• My California Zephyr Trip Report

  • Discussion related to Amtrak also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp.
Discussion related to Amtrak also known as the National Railroad Passenger Corp.

Moderators: GirlOnTheTrain, mtuandrew, Tadman

  by scoostraw
So I had booked Amtrak's California Zephyr round-trip from Chicago to Roseville, CA to visit my brother and his family. My departure date was Tuesday August 8, 2023. With today's Amtrak, the bar with me is set pretty low as far as expectations go. My main concerns were that the train would actually run - and that the AC worked. Oh and that my return on #6 would not be so late arriving into Chicago that I would be unable to make the last Metra departure to Harvard, IL where I had parked my vehicle. (Many thanks BTW to a fellow TO member here who lives in Harvard for helping me with making this all much easier. You know who you are!)

At Chicago Union Station, this was my first time in the new Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge, and it was fine. The gate dragons were actually nice as well - in fact the one who was making announcements was very entertaining (although she was not trying to be). I had some snacks and a couple of drinks. The only thing I found lacking was there were no paper towels in the restroom (and no blow dryer either). Basics..

#5 had departed Chicago very late 4 days in a row, so I was waiting for what I thought would be the inevitable delayed departure.announcement. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when the boarding announcement was made at about 1:40pm. I was in the 32 sleeper, so it was a long walk to the head end to board. The conductor scanned the QR code on my printed ticket and pointed me forward. My car attendant (Kathy) was on the platform greeting and directing her passengers. I went straight to my roomette and had barely settled in when we were on the move. Departure was on the advertised at precisely 2PM.

Going through the Chicago commuter district at speed is always exhilarating. My car was a Superliner 1, and I noticed immediately that there was not a single rattle or vibration. The ride was quiet and rock solid. So I didn't need Ross Rowland's patented Amtrak room silencing kit, although this may be due to the fact that I was in a roomette and not a bedroom. IMO these cars have a ton of life left in them. They have good bones and just need a solid refresh and possible rebuild.

So has Amtrak de-tuned the K5LA horns on their locomotives? They do not sound at all like they used to. Instead of a pleasant chord, the horns essentially screech now. I do remember reading somewhere that it had been determined that a de-tuned horn, while not as pleasing to the ear, is more attention-getting. Is that why the change was made? I'm curious if anybody knows the story behind this.

Discussed previously on here was the experience of a recent CZ rider a month or so ago who reported a serious septic odor problem in their sleeper car on their trip, and the offending car was #32006. I laughed when I noticed that 32006 was the 31 sleeper on my train, which I passed through to get to the diner. It didn't smell horrible, but it really didn't smell all that great either.

Speaking of the diner, Amtrak has definitely done a good job with the food. I had heard good things about the Flat Iron Steak, and so that's what I had for dinner. It was so good that I ended up having it for each dinner on both legs of my trip. Mealtimes were a highlight of each day. Every time I ride, the Superliner dining car design always puzzles me. I sort of see why they made them the way they did, but in practice it is often cumbersome. Passengers must pass directly through the galley to access the lounge car. Conflict with the dining car staff is inevitable. At one point an announcement was actually made regarding this - asking passengers to be careful.

It was Kathy's birthday and many of us helped her enjoy celebrating it. She worked hard and tended to everyone's needs for the entire trip. She made announcements regarding making up rooms for the night (and then again in the morning to convert them back to daytime configuration). And the AC definitely kept my sleeper car very comfortable - if anything it was a tad on the cold side. I told Kathy that she had the coolest sleeper and that she was the coolest car attendant.

The train did very well with timekeeping, and we departed Denver on time. However that is where things began to unravel.

On the climb up the hill through the tunnel district, there was an abrupt stop. It was not an emergency application, but my gut told me that it was not engineer initiated. I was right. It was a PTC penalty application. The crew could find no reason for it. So they went through their procedure to recover, and we were underway again briefly before the same thing happened again. At this point the crew's concern was that it would happen again while in Moffat Tunnel. So they moved the train slowly to a location where there was cell phone service and stopped again so they could contact Amtrak tech support for advice. I could not hear this discussion of course, but after some time it was decided to get back on the move and there were no further incidents. Time lost - approximately 1 hour.

