California Zephyr

Route map:
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California Zephyr
The California Zephyr rounds a curve along the Colorado River near McCoy, Colorado
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleWestern United States
First serviceJuly 16, 1983 (1983-07-16)
Current operator(s)Amtrak
Annual ridership328,458 (FY23) Increase 13.1%[a][1]
TerminiChicago, Illinois
Emeryville, California
Distance travelled2,438 miles (3,924 km)
Average journey time
  • 51 hours, 40 minutes (eastbound)[2]
  • 52 hours, 10 minutes (westbound)[2]
Service frequencyDaily
Train number(s)5 (westbound)
6 (eastbound)
On-board services
Class(es)Coach Class
Sleeper Service
Disabled accessTrain lower level, most stations
Sleeping arrangements
  • Roomette (2 beds)
  • Bedroom (2 beds)
  • Bedroom Suite (4 beds)
  • Accessible Bedroom (2 beds)
  • Family Bedroom (4 beds)
Catering facilitiesDining car, Café
Observation facilitiesSightseer lounge car
Baggage facilitiesOverhead racks, checked baggage available at selected stations
Rolling stockGE Genesis
Siemens Charger
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Operating speed55 mph (89 km/h) (avg.)
79 mph (127 km/h) (top)
Track owner(s)UP, BNSF

The California Zephyr is a long-distance passenger train operated by Amtrak between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area (at Emeryville), via Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno. At 2,438 miles (3,924 km), it is Amtrak's longest daily route, and second-longest overall after the Texas Eagle's triweekly continuation from San Antonio to Los Angeles, with travel time between the termini taking approximately 5112 hours.[3] Amtrak claims the route as one of its most scenic, with views of the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada.[4] The modern train is the second iteration of a train named California Zephyr; the original train was privately operated and ran on a different route through Nevada and California.

During fiscal year 2022, the California Zephyr carried 290,423 passengers, an increase of 57.3% over FY2021, but down from its pre-COVID-19 pandemic ridership of 410,844 in FY2019.[5] The train had a total revenue of $51,950,998 in FY2016, the last year that route-specific revenue data was given.[6]


Previous service[edit]

The California Zephyr in 1970

Prior to the 1971 creation of Amtrak, three competing trains ran between Chicago and the East Bay, with bus connections to San Francisco:[7]: 136 

Railpax (renamed Amtrak in late April 1971) originally intended to revive the California Zephyr as part its original route network, using the Burlington Northern (ex-CB&Q) east of Denver, the DRG&W between Denver and Ogden, Utah, and the WP west of Ogden. The California Zephyr route would serve more populated areas (including Denver and Salt Lake City) than the Overland Route, would run through rural communities that lacked good highway access, and could attract passengers to its scenic routes.[7]: 136 

However, since the WP had shed the last of its money-losing passenger service by terminating the California Zephyr, it was not eligible to participate in Amtrak's formation. On April 12, 1971, the WP refused to cooperate with Railpax, and the SP route between Ogden and Oakland was chosen instead.[7]: 136 

On April 26, the D&RGW elected not to join Amtrak. The contract specified that Amtrak could later increase service, and D&RGW feared that would crowd its single-track mainline that competed with the UP's double-track route. The D&RGW chose to operate the Denver–Ogden Rio Grande Zephyr. Amtrak scrambled to piece together a Denver–Cheyenne–Ogden routing on the UP.[7]: 137 

Amtrak era[edit]

An EMD FP7 and two EMD SDP40Fs pull the eastbound San Francisco Zephyr through the Yuba Gap in 1975.

