I Walked off my Amtrak California Zephyr


Amtrak California Zephyr Delays

Back in February I detailed how excited I was to ride the California Zephyr from Denver to Northern California. A few years ago I had transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points over to Amtrak (before that died) and then I finally used some of them to book the journey leaving Denver this past Tuesday.

Amtrak leaves Denver at the beautiful Union Station in Downtown. In order to be close I spent the night before at the Grand Hyatt Denver (beautiful hotel and full review coming soon) which is only about a 20 minute walk or 5-10 minute ride via the free 16th street bus.

Amtrak California Zephyr Delays Rocky Mountains
The snow covered trees and granite cliffs were stunning.

A Winter Storm in May?!?

Despite it being late May, Denver and the surrounding mountains had quite a snow storm the night before my journey. Naturally, I was a little worried about delays. Upon arriving at Union Station I learned my train was delayed about an hour which wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately that was just the beginning….

The train actually arrived around 90 minutes late. I was excited to get going into the snowy mountains so I wasn’t worried. I quickly boarded the train and waited for the attendant to turn over my roomette from the departing passengers. It took about 10 minutes, but it seemed worth it to have a private little room for my journey through the Rockies.

Amtrak California Zephyr Delays Deer
One of the highlights of the journey for me was seeing this group of deer out in the snow.

All Aboard!

Unfortunately things would go downhill from there. After boarding, we just sat at Union Station. This is a refueling stop for the train so I wasn’t too surprised. But then the conductor came on the intercom with the bad news. A freight train had decoupled on the tracks in the mountains west of Denver and was blocking our path. Worse yet, the crew had “timed out”. That meant that we had to bring a new crew up there and wait for them to fix the train. The delay could take “hours”.

And so we began to make our way about an hour into the mountains just outside of Denver. As I expected, the scenery was of beautiful freshly fallen snow. A treat in May, but admittedly not the landscape I had expected to see. The highlight perhaps was seeing a family of about 10 deer who probably were wondering why there was snow at this time of year.

Amtrak California Zephyr Delays Rocky Mountains
At lower elevations the dusting of snow added beauty to the charming landscape.

Eventually, we made it to the broken freight train where we dropped off the new crew and took the old crew back so they could rest. Then we waited. It did indeed take many hours. Once we got going, we were about 6 hours delayed. For example, we pulled into Granby, CO at 5:08pm which was 6 hours and 31 minutes after our scheduled arrival.

By this time, it seemed like the delays were behind us. We chugged through the mountains in the rapidly fading sunlight. The 6 hour delay meant we would miss much of the Rockies due to darkness. Perhaps unavoidable but disappointing nonetheless. What I didn’t know was that further delays were still to come.

Amtrak California Zephyr Delays Colorado River
Colorado River at sunset. We sat in this spot for hours waiting for a new crew. I was grateful to be on the left side of the train since the view on the other side was of a road.

Another Crew Time Out!

We were gliding along next to the Colorado River around 7pm when the train came to a slow and gradual stop. At that time, the conductor came over the intercom and informed passengers that he and his crew had “timed out” and he could no longer operate the train. He also informed us that due to traffic caused by the weather, the other crew was at least two hours away. So I sat there, staring at the river as the sun faded over the horizon.

It did indeed take a couple more hours for the new crew to arrive and when we reached our next station at Glenwood Springs, CO. We were 10 hours and 10 minutes behind schedule. A day that was supposed to involve the lovely landscape of the Rockies had turned into one of waiting and waiting and even more waiting.

amtrak trip

The Timing Was Off

Considering the California Zephyr normally pulls into its final stop of Emeryville at 4:10pm, I knew this delay would mean a very late night arrival even if they were able to make up time. I went to bed considering whether it would make sense to get off in Salt Lake City. Normally the Zephyr arrives in Salt Lake City around 11pm, but we would be getting there about 9am the next day.

My original plans to get home were to fly on a JetSuiteX from OAK-LAS. But I held off on booking due to my worries about delays (Good thing!). The thought of arriving in California at 1am plus the need for an expensive hotel room really turned me off. With that in mind, I decided to get off in Utah. I calculated that we would pull into Salt Lake at 9:07am, a full 10 hours and 2 minutes behind schedule.