I had never ridden through Glenwood Canyon before, and all I can say is you have to see it in person to appreciate it. The majesty of the land is awe inspiring. It is spoiled only by the humans encountered in or near the river. For those not familiar, one nickname for this stretch is "Moon River". Amtrak even makes an announcement ahead of time for passengers that may not be aware of this "tradition". I found the behavior unimpressive, unimaginative, stupid and pointless. But unfortunately that is how I regard the things most people do these days.

The next chunk of lost time came later that evening. Several days previously, #5 had a power issue and one of the locomotives had to be set out. The train I was on was the lucky one assigned to pick up this unit from a siding somewhere near Green River, Utah. This was at night. What they did was pull the entire train into the siding - then cut off both units so they could add the sidelined locomotive as the 3rd unit. They tied down hand brakes on the entire train before making the cut - leaving the train with no HEP during the move. It was inconvenient but the crew did a good job. Time lost - about 1 hour.

In the morning I noticed additional time had been lost overnight. I headed to breakfast @6am, since that's when they began serving the day before. When I got to the diner I could see the staff all sitting in booths, so I hesitated. Someone walked up behind me so I turned and said "Are you headed to the diner?". His reply was "Sure am. I'm the cook!". Turns out they were starting @6:30am on this day, so I went back to my roomette and returned for breakfast at 6:30.

Another timekeeping hit came at Grand Junction, CO. Our train was unable to enter the station because #6 was occupying the platform. It had been there for hours. Sadly, a passenger waiting to board #6 had collapsed and died on the platform. So the train had been held while the police, detectives, coroner etc. conducted their investigation. The decision was made for #5 to pass the station and then back into the platform in order to make the station stop. Time lost - about 1 hour.

I was stymied again at the diner for lunch! I went at noon, but was told they would not be serving lunch "until after Reno" (about 1:15). Not a huge deal, but no announcement was made regarding this. You had to go to the diner to find this out.

The rest of the lost time was incurred over Donner Pass due to slow orders and track work. Arrival in Roseville was at 5:50pm - about 5 hours late. But this was far better than a few days prior when it arrived 16 hours late. Kathy was on duty for me to detrain. She received a nice tip and a thank you for her excellent service.


Return Trip on Thursday, August 17:

It wasn't until the day of my return that I knew for sure whether 6 was operating on a 3-hour delayed schedule or not. Once I saw that it had departed Emeryville, I knew that it was on the regular schedule. This gave me a 3 hour leg-up on my quest to arrive in Chicago in time to catch Metra out of town. The train was approximately 30 minutes late at Roseville due to an 8 hour late arrival of #5 the prior day and subsequent delay in turning the equipment at Emeryville.

When the train pulled into Roseville, I walked to the 31 sleeper. The crew member standing there confirmed my accomodation and I boarded. This crew member was not my car attendant. I don't know who he was but I never saw him again. He may have been the conductor or an AC. In any case, immediately after departing Roseville I headed straight to the diner for lunch. It was very good as usual. Later in the day I realized that I had no idea who my car attendant was. There was no announcement made regarding turning the rooms down for the night. This was not an issue for me, but other passengers in my car did not know what to do. I was not impressed. The next day I learned that there was even one pair of riders in my car who didn't realize that their meals in the diner were included with their first class ticket. They had been buying food from the lounge car until someone told them they didn't need to be doing that.

Ironically, my return on 6 was on the same set of equipment that served as my #5 the week prior. It had apparently made a round-trip to Chicago during my stay in California. Since I was in the 31 sleeper this time, I had the privilege of being in car 32006! Fortunately there were no serious problems. Being one more car back in the train is decidedly quieter than it was in the 32 sleeper coming out. The difference is immediately noticeable and it definitely made for a more peaceful trip.