Between the spring of 1971 and the summer of 1972, passengers traveling between Chicago and Oakland would have to travel on two different trains: the Denver Zephyr, which operated daily between Chicago and Denver, and the City of San Francisco, which operated three times a week, between Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually, however, after several false starts, Amtrak consolidated the two trains into one, dubbed the San Francisco Zephyr, homage to both the California Zephyr and the San Francisco Chief, between Chicago and Oakland. The Rio Grande continued to operate the Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Ogden.[7]: 136–137 

In 1983, the D&RGW elected to join Amtrak, citing increasing losses in passenger operations. Amtrak re-routed the San Francisco Zephyr over the D&RGW's Moffat Subdivision between Denver and Salt Lake City, its original preference from 1971. The change was scheduled for April 25, but a mudslide at Thistle, Utah, closed the line and delayed the change until July 16. With the change of route, Amtrak renamed the train as the California Zephyr.[8][9] The modern California Zephyr uses mostly the same route as the original east of Winnemucca, Nevada. The train uses the route of the former City of San Francisco, along the Overland Route (First transcontinental railroad), between Elko, Nevada, and Sacramento. Across central Nevada, the two rail lines have been combined to use directional running. As such, the exact spot the train switches lines depends on the direction of travel.[10]

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the California Zephyr operated in tandem with the Seattle-bound Pioneer and Los Angeles-bound Desert Wind. Since 1980, the Pioneer and Desert Wind had exchanged through coaches with the San Francisco Zephyr at Ogden. The exchange point was moved to Salt Lake City when the latter train became the California Zephyr.[7]: 143–144  This created a massive train of 16 Superliner cars running from Chicago to Utah, easily the longest train Amtrak had operated outside of the Auto Train. Amtrak required at least four EMD F40PH locomotives to pull this behemoth over the steep grades of the Moffat subdivision. To ease the load, Amtrak began splitting the Pioneer from the Zephyr and Desert Wind at Denver in 1991, while the Desert Wind continued splitting from the Zephyr at Salt Lake City.[7]: 148–150  The Pioneer and Desert Wind were both discontinued in 1997.

The western terminus of the train was cut back to Emeryville station when Oakland Central station closed on August 5, 1994. The California Zephyr was re-extended to Oakland with the opening of the Jack London Square station on May 12, 1995. However, this required a complicated reverse move along street running tracks to reach the wye at West Oakland. The train was cut back again to Emeryville on October 26, 1997.[11]

Service between Reno and Denver was suspended for about a month in April 2020, as part of a round of service reduction in response to the coronavirus pandemic.[12][13] Frequency was reduced to tri-weekly in October 2020,[14] but was restored to daily service on May 24, 2021, after additional Amtrak funding was included in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.[15] A resurgence of the virus caused by the Omicron variant and associated staffing and equipment shortages caused Amtrak to reduce the train's service to a five days a week Tuesday through Saturday schedule from January 19 to May 23, 2022.[16] As of June 2022, daily service had resumed.[17]


The California Zephyr uses equipment typical for Amtrak's long-distance trains in the Western United States:

Route description[edit]

California Zephyr route map

The west-bound train is Amtrak number 5 (number 6 eastbound). Upon leaving Chicago Union Station, the train travels along the Metra BNSF Railway Line, with an intermediate stop in Naperville, Illinois.

After passing through Aurora, Illinois, the train passes through the Illinois prairies, using the Burlington Rail Bridge to cross the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa. After running through southern Iowa, the Zephyr reaches the Missouri River between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska. From Omaha, the train travels overnight through southern Nebraska and northeastern Colorado, making a morning arrival in Denver.

At Denver, the Zephyr switches over from BNSF to Union Pacific tracks. Westbound, the train is routed over the Central Corridor for the trip through the Tunnel District. The line crosses the Continental Divide via the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel under James Peak. Leaving the Moffat Tunnel, the tracks then follow the Colorado River from Winter Park Resort to Ruby Canyon, west of Grand Junction, which is also where the train enters Utah.

Westbound Zephyr stopped in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

In Utah, the train follows the southern rim of the Book Cliffs to their end near Helper. The Zephyr crosses the Wasatch Mountains, cresting at Soldier Summit before descending into the Wasatch Front to arrive at Salt Lake City.