Further Delays

While I got off the train and made my way home via a fairly expensive and painful Delta award ticket SLC-LAS, the train continued on and apparently hit EVEN MORE delays. According to Amtrak, the California Zephyr pulled into Emeryville at 4:56am this morning. That is 12 hours and 46 minutes behind schedule. I guess I wouldn’t have needed a hotel room after all. 🙂

amtrak trip to California


I do believe this journey was handled really poorly by Amtrak, especially when it came to their crew timeout. It was clear they hadn’t sent the replacement crew in time which caused us to sit for hours when we could have been moving. The other major factor in delays is the tracks themselves. Amtrak doesn’t own them so the train is constantly stopping to give right-of-way to freight trains. A frustrating practice without a solution.

Yes, I do believe I am owed compensation as are the other passengers on this train. I will detail my request for compensation and the results in a separate post. Perhaps delays weren’t completely avoidable here, but a 13 hour delay and a lack of information conveyed to passengers is quite frankly unacceptable when compared to long haul train travel just about anywhere else in the world.

Conclusion on my whirlwind Amtrak Trip

In the end, my journey was the worst case scenario when it comes to Amtrak. I honestly didn’t get to see much of what I had hoped for on the journey. I might consider doing it again, although this trip did turn out to be somewhat of a waste of time. We’ll see what Amtrak offers, but I suspect I’ll return one day to see what I was denied on this journey. Once the frustrations of this trip fade away of course!

Have you ever ridden the California Zephyr or another Amtrak long haul train and faced severe delays? Share your experiences in the comments!


  1. Vicente says

    I love travel by train in Europe! There, passenger trains seem prioritized.

    In USA, with few exceptions, the freight companies own all the rails. Passenger travel is not a priority. IMO freights regard Amtrak as a nuisance. If you have to sit on a siding, or if there’s not even passenger service on your route, they don’t care.


    • Rosa Lanna says

      I had been in May 2019 in Switzerland and I just use the train system to do many excursions around the country !
      Just perfect! No delays ! There they control their watches by the train schedule !! Unbelievable! But it is true !
      For me , as a Brazilian this is something unimaginable because in my country trains are not a priority, unfortunately . Cars and airbus are the main travel systems .

    • caroline connelly says

      i went from seattle to new york city in sept of 2019. i booked a bedroom (upgrade from roomette) my daughter and spouse booked roomette. roomette was good for them. no complaints. our car had one bedroom with dysfunctional toilet. stunk so bad. but we were switched to another car after 10 hrs (someone got off so there was one avaiable) plus a 750$ partial refund. no delays. 6 hr layover in chicago. very walkable from union station. dining car fabulous. today i cancelled a trip on the california zephyr from chicago to eneryville due to illness. agent said because of a change in schedule (arr in emryville at 5:20 instead of 4:10 i would get full refund without doctors note. i love amtrak, so far

  2. Snap says

    I’ve had Amtrak delays, but never as such to impede my sightseeing. About fifteen years ago, I was stuck on the Empire Builder in the middle of the night somewhere between Whitefish, MT and Sandpoint, ID. I walked all the way from my lower level coach seat (my pre-FT days) to the caboose, where the smokers hung out on the outdoor platform. Boy, the starry sky was 100% worth the hours long delay.

    Then, a few years ago, a fellow forum member and I jumped at the chance to ride in a repositioning private car attached to the Coast Starlight from LA to Oakland. We paid $89 pp for the experience, but were not aware the car interior was in various states disassembly and had to step over pieces and parts going from one end to the other. Anyway, all was pretty well until we climbed Cuesta Grade north of San Luis Obispo. We chugged and chugged, then had to reverse all the way back down to try it again. Third try was a charm. We backed further down into town and got a better running start with the help of a couple engines to help push us up and over. Add on a few right-of-way delays and we reached Salinas almost 4 hours behind, where I hopped off and went home instead of arriving Oakland Jack London at 1 am.

    I would be disappointed too if I’d booked the California Zephyr and not been able to see the Rockies. Good luck with recouping some of your loss. I look forward to reading your updates.

