A Bit About the Amtrak System.
(The following paragraphs are from the current edition of my book: All Aboard—The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. I’m including these paragraphs today because I’m down with a lousy cold and really haven’t been able to muster the energy for something original.)
The Amtrak system includes a total of some 21,000 miles stretching from coast to coast. Amtrak itself owns only about 750 miles of that track, most of it along what is called the Northeast Corridor, the route running between Boston and Washington, DC. by way of New York City. Most everywhere else, Amtrak trains are operating over track owned and maintained by private freight railroads, usually referred to as “contract” or “host” railroads.
Hauling that many people all over the country, not to mention feeding and providing beds for many of them along the way, is a complicated business and it takes a lot of people and equipment to make it happen.
For example, it sounds simple to say that the California Zephyr runs between Chicago and the San Francisco area. But remember that the train runs every day in each direction and it’s a two night trip. So, at any given moment, Amtrak needs six complete trains to operate the California Zephyr: two are en route heading west, another two are out there heading east, and two more are getting ready to depart at either end of the route. Each of those six trains requires nine cars and two (sometimes three) locomotives. That means, at a minimum, Amtrak needs 54 railcars and a dozen locomotives just to run that one long-distance train. Then, of course, there are three other western trains that run two-night trips: the Sunset Limited, the Southwest Chief and the Empire Builder. In addition, there are eleven other trains that operate over routes that require one overnight to complete. Amtrak also has what they call “protect” locomotives located in strategic places around the country ready to be pressed into emergency service … in Denver, for example, in case one of the Zephyr’s locomotives should fail.
There are some obvious differences between passenger and freight operations, but the basic technology and operating procedures are pretty much the same, whether it’s an Amtrak train carrying 300 people from Seattle to Los Angeles or a freight railroad hauling coal from a Wyoming mine to a power plant near Chicago. Bottom line: It’s a complex business and making it all work takes organization and resources and experienced professionals.