I Walked off my Amtrak California Zephyr

Amtrak

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

Compensation

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!

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.

    Sad!

    • 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 .

  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.

  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)!!!

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