California Zephyr is still on the rails, despite close call in Congress

Sep 18, 2017

Credit Elise Thatcher

Giovanni Grosso and Malvina Canon sat outside the train station in Glenwood Springs. They seemed relaxed and a little bored. They’d been waiting for the train to come all day.

They rode the California Zephyr to Glenwood Springs the day before, and the views, they said, were spectacular. The train winds through places like Gore Canyon, which you can’t even drive in.


The California Zephyr is Amtrak’s train from Chicago to the Bay Area. It stops in Glenwood Springs, which has the second-busiest station in the state, next to Denver. The train shouldn’t be taken for granted as Amtrak’s funding isn’t set in stone. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives sparred over the future of trains like the Zephyr.


When the long line of silver cars finally rumbled into the station, Grosso and Canon boarded and Tom Laughlin got out; he was headed to Avon to visit his grandkids. He said he didn’t mind being late.


“If you get bent out of shape about that you have no business on the train,” he said.


However, some members of Congress are bent out of shape about this method of transportation. Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains, including the California Zephyr. They’re late about half the time and are expensive to run, but don’t really carry many passengers in the grand scheme of things.    


On Sept. 6, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama introduced an amendment to the federal budget to effectively discontinue long-distance trains like the Zephyr in the name of fiscal responsibility.  


“We should force Amtrak to be self-sufficient, we should force Amtrak passengers to pay their own travel costs. We must cut Amtrak from the government dole,” Brooks said.


But is Amtrak really where the federal deficit will be made up? Sean Jeans-Gail doesn’t think so. He’s the vice president of Government Affairs and Policy at the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), an organization based in Washington D.C. that advocates for train travel.  


“I find it kind of absurd to try to address 20 trillion dollars by cutting what is essentially a billion dollars of spending on passenger trains,” Jeans-Gail said.


Furthermore, Amtrak serves some really rural places that don’t have an alternative.


“We see Amtrak providing a very important role to connect these communities to the wider world.”


This is not to mention the historical importance the train has to places like Glenwood Springs. Lisa Langer, vice president of marketing for the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce, said that, without the train, there might not be a Glenwood Springs or any of its amenities.  


“How would people decided to build that beautiful pool? They wouldn’t have because they couldn’t have gotten people there,” Langer said.


Local businesses still rely enormously on the train. Ken Murphy owns the Glenwood Adventure Company, an outfitter that takes people rafting and horseback riding. A lot of his customers come on the train.  


“If the California Zephyr didn’t stop in Glenwood Springs, it’d be a devastating blow to my business and our community,” said Murphy. “We’re actually pushing for them to add more cars because there’s times here during the summer months that it’s full.”


Amtrak does have some major problems, namely that it operates on aging infrastructure. Jeans-Gail of NARP said, if anything, Amtrak needs more investment in order to improve service.


On Sept. 6, Rep. Brooks’ amendment was defeated soundly. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents most of the Western Slope voted against it. For now, the California Zephyr will arrive in Glenwood Springs each day, but the Senate still has to approve the budget, and there’s no guarantee they won’t drive the train right off its rails.