A New Sleeper Train in the Rockies?

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Prompted in part by experiences like this, I’ve thought a lot about whether Amtrak’s long-distance operations are at all viable. They’re unprofitable, slow, and infrequent, and seemingly constantly under threat–but also generally the most politically popular part of the Amtrak system, since rural elected officials love seeing trains in their districts.

In thinking about the long-distance trains, I often come back to this excellent Sic Transit Philadelphia post. The core of Michael’s theory is this:

I have a developing theory of sleeper trains, which is that they are essentially a point-to-point service. A sleeper passenger who is willing to pay a fare that is going to pay for most, or all, of her costs, wants a train that is leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Perhaps a short ride in daylight can cover more another market or two with the same departure, but the basic form is evening-morning. It requires two trainsets to operate the entire service.

The luxury of such a service is that timing can be somewhat loose; trains just need to arrive by the beginning of the business day. From a cost-savings perspective, a one-overnight trip could mean that passengers can eat before and after their time on the train, eliminating the need for an expensive dining car. Michael discusses several potential routes for such a service in his post, and it’s been an occasional topic of discussion on Twitter as well.

This topic came back to me earlier this week when I read Jim Wrinn’s pessimistic take on the future of the former Denver & Rio Grande Western main line through the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, this line, once dominated by coal traffic, is down to a couple of trains per day in each direction, plus Amtrak’s California Zephyr, the successor to D&RGW’s grand, long-lived (D&RGW kept operating it privately until 1983) flagship train. That’s not a lot of traffic to keep up a 570-mile line (including a 6.2 mile tunnel) in some of the most spectacular–and most brutal, for weather and maintenance purposes–scenery in the country.


System map of the D&RGW in 1965, featuring the Moffat Tunnel line. Source.

The coal traffic that once sustained the Moffat line is probably mostly dead for good. But, as Wrinn suggests in his piece, what if the former D&RGW could become one of the US’ rare passenger-primary routes? An unlikely proposition given the expense of maintaining it, surely, but the line does have a strong passenger heritage, and links two growing cities with extensive, recently built out transit networks that connect well to their intercity train terminals. And it’s just about the right length to trial the one-overnight model that Michael proposes above.

Today’s California Zephyr is essentially a day train, with a mildly useful but slow schedule westbound across the Rockies, and an equally slow but less useful one (3:30 AM departure from SLC!) eastbound.

CZ timetable

A 15-hour trip wouldn’t work to run a one-overnight trip with two trainsets, but it wasn’t always that slow. The 1952 Official Guide (indicate Denver & Rio Grande Western on the menu at left) has westbound train 17 at 13:40 from Denver to Salt Lake, leaving at 8:40 AM and arriving at 10:20. Eastbound #18 left SLC at a somewhat more civilized 5:40 AM and arrived in Denver at 7:00 PM sharp, for a time of 13:20. The Zephyr was a true day train in both directions, complemented by sleeper service at night.

And I think it might be time to bring that kind of service pattern back. With much less freight interference than in the line’s glory days and modern equipment (this line might work very nicely for tilting trains), it might be possible to get run times down into the 12-hour range. Even if that’s not possible and some train sets have to lay over, one day trip and one night trip in each direction–plus the Zephyr, whenever Amtrak feels like running it–between Denver and SLC might work nicely. The day trip would appeal to tourists wanting to see the spectacular scenery, while a barebones, no-meals sleeper operation could appeal to budget travelers who don’t want to make the stressful drive over the Rockies or don’t want to travel with a car. There’s also the possibility of restoring Ski Train service to resorts along the route, which current owner Union Pacific has been open to but Amtrak has been its usual obstreperous self about.

I don’t know if three passenger trains per day plus scattered freight service would be enough to justify the massive maintenance expense of keeping the Moffat Line open. I do know that the metro areas at both ends of the route are among the country’s biggest transit success stories, and have been highly creative in getting there. And I suspect that a day/night schedule on trains dedicated to SLC-Denver service could work. Hopefully someone will give it a try.