  3. Robb Gordon says

    About 5 years ago, we took the Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Denver. It wasn’t the most convenient schedule with the train scheduled to depart Salt Lake City at 3 something AM. We got there and the first thing we learned is that there had been a mud slide or something like it at Grand Junction on our route. So they took all the people getting off at stops before Denver and put them on buses. We were going all the way to Denver, but now, instead of the beautiful Rocky Mountain trip we were to be rerouted through Wyoming on a route that wasn’t on Amtrak’s normal schedule. If you have traveled through southern Wyoming you will agree that it isn’t very exciting. Nothing at all to see, and because these were strictly freight tracks, there weren’t any stations to stop at. We did stop for a short break in the middle. Is that all? No – at some point AFTER the train pulled into Salt Lake City (about 45 minutes late) we boarded the train. We had a roomette so I went to sleep. I woke at 7 and looked out the window and found we hadn’t moved!!! Turns out our crew wasn’t “qualified” on this route and they had to import a special crew. Of course they hadn’t figured this out even though they knew about the reroute at least many hours before departure. We finally got moving around 7. Boring ride but at least we were on our way. But wait, there’s more!!! At some point between Laramie and Cheyenne (no we didn’t go through the cities – that would have been interesting) we turned south toward Denver. At one point I looked at my phone GPS and determined that we were about 12 miles from Union Station. Thank goodness, the nightmare was finally over! No, now we had to get back on the “passenger” tracks. This took about 90 minutes of forward, back, forward, back. I have never gotten motion sickness in my life but I was starting to. When I got to Denver I kissed the ground.

    • Andrew says

      I am a frequent Amtrak rider and have taken that same ride and many others always happy with my travel and very happy with the quality of Amtrak service .Your claim is not worth any merit ,weather delays ,crew changes ,freight rail delays are very common ,advice dont travel by rail if your in a hurrytwhen traveling

      • Julie Waldron says

        Training is all about the experience!
        If you don’t go with that mindset, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed…..and should probably fly instead.
        I, too, am a happy Amtrak customer!
        Last Christmas, because my family couldn’t gather,
        I used my whole vacation to train….with no destination in mind.
        I traveled the Empire builder to Seattle
        took the Coat Starlight to LA
        and the Southwest Chief home.
        No sleeper car….and I brought my own food.
        I’m hankering to do the same trip this Christmas again!

        • Dorothy McKeague says

          I am a frequent “trainer” from Chicago to Reno. I have gone through all of the above experiences. And I am looking forward to another Amtrak experience. Love it!!

      • Griffo Yger says

        Or, travel in Europe. In 16 years I only had one situation that the train was delayed and all the passengers had to wait for about 4 hours in Tours (France)

  4. VHardie says

    Just one of those things perhaps (and I don’t say that often). We took the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, in a roomette, back in 2013. We would have loved a delay or two as the stunning scenery of the nation passed by (our first trip to the USA). In mid-April there was masses of snow, particularly through the Dakotas and also St Paul. We arrived into hail and gales in Chicago… after a 48 hour trip – we arrived only 30 minutes late – and were hard pressed to leave the warmth and comfort of our roomette. Our other Amtrak trips were similarly well timed (though snow wasn’t an issue when we went from NYC to Florida…)

  5. Jim Breneman says

    Last May my wife and daughter rode Amtrak to Chicago for a vacation. They had tickets to see Hamilton that night. The train was to leave Kansas City at 8:00 am (+/-) and arrive in Chicago at 3:30 pm. The train las 2 hours late arriving in and leaving KC. Then something happened to the engine and they sat for 3 more hours in a corn field in Illinois while it was fixed. Then it’s max speed was something around 30mph. As a result, the train arrived in Chicago at 9:30 pm (Hamilton started at 7:30 pm), so they missed the show and were out the $500 for tickets. We contacted Amtrak and got no response whatsoever.

    The moral of the story is, take Amtrak if you want to enjoy the scenery, but never if you have to be somewhere at a specific time (and never, never believe what their schedule says)!!!

    • Kent Loudon says

      Number one rule pf Amtraking: NEVER schedule an important engagement within 24 hours of arrival!

  6. Billie Parker says

    I’m currently riding the zephyr (RNO-SAC). I have disabilities & travelling with my service dog. I requested assistance. Not only was I told no one was available, the employee off the train was rude & plain mean to those boarding. He wouldn’t help with a hand up, other passengers were helping each other. On the train finally (delayed 45 min). Restrooms are GROSS. I wouldn’t let my dog go in, if that doesn’t tell you something… Snack bar attendant was courteous but $2.25 for a Crystal Geyser water bottle, talk about making a buck! Couldn’t understand the gal for the dining cart, in fact about 8 rows of passengers starting giggling & talking like the ‘Peanuts’ Mom character. This has been my worst experience with Amtrak & it’s been the employees. Maybe it’s time to clean house Amtrak! This will be my final journey with y’all. I won’t recommend any more either. The seat comfort isn’t worth the filth or incompetent employees.