At Grand Gorge, there is a small shop in the station where you can purchase snacks, groceries etc. I noticed that immediately upon arrival, one of the car attendants ran straight in and bought an ice cream bar. It reminded me that Amtrak used to serve ice cream in the diner, but that has been eliminated. I believe that all of the desserts on the current menu do not require refrigeration.

At Glenwood Springs we learned that the AC had failed at some point on the last coach. Denver passengers were being offered a bus ride from Glenwood Springs. Only 9 people opted for the bus. The rest either decided to tough it out or found seating in the lounge car.

This OBS crew was a different group than I had on #5, and they seemed very happy overall and cohesive. One of the coach attendants made regular announcements to the entire train which were helpful as well as informative and entertaining. It was a good trip and just like on the trip out, time was lost. Arrival in Denver was about 10pm.

While my car on #5 had been on the cool side, the return on #6 was the opposite. This car frequently was too warm. After some complaints, the attendant (who turned out to be someone named Gregory) made an announcement that there was nothing he could do about it except to activate what he called the "cool override button". He did this and the difference was immediate. It became very comfortable.

The last stop before Chicago is Naperville. As the highball was given there, it was quickly followed by a "no stop!". One of the passengers on my car was to get off at Naperville, but our man Gregory didn't know where he was and couldn't find him. After a minute or so, we departed with the matter remaining unresolved.

The fast running on BNSF combined with efforts made by the train crews allowed for some time to be made up east of Denver. Arrival in Chicago was at 5:45pm - about 3 hours late. I was grateful. (Indeed as I write this on Sep 4, 2023 #6 is over 14 hours late departing Salt Lake City) When I de-trained this time I had no tip for the attendant. Sorry Gregory.


I am no clean freak by any means, but these cars are in real need of a deep cleaning. And even the light cleaning that is done during turns is spotty. On my departure out of Chicago on #5, it was obvious that my car had not been vacuumed at all. And there was litter left in rooms (an empty water bottle in my room, a random q-tip in the room across from mine). For the prices Amtrak charges for these accommodations, this is just not good.

We all know how Amtrak has eliminated timetables - even the PDF versions. But passengers still want and look for them. In my sleeper on #5 someone had scotch taped a xerox copy of an old timetable to the wall for reference.

As for the railroads traversed, all the delays (in both directions) were incurred west of Denver on the Union Pacific. There seemed to be a never ending string of slow orders, signalling snafus and waiting for freights. The running on BNSF between Denver and Chicago on the other hand was fast, although the ride was a little rough at times. But they definitely do get the train over the road.

I saw a lot of young Amtrak employees on this trip - many fresh faces - both on-board crew members as well as train crew. Overall they impressed me as smart, enthusiastic and you could tell they enjoyed what they were doing. On my return trip there was one female engineer who was particularly excellent in how she handled the train as well as how she communicated with the crew. IMO this new blood represents a very bright spot for today's Amtrak.

With the single exception that I have already noted, every crew member I encountered was hard working and did a very good job IMO. These crew members were helpful, upbeat and presented a good face to the public. I couldn't shake the sense though that this beauty is only skin deep. I have learned that when push comes to shove, Amtrak frequently does not act in the passengers' best interests. And then these same crew members are put in the position of having to apologize for decisions that are made. As supportive of passenger rail as I am, I am very leery of today's Amtrak. In short, I do not trust them to be competent nor honest. The day following my return trip there was a rockslide in Colorado which blocked the railroad. Now this was clearly not Amtrak's fault, but the passengers on #6 were given the option of either returning to Emeryville as Amtrak dead-headed the equipment back there, or getting off the train in Salt Lake City (at 4am) and fending for themselves. Had I travelled a day later than I did, this would have been a very different trip report indeed.

For several weeks prior to my trip I made it a point to watch Amtrak to get a feel for how things were running etc. I saw an Empire Builder rerouted because of a freight derailment and passengers along the line not notified of the change. These passengers were left stranded on station platforms with no clue what had happened. I saw way too many trains which were simply annulled with no alternate transportation provided - and usually not even mentioned in the Amtrak "Status Alerts". I saw a service disruption caused by a freight derailment in NY which was horribly mismanaged by Amtrak. I saw a lounge car which had to be set out due to a broken truck spring, a coach car that had to be set out near Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and a SW Chief running with no diner. These things all happened within the short window of time during which I was paying attention prior to my trip.

