In Praise of Timetables.

When I travel on an Amtrak long-distance train, I need a timetable.

I don’t mean it would be nice to have a timetable . . . or if you happen to see a timetable lying around and have no use for it, I wouldn’t mind if you slipped it under the door of my roomette.

What I mean is I NEED a timetable!

Twenty years ago, when you boarded an Amtrak long-distance train and stepped into your roomette, a timetable would be among the three or four items slipped into the space behind the little pull-out table under the window.

Ten years ago, the car attendant had a small supply of printed timetables and, if you asked, he was happy to give you one. . . as long as you were a sleeping car passenger.

Today there are no timetables. None. Not anywhere. Not even on the Amtrak website. If there were, I could bring up the image, print it and have it with me when I’m on the train.

What’s so important about a timetable? 

I use it to keep track of the train’s progress. For example, if Train 5 (that’s the westbound California Zephyr) arrives in Omaha, Nebraska at 10 minutes past midnight, I’ll know that we’re running an hour-and-a-quarter late.

If I’m having breakfast in the dining car the next morning at 7:55 when we reach Fort Morgan, Colorado, I know we’re now running almost three hours late.

That night, the timetable tells me the distance between Green River and Helper, Utah, is 71 miles. Knowing that, and knowing how long it took the Zephyr to make the run between those towns, I can compute the Zephyr’s average speed at 73 miles-per-hour.

Later the next afternoon, I check the timetable and determine we’ve lost a little more time trailing a slow freight over the Sierras and I’m now projecting we will miss our scheduled arrival time at Emeryville by almost four hours.

Not to worry. I call my brother-in-law on my mobile phone and he says he’s glad I called because he was planning to meet the train at the scheduled arrival time, but he’ll call the restaurant and re-schedule our dinner plans.

See? Timetables are important. Come on, Amtrak! Add a penny to the cost of every ticket sold and bring back timetables!


  1. Yes, this is so incredibly annoying and frustrating. If Amtrak would at least post the .pdf timetables I’d be happy to print out my one to take with me on the train. One thing you didn’t mention is that having the timetables in front of you makes it easier to plan a trip involving multiple trains. I’m still using the last national timetable I have in print as most of the long distance schedules haven’t changed too much.

  2. Last month on the Coast Starlight trip (Los Angeles-Tacoma) the old PDF copy in my phone was no longer valid because Amtrak changed the schedule. I found out that I could bring up an up-to-date timetable on the Track a Train website. It will even show how the train has fared at every stop along the way. One thing it does not have, however, is mileage.

  3. I agree–really need at least a pdf timetable. I used them to create multiple train trips to a destination and the build it option just doesn’t cut it. Comments on Facebook have been asking for them too. Bring them back!

  4. I absolutely miss having printed timetables available. This is penny-pinching at its worst. But I have worked out my own system for tracking my train’s progress. I make sure I have a printout of the train’s route and station stops, then I track our location using my phone’s mapping app. I can at least make a rough guess how long it is to the next station and can adjust my prediction when the train comes to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and it helps to have portable scanner tuned to the train’s communication frequency to know WHY we’re sitting still.

  5. Amtrak does not want to remind the passengers how late the train is.
    Simple as that . . .

    Nor do they want a printable record of the schedule padding that has occurred over the past 30+ years. Some routes have had 2 or more hours added over these years and STILL the train is several hours late.

    And don’t bother to ask the sleeping car attendant or any other worker on the train. They will tell you they don’t know the schedule or exactly how late we are. Sad . . .

    1. We’ll have to agree to disagree. The reason on-time performance is poor is because too often freight railroad dispatchers refuse to give preference to Amtrak trains in defiance of the law. Amtrak pads the schedules because they are forced to anticipate these delays. I’ve found that most sleeping car attendants are very familiar with the schedules . . . certainly the ones with more than a few years of experience are. The reason there are no on board timetables is because Amtrak is forced to pinch pennies.

      1. How does not having a schedule listed on the website save them pennies? Maybe paper copies on the train could cost them $3-4 dollars per route (next to nothing), but not having even a digital version tells me it is something deeper.

  6. I can understand removing printed timetables as a cost-cutting measure, though I suspect the savings are pretty minimal. What I don’t understand is why they don’t even have .pdf timetables available anymore. I completely agree with you. They are essential. In addition to the reasons you cite, they can give you an idea of how long it will be before interesting points of interest will be coming up. Even if the train is running behind, that helps with planning.

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