  7. Jackie Carlson says

    I’m a big fan of Amtrak and have taken many of the routes originating in Chicago and the northwest especially. Yes, delays are common but you know that going in. I love watching the scenery go by without worrying about highway traffic or the anxiousness of air travel. I also love the nostalgia of older and smaller train stations and I really don’t care about luxury or the being fussed over that goes with it. Fellow passengers are generally friendly but not overly so and the staff try to be helpful and I find respond very well to good manners and an appreciation of the obvious constraints. I am planning a trip from Chicago on the Southwest Chief, the Coast Starlight, and the Empire Builder this spring.

  8. Paul says

    Snow in May in Colorado is not unique; in fact, in six of the last 10 years the last measurable snowfall has happened in May, and seven of the largest snow storms in Denver history have happened in late April. Weather certainly played a part in your woes, but let’s not get too excited about what is completely normal weather.

  9. June Lawrence says

    This is a story with a happy ending. Going back to 1972, my mom, who was recovering from a broken hip, my husband and I and our 3 and 5 year old daughters boarded a train in Baltimore for overnight travel to newly opened Disneyworld. Because of issues along the way, in a 24 hour period we were in 6 different modes of transportation. Our brother in law had driven us to the rail station in his Ford Pinto; we boarded the Amtrak train but the car was full so we were directed to go to the next car to obtain seating. Although the train was moving and there was a bit of carpeting where the cars were coupled together, none the less it was scary for the children and my mom. However, once we got to the next car, we all settled in. The next morning we learned that some cars had been redirected during a stop sometime during the night, and our particular car was no longer on the train headed to Orlando. We, and a couple of other families, were told we would be getting off at the next stop. On an early Sunday morning, no one seemed to have any authority to help us. The best they offered was for our family to get into an Edsel station wagon and driven to either a Greyhound or Trailways bus station, where we would continue on to Orlando. The bus seemed to stop at every fish and tackle outlet, and it took forever to get to Orlando. Of course, once we did, we arrived at the bus depot. We then took a taxi cab to get to the car rental office to pick up our car. We missed a half a day at Disney with some disappointed children. But this experience changed my way of travel that I would never have thought of. The train was sure a tiring experience considering all the mishaps, that we decided to FLY home. It was the first time any of us other than my husband’s military travel had been on an airplane. WOW! What a different experience. If this trip hadn’t gone the wrong way, I may never have learned the joy of flying. I have been on a short train trip to Philadelphia recently and we will be joining a group bus tour once we fly to Denver this fall and will be taking the small trains through some of Colorado. We are looking forward to this trip with small train rides daily, but our Disney trip has always been a good story to tell. Car, train, bus, car, taxi and rental car all in one 24 hour period!

  10. Matthew Vickinovac says

    On 2/8/20 both east and west bound Zephyrs were delayed in the Rockies by over 9 hours, reportedly due to mudslides.
    We keep trying to book on Amtrak, but i can never get seats on days needed; we can leave, but not come back or vice-versa.