The trains I rode were sold out, which is not surprising considering the abbreviated consists. There are only 4.5 revenue cars. Having just two coaches is ridiculous. It seems apparent that more capacity would certainly sell. I did hear that the transition dorm/sleeper car comes off in September, at which time the crew will be assigned 9 rooms in the 32 sleeper. This apparently will last until May of next year. So once that happens, there will be just 3.5 revenue cars.

On both trains, the lounge car attendant made regular announcements promoting the cafe car offerings as well as the hours of operation, being closed for breaks etc. I can't help but wonder if the attendants receive a commission on sales? If so, I think that's great. However trying to make a living selling snacks to 2 coach cars of passengers sounds like a tough gig. On #6 the attendant made an announcement after leaving Burlington that he "had a lot of food left" - and that everything was 50% off.


It has been widely discussed what the executive bonus structure at Amtrak is - and how the incentives are based solely on cutting costs. If this is true it explains why trains are shorter, how the Texas Eagle lost its baggage car, crew dorm, diner and lounge cars. (And part of the remaining sleeper is used to house the crew) But the important thing is that money was saved.

It would also explain why trains seem to be cancelled these days at the drop of a hat. (Imagine the cost savings) I believe Amtrak CEO Gardner's bonus alone last year was something north of $300,000. It explains why passengers were not taken care of when #6 could not proceed due to a rockslide. The options that Amtrak offered cost them essentially nothing dollar-wise. Very recently a change was made to how conductors are paid which has the potential to drastically reduce their income. I believe that the bonus structure is what has effectively crippled Amtrak. Imagine if customer satisfaction, revenue growth or on-time performance were the incentives instead? We would then see a very different Amtrak from what we have today. I don't see anything changing until the incentive structure is changed.

I do still recommend Amtrak because at its best I regard it as a civilized and comfortable way to travel. But any such recommendation is always accompanied by some serious coaching and preparedness advice for any prospective rider.
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Last edited by scoostraw on Wed Sep 06, 2023 7:10 pm, edited 3 times in total.
  by Gilbert B Norman
Mr Scoostraw/Restricted Speed, you really put your heart in to this objective and factual report you prepared. Likely being far more the avid train rider than am I (I'm just METRA to go into town maybe every couple of months if I don't have reason to drive, Brightline to get from here to there when I'm down, and overseas) and you set forth the positives (good food, exemplary Attendant) and the negatives (the operation over the DRGW/UP).

But, unfortunately, to me, your report shows more negatives than positives, and is why I cannot in good conscience recommend an Amtrak LD journey. Likely my journey on #52(the day Kobe Bryant was killed) was my final.
  by bridpath
A well-written, interesting and entertaining report. Thank you.
  by STrRedWolf
The gate dragons were actually nice as well - in fact the one who was making announcements was very entertaining (although she was not trying to be).
*Mind gets derailed into furry genre territory*

Carry on, I'll deal with that.
So has Amtrak de-tuned the K5LA horns on their locomotives? They do not sound at all like they used to. Instead of a pleasant chord, the horns essentially screech now. I do remember reading somewhere that it had been determined that a de-tuned horn, while not as pleasing to the ear, is more attention-getting. Is that why the change was made? I'm curious if anybody knows the story behind this.
As long as they don't sound like a spastic duck farting, it's all good.
Another timekeeping hit came at Grand Junction, CO. Our train was unable to enter the station because #6 was occupying the platform. It had been there for hours. Sadly, a passenger waiting to board #6 had collapsed and died on the platform. So the train had been held while the police, detectives, coroner etc. conducted their investigation. The decision was made for #5 to pass the station and then back into the platform in order to make the station stop. Time lost - about 1 hour.
I bet #6 lost a lot more time. Deaths involving trains usually are 2-3 hours. Glad the train was at a station already for the medical emergency... but sad that the passenger died on the platform.

