News & Reviews News Wire Weather cancellations impact Amtrak and its western network

Weather cancellations impact Amtrak and its western network

By Bob Johnston | January 6, 2023

| Last updated on February 6, 2024

Coast Starlight canceled north of Sacramento; Empire Builder didn’t
run for 8 days west of Twin Cities over the holidays

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amtrak blue and grey passenger train
Weather cancellations impact Amtrak: The northbound Coast Starlight pauses at Eugene, Ore., in sunnier times on June 16, 2021. The train has been canceled due to harsh conditions north of Sacramento, Calif., through the Jan. 8 and possibly longer. The route between Eugene and Seattle is unaffected, but Amtrak is not running a truncated Starlight between those points. Two photos, Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — The well-publicized snows that buried Buffalo, N.Y., and resulted in a lengthy cancellation of the New York/Boston-Chicago Lake Shore Limited haven’t been this winter’s only disruptor of Amtrak’s national network. Extreme weather since late December has also been responsible for two significant Amtrak long-distance train cancellations in the west.

Flooding truncates Starlight

The latest weather casualty is Amtrak’s Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight, which has officially been canceled in both directions north of Sacramento, Calif., through Sunday, Jan. 8. However, as of midday Friday, the reservation system is showing “sold-out” through next Wednesday, Jan. 11. Amtrak typically blocks new long-distance train sales to facilitate rebooking passengers displaced by earlier cancellations, or if it is likely a train might be canceled for an extended period.

Successive waves of rain have caused serious flooding north of Sacramento during the past week. The northbound train leaving Los Angeles on Dec. 31 made it as far as the California capital, then spent the next 24 hours there, reportedly waiting for a rested, qualified crew off of its southbound counterpart. That train had been held at Chico, Calif., six hours for clear track. Both trains detoured via Roseville, Calif., to escape flooding on the regular route.

New Year’s Day Starlights were then canceled in both directions, as were trains departing Los Angeles and Seattle on Wednesday, Jan. 4. Beginning the next day, they only operated south of Sacramento. Although Seattle-Eugene, Ore., Cascades corridor trains have been operating with some weather and mechanical delays, Amtrak is not running a stub Coast Starlight to provide its usual daily round-trip on that corridor.

red, black, and blue Amtrak passenger train
Weather cancellations impact Amtrak: The first westbound Empire Builder to leave Chicago for the West Coast since Dec. 19 accelerates past Metra’s Mayfair (Ill.) station on Dec. 30, 2022. Amtrak operated round-trips to St. Paul, Minn. the previous two days.

Snow, extreme cold hamper Builder

Empire Builder canceled for more than a week The company did begin operating a truncated Empire Builder between Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., for two days before full service was restored on the train’s 2,200-mile route to and from Seattle/Portland, Ore., on Dec. 30.

With sub-zero temperatures and blizzard conditions threatening, Amtrak began canceling the Builder on Dec. 20 and 21 after all three Siemens ALC42 locomotives leading the eastbound train departing the West Coast on Dec. 18 completely shut down near Detroit Lakes, Minn. [see “Amtrak cancels more trains as winter storm advances,” “News Wire,” Dec. 22, 2022].

Although the snow would subside, extreme cold temperatures continued across Northern Plains to Chicago. Amtrak would announce a series of subsequent cancellations — in most cases a day or two before each departure, through the Christmas holiday weekend and beyond. Westbound trains did depart Chicago for St. Paul, on Dec. 28 and 29, returning back to Chicago the following day.

The trains provide a vital mobility link from Washington State to Wisconsin between communities that have few public transportation options. Trains News Wire asked Amtrak and BNSF Railway for explanations of why each day’s Builder was canceled during the period, as well as the reason for the multiple ALC42 locomotive failures.

Though the operator and host railroad declined to reveal specifics, both have provided statements outlining the decision process.

BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent, says her company, “provided daily updates to Amtrak’s operating team regarding network conditions, forecast, and outlook so Amtrak could make informed annulment decisions for train nos. 7 and 8. Extreme low temperatures [minus-30s], elevated avalanche risk [rapid warm up and rain in Glacier National Park], and a flooding event on the Lakeside Subdivision [between Spokane and Pasco, Wash.] were contributing factors during the annulment period.”

Regarding issues with the Siemens power, Kent tells News Wire, “While BNSF and Amtrak operating teams have been in discussion regarding ALC42 locomotives, BNSF has not implemented any ALC42 specific restrictions.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari adds, “We work closely with BNSF to assess conditions on the route. In this case, after operating trains with many hours of delay and facing very severe conditions, we made the decision to cancel round-trips. These decisions are not made lightly, and we did so with an abundance of caution.”

