Trip Report: The Zephyr, the Builder, and the Starlight

By Ralph James, RailPAC member

Trip Overview
My wife and I booked a one week cruise on Lake Michigan, which created the opportunity to include Amtrak in our travel plans between California and Chicago. We booked an economy sleeper between Sacramento and Chicago arriving two days before the cruise date with return from Chicago to Portland to Sacramento via connection to the Coast Starlight. As our travel plans developed, we ultimately departed from Colfax and detrained at Naperville to best accommodate our arrangements to be dropped off at the beginning of the trip and to pick up our rental car in the Chicago area. Our return leg also included the final bus segment back to Colfax from Sacramento.

Comment: Another example of the value of intermediate stations vs. just the major city end points. Using Colfax and Naperville greatly simplified our logistics and expenses vs. using Sacramento and Chicago. Avoiding downtown Chicago traffic and the extra hour of train travel upon arrival is a huge advantage, and we could return the rental car to a downtown location near our cruise departure for no extra charge. Note also that, because of our original ticketing, the use of these intermediate stations will not show up in Amtrak’s boarding statistics despite their value to us.

Colfax, CA to Naperville, IL, June 17-19 (California Zephyr)

We were dropped off at Colfax in plenty of time for our scheduled 12:26 departure. A phone call to Amtrak indicated that the Zephyr was running almost on time and to expect about a ten minute tardy departure from Colfax.

Our anticipated departure time came and went, however, with no train in sight. After another 30 minutes or so a slow eastbound freight crawled thru town, followed by the Zephyr. Our change in boarding station did not make the conductor’s manifest so we had to board the coach section and drag our luggage thru the diner and lounge to reach our accommodation, a minor inconvenience. We departed Colfax about 45 minutes late, still following the freight.

After about ten miles of crawling uphill, we stopped completely and were informed that the train ahead of us was stalled and the Union Pacific dispatcher was trying to figure out how to resolve the problem. Eventually, the freight was able to inch ahead about a mile to clear a manual crossover near Alta where we were able to back onto the westbound main after waiting another half hour for a westbound auto train to clear. Finally we were under way about 3 ½ hours late as we passed within sight of our home that we had left six hours earlier. So much for a running start to the trip!

We stopped at the new Reno station in “the trench” where a large crowd was on the platform. There we learned that the day’s westbound Zephyr, due thru at about 9:15 that morning, was running about 11 ½ hours late and was still a couple of hours away, according to the conductor, due mostly to a “hazmat incident” with a freight train the previous day.

After a decent night’s sleep, we awoke to sunrise on the Bonneville Salt Flats east of Wendover, an area normally traversed during the wee hours in both directions. We were delayed only briefly for a meet with the next westbound Zephyr running about as late we were and did not lose any more time to our Salt Lake City arrival about 4 ¾ hours late. A quick crew change cut our deficit by ten minutes and good running and dispatching on the western end of the Rio Grande cut our deficit by another 45 minutes by the next crew change at Grand Junction. We met the next westbound Zephyr running about on time near Glenwood Springs.

What time we made up on the western end of the Rio Grande we lost and more through slow orders on the eastern end into Denver. Freight interference did not seem to be a major factor, although we had a normal number of meets. From Denver east we made up small amounts of time and lost a bit more for BNSF slow orders and stepped off at Naperville about five hours late, one hour after the 6 PM closing of our car rental agency. As a contingency for possible late arrival, we had noted some numbers for nearby lodging and were able to book a room for the night using our cell phone when it became obvious that we would have to pick up our car the following morning.

Chicago to Portland, June 28-30 (Empire Builder)

After a week on the water we were delivered to Chicago Union Station by the cruise shuttle. With a scheduled 2:15 departure we did not have enough time to take in any major attractions, but used our three hours exploring the downtown and loop area on foot. The Metropolitan Lounge was clean and comfortable and our luggage was stored with no problem.

We departed Chicago on the dot and departed Milwaukee about 15 minutes down due to one freight meet and a few moderate slow orders on the CP. The same pattern of slowly dropping a few minutes here and there continued for the rest of the afternoon until we were about 50 minutes behind leaving Red Wing, the last stop before Minneapolis-St. Paul. Freight traffic was light and interference was not a significant issue.

Morning came between Grand Forks and Devils Lake ND where we continued to be about an hour tardy. Padding in the schedule put us only 15 minutes down for arrival at Minot. Things were looking quite good until the announcement was made that we would be held at Minot for “at least an hour” due to a broken axle on a BNSF freight about an hour ahead. Good planning delayed calling of the Amtrak outgoing crew until a reliable opening time of the blocked line could be determined and we finally left Minot three hours late. BNSF freight traffic was backed up in nearly every siding for miles on either side of the breakdown and we made at least three stops to ferry fresh crews and pick up expired crews. Whatever the exact location of the night’s incident, it was clean and transparent as we continued across North Dakota and Montana about 3 ½ hours late without additional delay for the rest of the day.