Still, very good report!
  by John_Perkowski
Broken down locomotives
Trains waaaay off the advertised

The mission of any transport mode is to get you from Point A to Point B ON TIME.
  by JoeG
This informative trip report is disheartening. I haven't taken an LD trip in some time.These days I seem only to travel on the Pennsy. I was considering a trip to Florida to ride Brightline; a friend with whom I've taken several LD trips in the past wanted to do it with me. But having read this and other trip reports I'm tempted to drive to Orlando. Here's what I've learned:
If a train breaks down, even on the NEC, delays start at 2 hours--NEC--and way up. (And why should it take an hour to retrieve a locomotive from a siding?)
If equipment breaks enroute, it is unlikely to be fixed at all. If Amtrak does decide to fix it the train faces hours of delays.
If there are long delays or breakdowns passengers likely face overflowing toilets and no food.
Maybe the problem is that many in Amtrak's management come from airlines and have no interest in running a railroad. Maybe it's their bonus structure. Must be they get paid the most for canceling trains since they do that so often, frequently for no reason. (There's the time they canceled Keystone service days before a possible storm.These are short distance runs, so there was no possible problem with stranded trains, etc. The storm didn't even materialize but the trains remained canceled.
I suspect the reason Amtrak doesn't publish even cost-free PDF timetables is that they don't want passengers to notice how crummy their timekeeping is. My Keystone trains are more or less on time but never right on schedule. These trains run completely on Amtrak owned and dispatched tracks but are just sloppily run. They leave Harrisburg a few minutes late for no apparent reason.When you are out of Septa territory the double track line isn't exactly congested but timekeeping is still lousy.
It's more and more likely that my trip to Orlando will be by car. Once I would have said that the airline guys in Amtrak's management should be replaced by railroaders but maybe the PSR Kool-aid would make things even worse.
  by scoostraw
Hi Joe,

I recommend getting an Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card. I was able to pay for my round trip to California using points. It changes everything (for me anyway). There is no way I would pay what Amtrak gets for a sleeper these days.

Oddly enough since I wrote my trip report, the CA Zephyr has begun running on time for most of the time. Day before yesterday's #6 arrived in Chicago 25 minutes early. I just checked, and today's 6 arrived 46 minutes early.
  by R Paul Carey
It is an axiom of transportation management that...

"When passengers or freight fail to make the appointed time and place, they LOSE VALUE."

"Scoostraw's" is an excellent report - sadly, not reflecting anything close to acceptable trip performance. This narrative aptly describes a series of ill effects, each reflecting indifferent/ineffective absentee management.

The closing characterization of incentive goals and compensation - if true - describes a national disgrace.
  by Gilbert B Norman
Reports like this posted at another site are simply why "I've had my last ride", which was #52(the day Kobe Bryant was killed):
I just rode the CZ westbound. It was a complete fiasco, I love the trains but this one is going to make me think twice about ever again. We got exactly one dinner in the diner for a 50+ hour trip. The diner more or less died before reaching Denver. Leaking water pipes and tank was the reason given. I will say the train LSA and other crew tried valiantly, pumping water in Denver. For that, we got a breakfast in the diner the next day after Denver but that was it for the food. The rest of the time it was cafe car junk. Also, the sleepers weren't full, but the dining car attendant forced everyone to sit four to a table, no ifs, ands, or buts. Easily half the diner wasn't full but I guess they didn't want to bother making us more comfortable, in view of the food fiasco. Our sleeper was broken too, nothing worked. But that's another story.
I'm not saying I will never, ever, ride Amtrak again. My next will be when there is a clear advantage with time and convenience, and the LD's simply do not offer that I'd dare say anywhere.

But I can (still safely) drive, and I do fly, i.e. "CAN drive, WILL fly".

So likely, the next time I will be aboard Amtrak will be when I'm out in the Corridor, having gotten there by other means, i.e. fly or drive, I have somewhere to go within the Corridor.