Why I Walked Off My Amtrak Trip: A Beautiful Disaster!

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Amtrak California Zephyr Delays Superliner car

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

Related: Amtrak Coast Starlight & Empire Builder Train Review – Travel Differently!

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 and thus 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, but 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 who were using it before. It took about 10 minutes, but I had my 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”, so 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 as 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!

Around 7pm as we were gliding along next to the Colorado River 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 Glenwood Springs, CO (the next station), 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 that involved waiting and waiting and even more waiting.

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 JetSuiteX from OAK-LAS booked using sign-up credits from the Blackbird app (use code NYJU0 for 3 X $50 credits), but I had held off on booking due to my worrying about delays. (Good thing!) The thought of arriving in California at 1am plus the need for an expensive hotel room really turned me off, so I decided to get off in Utah. As I had calculated we pulled 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. 🙂

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

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 and might consider doing it again, although this trip did turn out to be somewhat (not completely) 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!

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by any advertiser or bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser. It is not any advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

29 COMMENTS

  1. Call your senator. It’s worked in Illinois twice. Check the City of New Orleans on time arrival record into Chicago. Senator Durbin has used his bully pulpit on the freight railroad. The first time a freight dispatcher got fired as his investigators proved they were running freights in front of Amtrak. The second time the freight railroad tried to ignore him. A week later I am south of Champaign IL and saw the FRA investigators in white suits all around a freight train stopped on the main for about 3 hours while they inspected every little bolt, wire, etc. Yep, you guessed it, they pull freights over to let Amtrak go on through now. Oh, they are still late at times, but just normal railroad troubles they can’t prevent.

  2. Guess I was lucky, if you could call it that. Only late 3 hours! Took the Cal Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake City. Supposed to leave Denver 8:05 am but didn’t leave until 10:30 am, 2-1/2 hours late. Then supposed to get to Salt Lake City 11:05 pm and didn’t arrive until after 2 am, over 3 hours late. Not as big a delay as others have experienced, but still very bothersome. Does Amtrak ever give any compensation for delays?

  3. Wow, that is crazy! I have ridden trains in other countries, and never had that kind of experience!! I am glad you shared this as I will definitely think twice about weather before ever booking Amtrak!

  4. My wife and I had a lovely time on the Zephyr from Martinez to Denver in 2012. Such beautiful scenery, and riding along in your own private bedroom is the way to go.

    Bummer your trip didn’t turn out as expected.

  5. I just took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA, spent the night in LA, and went back North again. Any delays were minor. The food was much better than I expected, the scenery amazing, I loved my roomette, and my train stewards great. I would do this again in a second! The only downside was no wifi on the train.

  6. I’m not sure about the rest of the country, but here on the East Coast, commercial rail often has right of way and they are unpredictable, so we (Amtrak) end up sitting and waiting. Not sure I have ever made it to DC from Atlanta with anything approaching on schedule.

    • I most likely will. It had been on the top of my list for awhile. Seeing all of the snow was unique, but I missed so much due to timing. I’ll probably go back and bring my family if possible, but wait until deeper into the Summer and as someone else mentioned, I might do it West to East to lessen the chances of delays.

    • We are headed to GlenwoodSprings from Denver today, the 30th of May. We were supposed to leave at 8:05 am and I just got a text that it’s delayed and we won’t leave until 2:11pm.

  7. My 12-year-old grandson is a rail fan. (For his birthdays all he wants to do is go to a major station and film trains coming and going all day.) He knows all the Amtrak US routes and all the stops. He travels with his mom or his dad. They live near Chicago and have been on the Empire Builder out to Glacier Park, down through NM over to Disneyland, out to NYC 3 times, to Springfield to see Lincoln stuff, to St. Louis to see the arch, to DC to see the National Mall and many many more trips. I would venture to say the train has NEVER approached being on time. I waited for them at the Isaac Walton Inn in Essex (between the East and West Glacier stops — it’s a flag stop) last August — they were due at 9:30 pm and arrived around 4 am. (It was 104 degrees when they hit Montana earlier that afternoon. The fires in GNP came the next day.) His 2nd trip to New York was last Christmas — I think the arrival time was supposed to be 6:30 pm and they got in about 3 am. He loves the train, so the delays are, yes, just more train time. I used to take the Hiawatha down from Milwaukee airport instead of flying to ORD when I visited them — often cheaper, it’s a nice airport (with ping pong tables and great espresso), and the train was always on time, and faster than driving — only one stop before Glenview IL, where I tranferred to the Metra to get to their station (back up the track 4 stops). (The next Hiawatha stop is Union Station in Chicago.) However, I didn’t trust taking the train BACK UP to Milwaukee airport — rarely on time, and once cancelled out completely and I basically had no way to get up to the airport with the family all at work. No buses, no other trains, no time to go into Chicago and find another way up to Milwaukee. Bad news. Very sad we don’t have reliable train service in this country.