14 thoughts on “Weather cancellations impact Amtrak and its western network

  1. So, here’s an hoary anecdote from the ancient past…back in the Milw. Rd. salad days with the Olympian Hiawatha, the Road considered a 40 hour Chicago-Seattle card, a la the Super Chief.

  2. How many freight trains were cancelled because of the weather? Amtrak’s slogan should be ” If the sun ain’t shinin. we ain’t runnin”.

  3. Three brand-new high-tech locomotives just suddenly die en route. What kind of nonsense is this?? Perhaps the Builder would run better if Amtrak would arrange for BNSF to have a freight loco (or two) with higher-speed gearing (70 MPH IM service) on “the point” and find some reliable older passenger unit(s) to follow behind for electric power for the train.

  4. Reading about these tales of woe, since there seems to be problems with the new Charger locomotives, maybe the best solution is to acquire some surplus freight power and let the builder remanufacture them to be more suitable for long distance passenger use, especially out west. For head end power, get some retired Amtrak units and rebuild them as head end power cars. This will give shop crews time to figure out the new Siemens power and how to maintain them. As to technology, face it. everything is getting more complex. Just look at your car.

    1. I’m guessing UP has surplus SD70M’s. Buy some for the Empire Builder and California Zephyr, send to EMD Progress Rail for a rebuilt like Metra did with SD70MAC’s and put in service. Also send some current P42’s to Wabtec / GE fro a rebuilt. I know I’ve posted this more than once but I feel the idea has merit.
      Mike Lustig

  5. As they say, “when in a hole, stop digging.” Amtrak’s problems are far more than the weather.
    -The lack of a fully staffed, experienced maintenance force helps to explain the frequent breakdown of Siemens power. This lingering issue directly implicates the inexperienced corporate management that were foolhardy to dismiss the seasoned maintenance forces through buy-outs and layoffs. CEO Gardner’s claim that did not happen is pure, unadulterated manure. Indeed, despite reservations, insufficient equipment forced cancellations due to short consists, needlessly impacting holiday travel, on top of the weather.
    -Poor decision-making by neophytes to railroad management was exacerbated by the lack of a full Board; experienced in competently providing the stewardship that is sorely lacking to this day.

    In essence, Amtrak cannot dig itself out of this hole without new leadership in management and the Board. Without meaningful change, it will be left to Congress to just slash and burn, as done in 1979, when the elimination of some long distance trains did not realize any real savings.

    Time for us to accept and embrace what Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

  6. Like it has been said plenty of times……they don’t make them like they used to.
    Today’s equipment which includes both locomotives and passenger cars are made more fragile and loaded with plenty of high end technology but they can’t face up to rough weather or harsh enviromental conditons. Locomotives break down more often and both operating crews and repair teams have a tough time repairing these new creations. Let’s be real and build equipment that will last and be able to withstand tough conditions including bad weather and the harsh geography that trains have to operate through. We are not operating trains to the moon or outer space that all this so called technology is needed to operate the trains. We need equipment that runs on time and spends time out on the tracks and not in the repair shops with repair crews clueless on how to fix these new hi tech trains
    Joseph C. Markfelder

    1. AMEN Joseph. My understanding with the Siemen’s power is powdered snow getting into all the electrical.

  7. Since David Gunn was wrongly forced out as CEO, Amtrak has suffered from a perpetual dearth of inexperienced leadership, as we obviously see on display. New power-and equipment-continue to fail, perhaps a reflexion on corporate leadership’s poor assessment of how to react to the pandemic.

    For Amtrak’s CEO Gardner to claim, as the system still struggles to operate complete consists, that losing so many seasoned maintenance forces was unrelated to buy-outs and layoffs is pure unadulterated manure. What did not help the weak, inexperienced corporate management has been a non-existent Board, also reflecting a lack of experience to acceptably provide the sorely lacking stewardship and demand for accountability.

    As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

  8. Okay flooding and avalanches are justified in anulling a train.
    However since Delta Dick came to Amtrak, annulments seem to be more frequent especially with the Empire Builder.
    The Charger Locomotives have too many problems. Rather than worrying about zero emissions, perhaps Amtrak should concentrate on getting Locomotives that are reliable. Why not buy from EMD/ Progress Rail a well established locomotive Builder rather than Siemens?
    At the risk of getting off subject, as anyone noticed that all of Amtraks long distance trains have slower running times than they did 50 years ago?

    1. As to your last sentence, Mike, no one notices slower running times bcause we’re no longer interested. We’ve given up on the LDs. Decades ago I knew Santa Fe’s run time Chicago – LA like I knew the 23rd Psalm. So I could compare Amtrak’s time (albeit on a similar, not identical, route). Over the decades, I let it go.

      I couldn’t tell you Amtrak’s time on another route I used to patronize, 448/449. Because I no longer ride it.

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