but also mean alternate bus transportation has not been available. Eastbound and westbound trains already en route were terminated (short of the slide location) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and turned the same day at Denver or Grand Junction to return to their starting point. In doing so, they assumed the schedule of the trains that had been terminated.

Stranded passengers were given the option to return to their point of origin or wait for the line to open. Affected customers on Zephyrs that hadn’t departed when the mudslides occurred were contacted and offered refunds or assistance with rebooking.

More than 100 motorists were trapped in their cars overnight Thursday, including 29 who took refuge in the road’s Hanging Lake Tunnel, CNN reports.

On Saturday, additional mudslides also closed a highway north of Granby, Colo., a station on the Zephyr’s route, and U.S. Route 6 over Loveland Pass. The Colorado Department of Transportation said I-70 would remained closed through the weekend.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Susan Stevens tells Trains News Wire, “Ten locations on the track were impacted by mud and rock slides. Equipment is on site and crews are working to clear the debris. Several locations were already cleared before cleanup was temporarily delayed for safety concerns due to weather.”

Crews worked Saturday and Sunday to clear the last few locations. The railroad anticipates that route will be open again early Monday, but UP’s Kristen South cautions, “Reopening is contingent on the weather cooperating with us.”

Amtrak spokeswoman Beth Toll tells News Wire, “There was an initial discussion about detouring through Wyoming, but this was unable to be supported.” The company advised passengers on Zephyrs departing from Chicago and Emeryville, Calif., on Sunday that service “may be affected” through the area, meaning the trains may or may not be able to pass through the canyon today.

The mudslides and closures come just two weeks before the scheduled Aug. 15 debut of Rocky Mountaineer’s “Rockies to Red Rocks” daytime excursions using the same route.

6 thoughts on “‘California Zephyr’ route closed by Colorado mudslides

  1. I heard third handed that Amtrak wanted to detour across Wyoming but UP had no crews to spare to pilot Amtrak.
    Perhaps Amtrak should have their Denver and Salt Lake T&E crews do one qualifying run a year on UP across Wyoming so when the need arises, Amtrak can detour without UP pilots.
    Mike

    1. With all the operational issues UP is having due to multiple route closures, I suspect this has more to do with congestion on the Overland Route than anything. UP likely does not want to add additional traffic to the mix.

      The California Zephyr is already incurring significant delays on UP between Salt Lake City and Sacramento due to the increased freight detour traffic that cannot go north on the I-5 Corridor.

  2. Another bus detour alternative is Denver-Salt Lake City via I-80 across Wyoming. I wonder if that was considered?

  3. Amtrak’s Beth Toll: “There was some initial discussion about detouring through Wyoming, but this was unable to be supported”. What exactly does “unable to be supported” supposed to mean? Did Amtrak send their PR/Media Relations people to school to learn corporate double-speak or smokescreen-speak? Or was Ms. Toll born with that “gift” and
    Richard Anderson or William Flynn or Stephen Gardner sensed that when she interviewed and promptly gave her the the job? If indeed there were problems like the ones Messers. Lustig and Cessna suggested, and that very well could be so, she could have been directed to say them in terms non-railroaders could understand. It’s not hard. This crap has been going on ever since Richard Anderson got his hooks into Amtrak. Remember the first public announcement after the Cayce, SC head-on? #91 “made contact” with a freight train. I forget what all-star was charged with putting that one out? Was it that Anderson and Gardner thought the pictures of the wreck would never come out that they authorized that disgraceful description?

  4. I would ask Mr. Shapp why he thinks Amtrak, UP or anyone is obligated to explain to him the specifics about why the train couldn’t be accommodated through Wyoming. The bottom line is that the train couldn’t run that way, and by the tone of Mr. Shapp’s posting, it’s unlikely that ANYTHING the Amtrak spokesperson could have said would have been sufficient. Yet, the explanation is similar to those I’ve experienced during service interruptions while flying, and to press releases freight railroads put out due to service interruptions on their routes: Be it derailment, weather, trackwork, whatever; not a lot of detail. Bottom line: The track is closed and we expect X hours of delays, etc. The actual reasons could have been quite complex but the result would be the same: The train can’t run that way, and no explanation could change that outcome.

    As for Mr. Lustig’s suggestion about Amtrak crews doing qualifying runs every year on UP across Wyoming: Would UP allow it? Would Amtrak have the crews for it during the pandemic? Would UP consider once a year sufficient? (Answer: No) Should Amtrak do this everywhere, like between Denver and Omaha, Omaha and Chicago, Weso/Winnemucca and Sacramento, and between Everywhere and Everywhere Else? Seriously, where would you draw the line? And, it would be a huge recurring perpetual expense, especially during a pandemic when for many months Amtrak was not assured of funding to even continue. And maybe it was just that UP didn’t want Amtrak out there on its Wyoming route – period. Freight volumes are up, and one more train increases the likelihood of delays. (I have been involved in this situation many times when it gets to the point, that no: You can’t run even “just one more train.”) Maybe there was trackwork when Amtrak would have passed. Perhaps Amtrak had no guaranteed way to position crews even if a UP pilot was available. All over the west (and Canada) contract van drivers are in demand to transport crews – part of the overall pandemic-related worker shortage. And maybe there would be a shortage of vans to transport the crews (and no, they couldn’t be assured of a Denver-Salt Lake trip within 12 hours including initial and final terminal dwell, so an intermediate crew change and subsequent transport of another crew would be a given); after all, there’s a nationwide shortage of motor vehicles in general. Maybe the contract van company downsized during the pandemic like everyone else did (especially car rental companies, for example), and they’re short of equipment and drivers. In other words, the reasons for not detouring could be complex, and likely would also appear as “double-speak” to non-railroaders.

    Having actually managed crews (as well as locomotives and car distribution) as a railroader during sustained and complex line closures resulting in service interruptions, I can testify to the amount of detail that needs to be addressed in any such situation. Toss in a pandemic that no one out there has experienced before (I doubt there are any current railroaders that were active during the last one in 1918), and the situation could have indeed been such that a detour was not possible, or at least exceptionally undesirable. And of course, there are the numerous service interruptions all over the Western U.S. due to flash flooding to wildfires to which UP was not immune. Maybe these additional service interruptions do not specifically affect the Wyoming line, but with widespread long detouring situations in effect at other locations, the WHOLE RAILROAD suffers additional personnel are required and cycle time for locomotives and rolling stock increase, negatively affecting service everywhere. In any event, none of us participating in this forum has standing to really know.

    As someone who has witnessed Amtrak’s myriad shortcomings and incompetencies over the past years (many first hand on the job), I have written more than my share of hate letters to and about Amtrak on a wide array of topics. But when I see major airlines routinely canceling hundreds of flights a week due to labor shortages and restaurants and grocery stores running out of items simply because no delivery drivers are available, I tend to cut just about anyone some extra slack. I don’t know about the other posters on this topic, but I can’t think of anything in my daily life that has not been affected by the pandemic and the wildfire/weather situation has only exacerbated the situation for the railroads. So, to imply that Amtrak or UP or anything else really could not be affected shows a lack of empathy for the people who are dealing this every day and every day. And by the way, I have spoken with some of these railroaders, and they’ll tell you, it’s a whole new world out there, with only continued uncertainty on the horizon at this point.

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