Winter and the Amtrak long distance trains

Report and Comments by Russ Jackson
The western long distance trains had a rough winter in the northern 2/3 of the country. Some trains were canceled altogether for several days. Here is a rundown of some of the activity by train in the past few weeks. Not everything is included, but here are some highlights, using Amtrak’s data. When April is figured in things will look much worse.

California Zephyr. 45.2% on time in March; 52.5% for the last 12 months. For several days Donner Pass was closed not only to road traffic on I-80, but also the Union Pacific main line was snowed in as drifts of over 5 feet of blowing snow blocked access. While there was diligence by the UP crews, there were several derailments. For the first time in many years the rotary plows stationed at Roseville were called into service. The old heads who remember how it was up there when snows like that were more common are mostly retired, and the youngsters have never seen snow like this before. The weather is still bad, but the route is open again so that Trains #5/6 can run their regular route. Train 5 that left Chicago on April 16 on time arrived in Emeryville 3 days later 58 minutes early. Delays to the trains now are in southern Iowa, where flooding has occurred. For some days the trains originated-terminated at Reno with passengers bused from California when I-80 finally opened. To see a great video of the rotary plows in operation, look at www.kcra.com/r-video/27364908/detail.html.

Empire Builder. 33.6% on time in March; 33.8% for the last 12 months. The Builder was the hardest hit of all the western trains. It did not run at all for many days, including the week before April 15 when it had not operated due to flooding on the BNSF in North Dakota. Before that it was winter storms, but once the snow starts to melt up in that state Amtrak’s line from Fargo to Grand Forks and west is subject to water problems. An anticipated BNSF detour line direct from Fargo to Minot had many slow orders due to high water and was declared unusable. Amtrak has discussed permanently moving #7/8 to this alternate line, but it will bypass Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Rugby, towns that rely on the train for service. Amtrak has said it will cost $100 million in upgrades to bridges and track in the Devils Lake area if that service is to continue. The BNSF does not use that route for freight service. It would take two “construction seasons” to rebuild, after Congress appropriated the money. How likely is that to happen now?

Southwest Chief. 83.9% on time in March; 77.8% for the last 12 months. Not much to say here, as Trains #3/4 continued to depart on time and arrive early at both ends more than they were late.

Sunset Limited. 88.9% on time in March; 83.1% for the last 12 months. However, problems arose when wildfires damaged a Union Pacific bridge near Marfa, Texas on April 9, stalling the train for 18 hours. So, weather at the other extreme affected the Sunset route.

Coast Starlight. 45.2% on time in March; 65% for the last 12 months. Winter weather did have an effect on the operation of Trains #11/14, but most of the problems have come due to track work being done by the Union Pacific south of San Jose and San Luis Obispo which has required the train to be detoured and has provided railfans with several chances to ride the detour route through the San Joaquin Valley. The detour began south of Emeryville at Fremont, where the train crossed the Altamont Pass to Stockton, then traveled on the Union Pacific line (thin blue line on the map) south to Bakersfield, up the Tehachapis, across the famous Loop, through Mojave, Lancaster, Palmdale, and into Los Angeles. For a full description of one of the #11 detours that departed Oakland Jack London Square 30 minutes late and arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 9:57 PM, see Chris Guenzler’s picture story on www.Trainweb.org. Passengers going south to the Starlight’s regular Central Coast stations rode buses from Oakland.

Whether Amtrak and its host railroads were “prepared” for this winter is ripe for speculation, but when a winter like this one happens it’s nail biting time all along the routes. We congratulate Amtrak, the BNSF, and the UP for their diligence in restoring service in a timely manner. Lessons were learned, and it will be interesting to see how prepared they all are next winter. (Maps from Railpac.org and Amtrak timetable.)

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