Why No One Rides Amtrak at SLC

The first time I ever visited Salt Lake City, I rode Amtrak. It was Spring Break in 1984, and my dad was working in Utah, so we rode the train from California. It was cheaper than flying, and it seemed like a good way to have an adventure!

Now, fast forward to to the present: I’ve lived in Utah for nearly 25 years, and I’ve taken a trip on Amtrak only one other time. Why is that?

Well, there are a few reasons that come to mind:

  1. The train arrives in Salt Lake City at really inconvenient hours
  2. The train is reliably unreliable
  3. There are no reasonable transit options
  4. There’s no secure parking nearby

OK, before I delve into those items, let me just fill you in on the background information.

Salt Lake City lies along Amtrak’s longest route, the Calfornia Zephyr, a long-distance train whose route stretches 2,438 miles between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, roughly paralleling the path of Interstate 80 (The only major deviation is that the California Zephyr passes through Colorado, which is not along I-80). The California Zephyr is Amtrak’s only route which serves SLC, and there is one train in each direction every day.

cazephyrmap

Decades ago, Amtrak also offered service from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas and Southern California on a train called the “Desert Wind.” Another train called the “Pioneer” originated in Salt Lake City at various times and ran to Portland and Seattle by way of Ogden and Boise. Alas, as I said, though, those options were in the past. These days, the California Zephyr is Amtrak’s only connection to Utah.

Only 40,000 people board the train in Salt Lake City every year. That works out to an average of about 55 passengers alighting each train which passes through. In a county with over a million residents and a metro area in excess of two million, why are the ridership numbers so low? By comparison, Denver saw 150,000 boardings last year, and Reno recorded nearly 70,000.  Salt Lake City’s number is even lower than tiny Glenwood Springs. So, why is it that no-one rides Amtrak from SLC?

REASON 1: The train arrives in Salt Lake City at really inconvenient hours

According to the schedule, the westbound train arrives in Salt Lake at 11:05pm. If that’s not inconvenient enough, the eastbound train is even worse: it’s scheduled to arrive at 3:05 am. With both of its trains passing through town in the middle of the night, the Amtrak station in Salt Lake City keeps hours that only Dracula could love.

TRAIN CITIES SCHEDULED TIME
5
Westbound
Arrives from: Denver, Omaha, Chicago 11:05 pm
Departs toward: Reno and California 11:30 pm
6
Eastbound
Arrives from: California and Reno 3:05 am
Departs toward: Denver, Omaha, Chicago 3:30 am

California Zephyr schedule


The lonely Amtrak station facilities during its open hours in the middle of the night. The station is closed during daylight hours.

As you can see, even when the California Zephyr is on time, the scheduled times are hours when you’d probably prefer to be at home. Of course, the Zephyr is not on time very often, which brings us to the second reason that people don’t ride it.

REASON 2: The train is reliably unreliable

If you have definite plans somewhere, riding a long-distance train is the surest way to miss those plans. No airline could post an on-time performance like Amtrak’s and hope to survive. Even if it did, the Department of Transportation would be levying fines and penalties to punish its poor performance.

When the feds tabulate late flights, they use 15 minutes as the threshold: If a flight arrives within 15 minutes of when it was scheduled, it’s considered to be on-time. More than fifteen minutes, and the flight is late. That’s a standard that the California Zephyr could never measure up to.

In 2017, the Zephyr was at least 30 minutes late getting into Salt Lake City 338 times! Train 6, the eastbound, was a half hour or more late on 55% of the days in the year. Even worse, the two daily trains, one in each direction, arrived in Salt Lake City two hours or more later than scheduled a total of 112 times during 2017. That’s right: for each of the two trains, there were nearly 60 days — two months worth — of days when the train was over two hours late.

Virtually identical punctuality problems pervade the entire route, at just about every station between Chicago and the Bay Area.

The biggest reason for this performance is Amtrak does not own the tracks, so train movement at the mercy of the host railroads. Amtrak’s passenger services jockey for track space with freight trains. Toss in all of the usual problems like weather, maintenance, and bad luck, and the result is Amtrak’s on-time performance, or lack thereof.

The bottom line is this:  If travelers truly have a need to be someplace at a certain time, taking the train cannot provide them assurance that they will be there when they need to be.


Passengers arriving on Train #5 westbound and others boarding in Salt Lake City this past Saturday night, August 4, 2018. Train #5 was running about 45 minutes behind schedule on this particular night. The train agent told me that 63 passengers boarded and 67 others detrained .

REASON 3: There are no reasonable transit options

The name of Salt Lake City’s train station is the Intermodal Hub. It’s a grand idea implemented about fifteen years ago when planners concentrated the facilities for the local light rail, the commuter rail line, Greyhound buses, dozens of local bus routes, and Amtrak all in one location with the purpose to provide for seamless connections between the various transportation modes.

As a concept, the Intermodal Hub sounds wonderful; the only problem is that when the Amtrak trains show up, those other services are not operating (save for Greyhound).

If train #5 is on schedule, you might be able to catch one of the last local transit services in the evening to the station, but I’ve already showed you that expecting Amtrak to be on-time is a pretty big “if”. Besides, even if you do ride the transit and catch train 5, what do you do when you return home? The return trip on Train 6 arrives at 3 am.

Essentially, this means that there is no public transportation available to connect to Amtrak in Salt Lake City. None. The Intermodal Hub is “intermodal” in name only as far as Amtrak as concerned.

The Intermodal Hub looks promising, with a fancy, modern building and lots of directional signage indicating lots of connectivity, but Amtrak is still relegated to a bungalow at the south end of the complex.

 

REASON 4: There’s no secure parking nearby

It’s an understatement to point out that the Intermodal Hub is not located in the safest neighborhood in Salt Lake City. Tent encampments are along the tracks and homeless shelters are around the corner. I’m not going to get into the politics of the situation, but I know personally that I would not park my car anywhere near the station and leave it while I depart on a multi-day trip.

As I noted earlier, there is no public transportation available during the hours that Amtrak comes through, and if I’m not going to drive my own car, it means that if I want to ride the train, I have to find someone else to drive me down to the station at a very unreasonable hour, and then pick me up, too, upon my return. At the very least, I think it would be an excellent investment for Amtrak or the city (or someone) to secure a safe, guarded parking area near the station. Travelers already are accustomed to paying to park at the airport; I doubt they’d balk at a similar scenario near the train, Right now, however, no such option exists. There’s a small lot across the street, but it’s park at your own risk.

The designated parking lot across the street from the Amtrak station.

My purpose in writing this is not to discourage you from trying Amtrak. I’d like to see better and expanded service here. I realize that it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: Ridership is low and the line loses money because the service is poor, and the government doesn’t want to invest money to improve or expand it because it’s already a drain on the budget. I suppose, in the end, we’ll continue to be left with what we have.

Happy travels!

Sourcing (giving credit where credit is due):

California Zephyr Schedule

Ridership numbers from the Rail Passengers Association

On time stats gathered from this database owned by Christopher Juckins.

The Hitchhikers Guide to Amtrak

Photos by Daniel Stober

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