    My wife did book a trip for me last year that turned out to be a dead-end. The trip was Lincoln, NE to Winter Park, CO. First, it was booked wrong; westbound #5 comes in to Lincoln at 1208 AM. My wife knowing this advised the agent she wanted to book the train for Friday NIGHT/Saturday MORNING. The Amtrak agent said he understood, yet booked us for the Thursday NIGHT/Friday MORNING Zephyr. Luckily, when I woke up on Friday morning, I had an email about a delay to my train, which I thought odd, since my train wouldn’t be leaving Chicago for another 8+ hours…..I checked the ticket and found the error. I will say the agent I talked to was very helpful. We were able to book a new roomette for the trip, our eastbound return tickets were still good.
    As a railfan, I track Amtrak on the app and locator. Our train left Chicago three hours late, so luckily we could get some sleep in our own bed. I got up at 0130 to check on the train. It had lost 2 more hours between Galesburg, IL and Ottumwa, IA. I got the wife up so we could leave home at 0430 hrs. There are two places I know where if traffic is good, Amtrak can make up at least 30 minutes. Luckily I have the app; I had up to date information at least 20 minutes before the station agent would make an announcement.
    The Zephyr ended up sitting at a junction on the Iowa side of the Missouri River for 30 minutes, so lost even more time getting to Omaha. Then after it left Omaha, it ended up stopped for over an hour at signal just east of my house. There was no traffic on the line as no trains had left the yard in Lincoln in the 2 1/2 hours we had been there and nothing came in ahead of the Zephyr.
    Needless to say, it will be approximately 0830 hrs before the Zephyr pulls in. If no further delays, I have already still lost one day of skiing. If it looses any more time we lose the mountaintop dinner I booked. I talk to the agent and am advised if I cancel before the train pulls in to the station I get a full refund. We cancel the reservation.
    Luckily Amtrak calls all of the delays weather related (which they weren’t), so we can get refunds on almost all bookings we did at Winter Park.
    Good thing we did; Amtrak ended up loosing more time, arrived at Winter Park 14 hours late. Also for further luck, our return train was late. It is supposed to leave Winter Park around 1555 hrs; this was 8 hours late. Ended up 10+ late in Lincoln, so I would have lost another day of work.
    I don’t know why Amtrak takes coaches off in the winter (1 each way). The train was full. Several people walked in (European students at the university who are used to European railroads) trying to buy tickets to Denver for the weekend. All were turned away; no seats for the next three days and two days had no return seats.
    As I’m writing this, Amtrak is trying to tell me that the eastbound Zephyr will be 2 hours late in to Lincoln, NE. That would make it 0511 hrs and it is currently 0830 hrs; and the train still isn’t halfway across Nebraska…..

  11. Jessica Kapp says

    I feel your pain. Took the Zephyr from Chicago to SLC with multiple delays. Six hours late on arrival. Continued on a National Parks tour missing San Francisco due to 5 hour late arrival. This was the norm on the entire 13 day trip. We did receive compensation after several emails and phone calls. Very disappointed. Train trip across country seemed like a great fun idea. Not so much !

  12. Ramona migliore says

    We took the zapper in March from LA to Chicago reset on the track for hours and hours and hours on freight trains came and went we were supposed to get to Chicago at 2 o’clock in the afternoon which would’ve been fine but we got there at 9:30 at night we were exhausted and we had to drive our scooters from the trains to our hotel which is about 5 miles I would’ve been fine in the sunlight but at night it was horrible the top at all after delay has caused my husband scooter to go dead so I had to tow him using my scooter it was snowing and better called to top it all off bitter cold bitter cold to top it all all off offThe attendant when we tipped $100 let it slip that she only sprays the blankets with Lysol in the bedrooms that they don’t wash the blankets that’s disgusting and it’s the last Amtrak train I will ever get on and we been on all of them for the last six years go on in common coming

  13. RJ says

    I ride Zephyr and other Amtrak at least twice a year for 30 years – mostly Chicago/SF, couple Chi/EastCoast, couple Chi/Seattle. I’ve had three or four 4+ hour delays on the Zephyr, nothing else worth mentioning. It happens. No delays more than two hours, last ten years. UP Railroad kicks Amtrak around as a matter of habit. While Amtrak legally,technically, has right of way ALWAYS as I understand it, our legislature has used Amtrak as the poor relative kick toy for the last 40 years. Amtrak does not make political donations. It is run on an ever thinning shoestring which gets shaved more each year; it always gets the brown end of the stick and it’s something of miracle its equipment and schedule work at all.

    But I don’t like getting processed like a sardine and I believe it’s healthier to take a journey rather than throw yourself into a compactor, get tossed on the conveyor, spit out the other end and resuscitated.
    So I’m glad to take Amtrak whenever I can.

  14. Dr. Clarence W. Moore says

    Our primary complaint is the absence of a rental car counter at 9 PM in Los Angeles Union Station, when the Coast Starlight is due to arrive. As we all know, after taking it three times, this train has NEVER been known to be on time!
    A strange fact is that there is no Chicago-Florida train in the AMTRAK system! I remember riding the City of Miami back in the 60s, with its double diner, and every seat and sleeping accommodation was fully taken. Even with reservations, we could not get into the double diner to eat until 10 PM. The South Wind, I believe it was called, left a crowd of potential passengers on the platform of Indianapolis Union Station in the summer of 1973, who all wanted to travel south, mostly to Florida points. There are presently only Florida trains from New York, and this needs to be promptly rectified!

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