Amtrak Returns To Wyoming

From Denver to Ogden, it's all Union Pacific for the Pioneer


(from Trains magazine, September 1991, page 22)

The equality State has returned to the Amtrak route map after an eight-year absence. As Laurie Biggs, the reigning Miss Wyoming, lent her presence and tiara to welcoming service back to Cheyenne--a quintessential railroad town as well as the state capital--the lead F40 on Amtrak's pre-inaugural special train stopped short of the traditional welcoming banner. It was too late to break the ceremonial ribbon--the sign had parted before the diesel could break through.

But nobody seemed to care, for Wyoming had rail passenger service again, as it had enjoyed from 1869 to 1983. Amtrak regained a transcontinental segment, and travelers now have a faster train between Denver and the Pacific Northwest.

All of this hoopla concerned the rerouting of Amtrak's Chicago-Seattle Pioneer to an all-Union Pacific route north and west of Denver as far as Portland. The two-day inaugural journey across Wyoming on June 13-14, 1991, preceded startup of service June 17. After deadheading from Salt Lake City, the eight-car, two-diesel inaugural special departed from newly reopened Ogden Union Station on Thursday, June 13. It tied up that night at Rawlins (21/2 hours late), where the trainload of guests was taken to the old Territorial Penitentiary for a buffet and cowboy music until well into the night. From Rawlins on Friday, the train ran to the university town of Laramie and on over Sherman Hill and into the capital before heading south into the Centennial State for ceremonies at Greeley, Colorado, and an open house at Denver Union Station.

As new Amtrak routes go, this one was pretty easy to establish. UP's double-track main line is a smooth, gentle, and fast route through the mostly open country of Wyoming, compared with the tortuous (although scenic) curves of the Denver & Rio Grande Western through the Colorado Rockies. The Grande retains the Chicago-Oakland California Zephyr and Chicago-Los Angeles Desert Wind, combined between the Windy City and the Utah capital, but the Pioneer cars, which formerly cut off at Salt Lake City, now split and combine at Denver. As a result, the 35-mile Salt Lake-Ogden segment loses Amtrak trains in favor of a dedicated bus connection.

The inaugural run into Cheyenne was a one-shot only for show, at least for a while. Until a UP wye is reconstructed in downtown Cheyenne to enable the train to turn around, the Pioneer will call at the remote UP junction of Borie, 9.6 miles west of the city. (When Amtrak's San Francisco Zephyr ran through Wyoming on the UP, it served Cheyenne with the consist running backwards between there and Denver. Amtrak replaced this operation with the stop at Borie in 1979.) The consequences of a backup move combined with Wyoming's winter weather were too much for Amtrak to contemplate. If and when a facility to turn the entire train is established in Cheyenne, the Pioneer will begin calling right in the city, where the old UP station with its steeple and huge shield emblem dominates downtown.

Although welcomed and encouraged by Wyoming's state government and Congressional delegation, re-establishment of Overland Route passenger service was governed as much by operating considerations. The longer running time through the Rockies over the Rio Grande, combined with the goal of meshing with the schedules of both the C.Z. and Desert Wind, required the Pioneer to depart Seattle at 5 a.m., hardly a marketable time. In addition, going through Boise, Idaho, off the UP main on a branch (and one being sold to a short line) involved slow-speed secondary track. If the train left Seattle later, it would have to bypass the Idaho capital, the largest originator of traffic between Portland and Salt Lake City.

The obvious move was to return to the UP. Amtrak officials made quiet inquiries in October 1990, and a quick inspection trip was made by auto along U.S. 30 and Interstate 80. The route is double track all the way between Cheyenne and Ogden, although automatic block signal (ABS), rather than centralized traffic control (CTC), is employed, and each track is one-directional, which means the Pioneer can get stuck behind a long freight.

But the time saving made the difference. The new Pioneer leaves Seattle at 8 a.m. and gets to Denver at 5:20 p.m. the next day--with 31/2 hours to wait for the Zephyr to arrive off D&RGW. Amtrak has laid on an option of a bus tour of Denver to help use up the layover (free for first-class passengers, nominal charge for coach). Even with the Ogden bus connection, a Denver-Salt Lake trip on the Pioneer via the UP is two hours shorter than on the Zephyr. The only losers appear to be western Colorado communities whose best direct connection to the Pacific Northwest now involves taking the C.Z to Sacramento to catch the Coast Starlight.

Although the Overland Route was part of Amtrak's original system, the Pioneer was not. Established as a Salt Lake-Seattle train in 1977, it connected at Ogden with the San Francisco Zephyr. Amtrak's new president, W. Graham Claytor Jr., coveted the Rio Grande's route through the Rockies, so when D&RGW discontinued its independent Rio Grande Zephyr in 1983 (which connected via a van transfer from Salt Lake to Ogden), Amtrak was more than ready to step in, moving its Chicago-to-West Coast train from the UP to the Grande. So from 1983 until 1991, the Pioneer was a Salt Lake-Seattle connection off the C.Z., and Wyoming was one of only six U.S. states without Amtrak service.

Ironically, the Overland Route was almost left out of the original Amtrak system. The first Amtrak timetable of May 1, 1971, indicated a Rio Grande routing for what would be the San Francisco Zephyr, before D&RGW decided to go its own independent way with the RGZ. A last-minute reroute (which put Union Pacific into Amtrak's timetable) established SFZ service over Sherman Hill and along UP's speedway into Ogden, where Southern Pacific took over. Eventually, Ogden became a three-way junction for Amtrak's biggest transcontinental train; this switching was moved to Salt Lake City with the change to the ex-Western Pacific main line west of the Utah capital in 1983. Now, the Pioneer is switched out at Denver, providing a wider choice of Western routes and ending the Colorado metropolis's unusual status as the largest single originator of passenger traffic of any station served by only one Amtrak train.

Equipment requirements stemming from the new Pioneer routing are modest. The train, normally one locomotive and four or five Superliner cars, requires only one more coach and one more diesel in the equipment pool than the previous route via Salt Lake. Furthermore, it will free consist space on the California Zephyr for additional mail cars, which generate easy profit for Amtrak. Before the separation, the Zephyr was handling the heaviest load permissible with two F40's over its mountainous line. Summer consists necessitated a third and even a fourth F40, a commodity in short supply on Amtrak (hence the stopgap secondhand GP40 trailing units it's now placing in service). Amtrak hopes to attract mail traffic to the new Pioneer as well.

It may have been a fortuitous set of operating and marketing circumstances which brought about the decision to restore service across Wyoming, but all along the inaugural train's route it was a celebration of the state's centennial--a year late. In enthusiastic ceremonies, Wyoming citizens welcomed back Amtrak from what was thought to be an unjustified omission from the national rail map eight years ago. Champagne was served along with Wyoming potato chips and Annie Heiner Mineral Water from Ogden. Denver's Wynkoop Brewery, a boutique brewer across the street from Union Station, bottled its own "Pioneer Select," using Amtrak's logo and a representation of the train as its label. Greeley's restored Union Pacific station featured railroad artist Diane Wood, plus vendors in outdoor tents and stalls selling food and drink. Country-western artists played in the lounge car en route and at each stop.

Arrival at Denver was in time for the announcement that the area next to Union Station is to be the site of thenew stadium for Denver's new National League major league baseball team, to begin play in 1993 as the Colorado Rockies. One item of note: Aboard the train was a couple from Maine, invited guests who were there to partake of the festivities--and to see how to do a "welcome back" celebration when Amtrak trains debut in the Pine Tree State.