Amtrak's California Zephyr; running several hours late, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Lets be honest, the current Amtrak long distance train system has struggled to work for a long time. Since the system was founded in the early 70's, Amtrak has struggled to increase ridership and turn a profit in long distance train service. The long distance trains have also struggled to retain decent on time service, and recent cutbacks in dining car services on certain trains have sparked debate among travelers and rail-fans alike.
A lot of the current operations of Amtrak's long distance trains follow the methods and style of the classic American long distance streamlined trains of the mid-20th century. Its hard not to see the appeal of this era of rail travel, lightweight passenger cars fitted with luxurious interiors, fine dinning services, and other luxuries designed to pull ridership back to the rails and away from the new airline and automobiles. This era still has a strong pull in the American psyche, such as Alton Brown discussing his first experiences eating a shrimp cocktail while riding a late streamliner era passenger train in his TV show "Good Eats", or the cinematic attempt making innuendos with the trains in the classic Hitchcock film North By Northwest.
Not only did the railroads compete with luxury as its weapon of choice, so did their competition in the sky. Airlines tried to bask in luxury in that era, putting kitchens into their airplanes that could dish out meals that rivaled those on the railroads (such as explained in this video). Meanwhile the car companies advertised the rising interstate system as a personal form of freedom, without the restraints of rail or air travel.
To railfans its hard not to see trains such as the 1950's Super Chief or the California Zephyr as the peak of American rail travel. The streamlined steam locomotives and bulldog nosed diesels certainly help the mystique, and I know I would love to have a full replica of some iconic named passenger trains in HO scale to run on model train layouts!
This is 2019. Airlines serve bags of peanuts to passengers in cheap seats that are painful to anyone over 4-foot 2-inches. The interstate system is complete, and long distance car travel is routine. And here is Amtrak, straddling the line between the 1950's passenger trains of old while trying to match the modern era of economy and low cost of their competition. In a strange way, Amtrak's service seems like a watered down version of the streamliners that came before, too cheap to be considered luxury and too expensive to be considered economic. Is it any wonder then that in 40+ years of operation Amtrak has still yet to find a working method for long distance trains?
Meanwhile, in city's across the nation short distance train travel is returning in force. In Salt Lake City, I am lucky to have easy access to the TRAX and Frontrunner systems, and similar streetcar-light rail-commuter train systems are popping up in metropolitan areas across the nation. America is falling in love again with these short distance trains in their local area; cheap and economic, and easily accessible to the masses.
That is what makes the recent Wall Street Journal article about Amtrak considering re-inventing its long distance trains so intriguing. I see it as taking a page out of what commuter rail is doing and bringing it to Amtrak's intercity model.
For example, lets say I want to travel from Salt Lake City to Denver via train. Does the current California Zephyr really service my needs? I'd first have to get on a 3:30 am train in Salt Lake City, in a neighborhood that has limited parking options and is infamous in the area for its homeless population. If I could park off site then ride TRAX in that would be preferable, but TRAX isn't running at night when Amtrak makes its Salt Lake stop.
Then I'd travel most of the scenic former Rio Grande in Utah in darkness. At least it will be morning when I hit the Utah-Colorado border on the train, and I would be able to enjoy the Moffat Route in daylight, although I think it would be hard to shake that I missed half the scenery already. The arrival at 7:10 pm in Denver is sort of a more normal arrival hour and it will be at the refurbished Union Station; but much of the same troubles repeat on the return route with a return to Salt Lake City being about 11:00 pm at night.
Simply put, its not convenient hours and not competitive to similar airline service. The appeal of using Amtrak to travel outside of Salt Lake City is not very strong. Not to mention, its completely limited to the California Zephyr route... Oakland, Reno, Denver and Chicago are about the only major cities I can reach via the CZ without taking connecting trains or bus routes. I have had far more trips to Los Angeles for somewhat regular visits to Disneyland and treks up to Seattle to visit my family than I have ever had to Oakland or Reno (I have never been to Denver or Chicago). The point being, the California Zephyr not only has the wrong departure times, it also has the wrong destinations...
And that is why the proposal to run shorter daylight trains on more direct routes between cities Amtrak is looking at is so tempting. Its a sacrifice of the last vestiges of luxury for sure, but it could be the full embrace of economy and ease of access that Amtrak sorely needs. Trains Magazine contributor Fred Frailey has discussed the issue in a recent blog post called Amtrak's Great Debate begins, addressing both the legal and planning hurdles the changes could face; while also showcasing the potential. Frankly, it is time for this "Great Debate" to start and I am excited at the possibility of a 'new' Amtrak.
For inspiration, why not look at the Western Pacific's Zephyrette; an RDC motorcar service that was meant to be an 'off hours' counterpart to the California Zephyr? Lets take this model to the modern era and see how it works.
Two trains will be staged at opposite terminals, one in Salt Lake and the other in Las Vegas. Both will depart early in the morning around say 8:00 am or so to coincide with the commuter rush in their respective cities so passengers can use public transportation or off site parking to reach the stations. We can maybe add one additional station stop in the middle of the route (in this case such as Milford or Caliente) so we can do a much needed crew change and provide some service to more rural communities.
Without large dining, luggage, parlor cars, or other classic streamliner trappings; our relatively small DMU is a fast little train, able to zip along the single tracked line between the two cities without fouling sidings for long. This is important to ensure the dispatchers of our host railroad are welcoming to these Amtrak trains darting between their freight traffic. It will likely be late afternoon before the train could arrive at the end of the line, but our passengers have successfully traveled from one city to another! If our Vegas bound passengers want to travel further, perhaps the train could connect with another DMU service that runs the Vegas to Los Angeles route.
Another benefit of using DMU's is it lowers the cost compared to having to maintain or buy a full 11 car train set like the current long distance trains need. This could allow for an increase of train frequency, with maybe two or three DMU trains departing a city terminal daily. Maintenance could be provided by either constructing new repair facilities for the DMU's near the routes, contracting services to local area commuter lines such as Utah's UTA or Los Angeles's Metrolink; or any remaining Amtrak long distance trains using traditional methods could be used to return DMU's to Amtrak's already existing facilities across the country.
Of course this plan has hurdles. Terminals would have to be expanded to handle having several DMU's at a time, in comparison to handling only one or two long distance trains per day. Of course the spending in purchasing the new DMU fleet and arranging to maintain it would be another hurdle. Most importantly, the very laws governing Amtrak and its definition of train service would have to change, allowing for Amtrak to implement these shorter routes without needing funding approval from individual states.
But I think the benefit on a focused model of smaller trains, shorter routes and more frequent service is tempting. Yes, it would be sad to see the departure of the long distance trains; but the continued long distance service has proved to be uneconomical and unsustainable financially year after year. Short routes and short trains could very well be the change Amtrak needs to be more economical and competitive in a modern United States.
I hope this "Great Debate" ushers in positive changes for Amtrak. Its about time this conversation started and I hope it modernizes American rail service for the 21st century!