U.S., Amtrak: What could have been for the California Zephyr and fondly remembering the Spirit of California overnight train

Amtrak’s California Zephyr at Provo, Utah in 2014, vividly displaying why the Zephyr is known for its scenic route. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator; September 6, 2022

Recently Bruce Richardson wrote an article on this platform about the resumption of overnight sleeping car trains in the Eastern United States and in Europe, which are coming back into favor. Riders are finding how easy it can be to travel by train, even if it’s only overnight, and while scenery is important to long distance train travelers, the overnight traveler only wants a good meal and drinks at each end of the journey and a comfortable bed.  That traveler thereby is deprived of the anxiety of the airport and possibly a hotel. Most large train stations also have rental cars, as is the case at Los Angeles Union Station.

The existing long distance train routes that travel one or two nights enroute to their endpoints are used by Sleeping Car and Coach passengers alike. An example is the tri-weekly Sunset Limited which has overnight passengers between Los Angeles and Tucson; the Southwest Chief does likewise between Los Angeles and Flagstaff.

Adrian Herzog, Ph.D, 1947-2001. File photo.

Decades ago, the late Dr. Adrian Herzog (1947-2001), Vice President Research for the United Rail Passenger Association, proposed a unique service which received attention at the highest levels of Amtrak. Dr. Herzog, a native of Switzerland but Southern California resident from early childhood, was a widely recognized astrophysicist and university professor by training and trade. He had a deep interest in passenger trains, ships and airliners. He was one of the early, successful computer modelers predicting load factor and financial outcomes of passenger train routes. He also was a partner in Nordberg/Herzog Associates which played a major role in the creation of the modern-day Metrolink system in Southern California as representatives at the time of UTDC, the manufacturers of the original bi-level passenger cars used to begin service by Metrolink.

 Dr. Herzog’s proposal involved the California Zephyr, trains 5 and 6. He recognized the many purposes of that train. It is one of the world’s “scenic rail journeys,” and it could also travel as an overnight sleeping car train in addition to being transportation between city pairs.

California Zephyr at Reno, Nevada in 2000. Wikimedia Commons photo.

First, Dr. Herzog proposed a pause at Reno, Nevada, prior to a trip through the Sierra Nevada in California for westbound train 5. That pause would have a dual purpose in addition to being a refueling stop; use recovery time there which would create an opportunity for passengers to “enjoy” the pleasures of the Reno main street. He suggested that Reno merchants might subsidize this stop.

Reno, Nevada in 2009. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Union Pacific Railroad would object to having a train sit for a long time in the Reno “trench” beyond the time for regular passenger service, but negotiations could solve that. Travel across Donner Pass would be guaranteed to be in daylight year round. With the magnificent trip across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, this train would be promoted to foreign visitors and everyone else as a premier trip across Western America equivalent to the VIA Rail Canadian or the Rocky Mountaineer in today’s list of “must see” vacation trips, much more than it is today.

Amtrak coming off Donnor Pass in March 1980, just before the introduction of the Superliner fleet on the route. At this point the route was still branded as the San Francisco Zephyr; it would soon be changed to the current California Zephyr. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Second, Adrian proposed that when the Zephyr reached Oakland it would be quickly serviced and continue south to Los Angeles overnight. If the train left Oakland by 8 PM it would arrive at Los Angeles Union Station by 8 AM, the perfect overnight “hotel on steel wheels.”  The reverse train would depart LAUS by 8 PM after daytime servicing and arrive in Oakland by 8AM to be serviced for its trip east.  The Dining Car would serve dinners and drinks overnight.

Southbound overnight train Spirit of California at the Glendale, California station in 1982. The train operated from 1981 to 1983 and carried sleepers, coaches, a cafe and baggage car. The train was a victim of short-sightedness by a state government that at the time had not fully embraced passenger train travel. Amtrak managers and employees of the era spoke fondly of the Spirit of California as a train which died too soon; business was growing and the consensus was it had great potential. It operated along the Southern Pacific coast line. Wikimedia Commons photo.

We believed this train would sell out almost every night, citing the success of the lamented Spirit of California train that ran in the 1980s before the state dropped it. That train carried two low-level sleepers, and from Sacramento to Los Angeles, were mostly full. Coach passengers would have the same dining opportunity.

As Herzog said, “it would give excellent overnight service between Northern and Southern California.” Another benefit to Amtrak would have been the west coast maintenance base for the train would shift to Los Angeles, reducing the need for Superliner maintenance in Oakland. Only one additional trainset would be necessary to do this, with one or two added cars, and at the time Herzog proposed it, the Superliner fleet was large enough this would not have been a problem. 

File image.

So, why didn’t this proposal happen? Amtrak West liked the idea; it made good business sense. It was under serious consideration until Amtrak in Washington rejected the idea out of hand. What we heard was the Chicago unions presumed, then decided, as presented the proposal would shift their crew base to Los Angeles for this train. They went to their congressman, who went to Amtrak and said forget it, which they did. That was too bad, as there was no intention of moving the crew base and it would continue to be in Chicago.

Would Dr. Herzog’s plan be successful today? Just look at the success of those Canadian trains. Look at the resumption of overnight trains in the NEC here in the U.S. and new ones in Europe. Specific promotion would be a way to tell the American traveling public something “new” was happening at Amtrak.

In the early days of Budd Company stainless steel streamliners, the Burlington advertised fast and convenient overnight travel on the east end of what would become the California Zephyr route between Denver and Chicago. Internet image.

Revenue Passenger Miles would explode. So, can it happen? Not likely. This extension would be a national system train, not supported by the State of California. Amtrak’s current mission to degrade the long distance trains has transfixed CEO Stephen Gardner’s upper management. They received authorization for $66 Billion of federal monies and all they are apparently spending it on is their bonuses and the “Connect US” plan to reduce their service to only short corridors and turn them over to the states so Amtrak can exclusively run the Northeast Corridor within five years.

They know the states don’t want to commit to that, so studies, studies, studies are happening with no apparent eventual positive outcomes except the destruction of the trains across “flyover country.” Dr. Herzog would not be pleased if he could see this happening. I’m not, either. Creativity at Amtrak died with Amtrak West over twenty years ago.

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