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.

5 thoughts on “A New Sleeper Train in the Rockies?

  1. A few years ago I rode Cary, NC (Raleigh suburb) to Winter Park, FL (Orlando suburb) on the Silver Star. It was nearly the perfect sleeper schedule, and it still is basically just as perfect today.

    Southbound, depart Cary at 9:23pm, arrive Winter Park at 9:43am.
    Northbound, depart Winter Park at 7:49pm, arrive Cary at 8:08am.

    Did this with my familiy when we had just one child (a baby) and the three of us could fit comfortably in a roomette. We left after dinner one evening, and came back in time for me to get to the office more or less on time. Fantastic experience. Trains were not more than 10 minutes or so late.

    Had we driven, our vacation would have been basically two full days shorter; flying would have cost about the same and we could have maintained approximately the same schedule, but would have either had to get up earlier in the morning to leave, or fly the night before and pay for another night at the hotel. On the way back we could have flown at the same time as we got on the train, and then slept at home that night, but eh, the train was more fun.

  2. Good post overall. (And thanks for digging that post out of my archives. 😉 )

    To extend this thought, and your proposal, a second daily train on the full length of the CZ route, running 9 hours earlier than the present eastbound and 10 hours after the present westbound, would also give a nice bidirectional overnight segment between Omaha and Chicago, with a midnight departure and predawn arrival at Union Station. It would also provide a decent eastbound overnight Bay Area-Reno, leaving Emeryville around midnight and arriving around 7am, which is doable if not exactly ideal, maybe suitable for fixing through early boarding. Unfortunately, westbound it all falls apart, leaving Reno at ~18:30 and blundering into Emeryville at ~2:30 am, which needs 3 hours coming on or off the schedule to be fixed. If two or even all three hours can come out of the DRGW, that’s a good start.

    The other major option for this route might be to string a wire through Moffat Tunnel and run Silverliners up to Winter Park and Granby, but I think that might lose you enough clearance to run Superliners through without arcing, so the CZ would be permanently diverted to Cheyenne. This is definitely the troll proposal.

    • Happy to dig the post out of your archives, it was really good! And quite influential for my thinking about this. I’m kind of pessimistic about the potential for scheduling the CZ better at all…the reliability just isn’t there.

      The idea of stringing a wire is fun, would certainly make a fun proposal. I wonder how much clearance you need (any info on that? actually working on another post along those lines in a totally different area…)

      • Yeah, the reliability on the CZ and the other transcons is a real problem. I mood-swing back and forth as to whether I’d rather try to fix them by building up pax-primary short corridors, or by swinging a big axe and killing off the CZ and the Sunset, and leave Denver as a spur off the SWC via Pueblo.

        IANA EE, but let’s try some back of the envelope clearance numbers.

        SEPTA’s Center City tunnel requires 9″ of separation between the 12 kV wire and max. equipment height. Say you need 19″ above and below a 25kV wire, since there’s no good reason to not use Denver/international standard electrification; I don’t actually know if this is a linear relation. That means, in order to run Superliners under the wire you need 16′ 2″ + 19″ + 19″ = 19′ 4″ of vertical clearance. Moffat Tunnel is listed at 24′ tall, although I suspect that’s measuring from the floor and the other figures are from the top of the rail. So you could do Superliners under the wire through the Moffat Tunnel, you’d just lose the Plate H clearance.

  3. Pingback: The Brightline Model | Itinerant Urbanist

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