Good running and some schedule padding put us into Spokane only 2 ½ hours down, just as the eastbound Builder was pulling out, also about 2 ½ hours tardy. Information from the Spokane crew revealed that the previous day’s westbound Builder had been many hours late to turn, waiting for Chicago connections from eastern trains delayed by rains and flooding. Fortunately for us, errant eastern trains on the following day were cancelled and our run departed Chicago on time as noted.

The Spokane crews made the Seattle/Portland split very efficiently and picked up about 15 minutes from the 1:05 allotted time. Our only further delay to Portland was about ten minutes waiting for an eastbound to clear the last single track section west of Spokane. Schedule padding put us into Portland an even two hours down-plenty of time to make our scheduled four hour connection to the southbound Starlight.

Portland to Sacramento and Colfax, June 30-July 1 (Coast Starlight)

Upon our arrival in Portland, the Starlight trainset was already parked in the station-a harbinger of late trains, short turns and things to come. We eventually found out that the previous day’s Starlight was over 12 hours late into Portland where it was terminated and turned. Our nominal two hour layover in Portland allowed time to store our baggage in the first class lounge and walk to the attached Wilf’s restaurant recommended by the attendant for a late lunch. As promised, the food was excellent and the prices OK for the quality. Others may wish to comment on this establishment as a place to eat in downtown Portland.

When we returned from lunch we were allowed to board immediately, about 45 minutes prior to scheduled departure of 2:25. Our consist included three regular sleepers, diner, lounge and four coaches in addition to baggage and transition sleeper/dorm. The Pacific Parlour first class lounge was conspicuously absent. Our attendant later filled us in that three out of the five Pacific Parlour cars were now out of service due to various minor defects. A stub train and various buses brought passengers and supplies from Seattle and intermediate points to board the Starlight at Portland. Because the train had to be restocked with the supplies delivered from Seattle, we were a half hour late being ready for departure. Finally under way, we proceeded only a couple of miles when we came to a stop on the two-track main adjacent to a parked southbound freight. The announcement was immediately made that, courtesy of the Union Pacific Railroad, we were blocked from further progress until a freight dead on the law ahead of us could be recrewed and taken the final mile into the terminal yard. The dead-on-law freight was eventually moved into the yard and was followed by another northbound freight creeping by at 10 mph. Once the line was clear, we crept forward until clear of restrictions, now two hours late in the first five miles.

We maintained approximate time through Salem and Albany, then came to another stop at Shedd siding where we waited for one hour to clear a disabled freight (Union Pacific Railroad was lavishly credited over the PA for each delay), two northbound freights and our counterpart northbound Starlight running “only” about six hours late so far. The final miles into Eugene were stop & start 10 mph running with additional delay into the station to hand-throw a malfunctioning main line switch. Since it was already late in the evening, scanner talk indicated that the maintainer had given up on repairing the switch until the following morning. Score so far: 3 ½ hours lost in the first 123 miles.

One more unusual maneuver took place in the dark shortly after leaving the Eugene station. We were evidently still behind the partially disabled freight announced earlier and we crept into position behind it on the main to meet a northbound holding the siding. After the northbound was released and cleared, we backed onto single track and were then routed through the siding to get around the freight in front. This maneuver consumed another 30-45 minutes but appeared to get us around the last of the major blockages for the evening.

Upon awakening the next morning about 5:30, we were stopped on the main at Hotlum siding on the slope of Mt. Shasta. Watching the sun rise over the mountain was impressive as we waited for an hour until a northbound freight appeared and crawled into the siding. One of the passengers in the lounge related that our train had been five hours late leaving Klamath Falls earlier that morning.

Once moving again, we proceeded at mostly restricted speed past Black Butte Junction and siding, which appeared to be overrun with track maintenance equipment and crews on this Saturday morning. We continued our creep to the next siding at Upton where we met a northbound freight holding the main. Here we waited for another hour for the northbound Starlight running “only” about two hours late out of Dunsmuir. Moving at mostly restricted speed again, we passed a clear siding at Mt. Shasta City, then overtook a southbound freight holding the main at Mott, the last siding north of Dunsmuir since the siding at Small was removed a few years ago. More slow orders in the 10 mph range approaching Dunsmuir put us 9 hours late by the time we got rolling after the station stop and smoke break.

The trip down the lower Sacramento River canyon was mostly at track speed and without meeting any freight traffic. Redding and Chico were about 9 ¼ hours late. A quick road-crossing stop north of Marysville cost about ten minutes to board a fresh crew. We were routed via the former WP line between Marysville and Sacramento, a line virtually arrow-straight once leaving Yuba City and formerly good for track speed of 79 mph. Here we managed some short stretches of 60 mph running but much of the distance was covered at speeds much lower. Our final delay was meeting a stack train at Del Paso where we sat for 20 minutes on the main just short of Sacramento. With about 45 minutes pad between Chico and Sacramento we were still 9 ½ hours late at our destination. Our final connection on the bus back to Colfax was fortuitous, as the Reno bus was held for half an hour to pick up all connections heading east. Minus the scheduled layover normally encountered at Sacramento, we were home about six hours later than planned.

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