  8. My mother and I had a similar experience in April on the Coast Starlight, except much of it was spent in waiting rooms and on buses. We were given water but no food. One poor woman with a child was forced to sit with the child in her lap for hours because there was no extra seat for her. And that was the passengers that paid for rooms — I hate to think what the seat only passengers were put through.

    I tried to get compensated but received only a very small refund. It was really sad because my mother had so been looking forward to enjoying the beautiful view and it was all spoiled.

  9. Bummer! I rode the California Zephyr with my kids from Emeryville to Denver with almost no delay. The scenery was spectacular. I hope you’ll give it another try. I do recommend starting in Emeryville, since it’s the start of the route and I suspect has fewer delays than going the opposite way starting at Denver.

  10. @Jeff

    From what I read on the Flyertalk Amtrak board and on one of the Amtrak Facebook pages, delays happen.
    The Amtrak lovers take the delays in stride. They love it because it’s more train time.
    I took the CZ Denver/Sacramento/Portland 3 years ago without any issues. This was in a Roomette on points at the old rate.

    Amtrak and the airlines have one thing in common > Delays.
    Shawn, sorry this had to happen.

  11. Wow, I have a CHI-EMY trip planned for July on the CA Zephyr and this post sure makes me nervous.

    Are delays really that common every time? Surely there are people who’ve had good experiences on this route? Hopefully recently??

    • I think it is often delayed a couple of hours, but this is an extreme example. I checked the past few days and here were the results.

      5/19 – 5 hours late into EMY
      5/20 – 1 hour 56 minutes late into EMY
      5/21 – 1 hour 19 minutes late into EMY
      5/22 – 12 hours 46 minutes late into EMY (my train)

      It doesn’t let me check further back, but keep in mind they have a couple of hours of padding built into the schedule. I would expect some delays but my guess is the further into Summer the less chance of delays.

    • I went from Chicago to Emeryville, stayed a few days and the took it all the way back to Chicago back in October last year, right around the end of the month too. Got there maybe 15 minutes late and were 2 hours late on the return trip. Trip was beautiful and we are glad we did this one for sure.

      We thought that was fine and greatly enjoyed the trip actually. I have enough points for a room from Chicago to Seattle and back and we will do that one next. Have also travelled to DC on it. DC was 60 mins late but all of that was in the last two or three stops trying to get to union station. On time all the way until the end in DC. Return trip was right on time, think was five minutes early actually.

  12. Oh man, what a shame. I have such great memories of that train. Back in the ‘70’s, they had “rail passes.” I spent the summer traveling around on my and then other people’s left over passes. They were good for a set # of weeks. I almost got off in Truckee, CA once, there was an opening for a “curve greaser” which sounded perfect to my 18 yo brain.

  13. I am sorry for your troubles, but as far as I am concerned, train travel in the USA is a complete waste and a gamble, as you found out. I wouldn’t travel by train here unless it was FREE (No points, money or anything) and only if I had NO schedule to make at all as it is completely unreliable.

  14. I have taken lots of Amtrak rides and aside from the CHI-STL route (which I’ve taken three times and has been on time each time), every single Amtrak I’ve ever taken has been late, usually by multiple hours. Many of these trips have turned out to be disasters, and I’ve never received any compensation. Good luck with your request, you should follow-up with another post with the results!

    I am a big proponent of train travel but at this point in time I can no longer justify taking Amtrak. I still have some points to burn and just this past weekend tried to book a quick trip from Chicago to Kalamazoo for some brewery-hopping. Was only going to be there for about 20 hours total (one night overnight). On my way to Union Station in Chicago, got a text that the train was currently 4 hours late. I called Amtrak and cancelled the whole thing, as I’d be arriving at 8:30pm instead of 4:30pm. Amtrak just cannot get their act together. I once took an Amtrak from Chicago to Champaign, IL to see a University of Illinois football game. The game started at 11am and the train was supposed to arrive at 10am. The train was so late that I missed the whole game and also missed my return train which was supposed to be later that evening (we sat about 20 minutes outside Champaign for hours and hours, no explanation given).

    Many of these problems are not Amtrak’s fault (don’t own the tracks, no right of way, poor maintenance, low funding, etc.) but many of them ARE Amtrak’s fault (crews timing out, poor communication of delays while onboard, poor attitude of crew when people complain about delays, etc.). I still have some points to burn but I may just end up transferring them to Hilton points or something, this is ridiculous.

    • I agree 100%. I have taken trains in many countries including a dozen or so overnight trips and Amtrak is the worst. I love to travel by train, but the frustrations aren’t worth it. I will definitely follow up with the results of my inquiry for compensation. Thanks D!

  15. Rode Amtrak from Chicago to Flagstaff on the way to the Grand Canyon. We thought this would be really nice to just sit and read. The roomette was OK for that. Trying to sleep in the upper berth was another story. You think, that since all meals are free this would be great. However, you then realize the meals were all prepared days before and it is just reheated stuff. I felt really bad for the people that had to pay high prices for this. Plenty of time we were going over the rough track. We still have enough points to go from Chicago to the Seattle area. Hopefully that train will be better than the one you were on. A family room would have been OK, but those cost more points than I have, and they are hard to find.

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