The westbound California Zephyr at Colfax

From Salt Lake City to Emeryville, the Zephyr route loosely follows Interstate 80, traveling along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake and across the Bonneville Salt Flats towards Nevada. After crossing into Nevada at Wendover, Utah/West Wendover, Nevada, the route passes the Toano Range, via Silver Zone Pass, across the Goshute Valley, tunnels under the Pequop Mountains and then skirts the northern edge of the Ruby Mountains.

The line first reaches the Humboldt River near Wells, which it loosely follows until the river's end in the Humboldt Sink near Lovelock. Here, the tracks cross the center of the Forty Mile Desert; on the other side of this desert valley is the Truckee River, which provides the line's path to Reno and up the Sierra Nevada in California.

In California, the tracks round Donner Lake, crest the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass, and descend a high ridge between the American and Yuba Rivers, through Emigrant Gap. The line empties out into the California Central Valley, and then runs along the San Pablo Bay, with stops in Sacramento and Davis. It crosses the Benicia Bridge and has stops in Martinez and Richmond. The trip ends in Emeryville, a suburb of Oakland. From Emeryville the free Emery Go Round shuttle connects passengers to the BART train or an Amtrak Thruway service provides connecting service to San Francisco's Embarcadero.


Amtrak California Zephyr stations
State/Province City Station
Illinois Chicago Chicago Union Station
Naperville Naperville
Princeton Princeton
Galesburg Galesburg
Iowa Burlington Burlington
Mount Pleasant Mount Pleasant
Ottumwa Ottumwa
Osceola Osceola
Creston Creston
Nebraska Omaha Omaha
Lincoln Lincoln
Hastings Hastings
Holderege Holdrege
McCook McCook
Colorado Fort Morgan Fort Morgan
Denver Denver Union Station
Fraser Fraser-Winter Park
Granby Granby
Glenwood Springs Glenwood Springs
Grand Junction Grand Junction
Utah Green River Green River
Helper Helper
Provo Provo
Salt Lake City Salt Lake City
Nevada Elko Elko
Winnemucca Winnemucca
Reno Reno
California Truckee Truckee
Colfax Colfax
Roseville Roseville
Sacramento Sacramento
Davis Davis
Martinez Martinez
Emeryville Emeryville

Rail line subdivisions[edit]

From east to west the current route of the Zephyr uses the following rail subdivisions:

BNSF Railway
Union Pacific Central Corridor


Traffic by Fiscal Year (October–September)
Ridership Change over previous year Ticket Revenue Change over previous year
2007[19] 329,840 - $35,719,619 -
2008[19] 352,563 Increase06.88% $39,001,032 Increase09.18%
2009[19] 345,558 Decrease01.98% $38,679,674 Decrease00.82%
2010[20] 377,876 Increase09.35% $43,754,763 Increase013.12%
2011[20] 355,324 Decrease05.96% $44,751,539 Increase02.27%
2012[21] 376,459 Increase05.94% $47,605,728 Increase06.37%
2013[21] 376,932 Increase00.12% $49,864,217 Increase04.74%
2014[22] 366,564 Decrease02.75% $49,206,656 Decrease01.31%
2015[22] 375,342 Increase02.39% $48,780,177 Decrease00.86%
2016[23] 417,322 Increase011.18% $51,950,998 Increase06.5%
2017[24] 415,000 Decrease00.55% - -
2018[25] 418,203 Increase00.77% - -
2019[25] 410,844 Decrease01.75% - -
2020[26] 247,535 Decrease037.8% - -
2021[27] 184,667 Decrease025.4% - -
2022[28] 290,423 Increase057.3% - -

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Amtrak Fiscal Year 2023 Ridership" (PDF). Amtrak. November 27, 2023. Retrieved November 30, 2023.
  2. ^ a b "Amtrak Timetable Results". Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  3. ^ "California Zephyr Timetable" (PDF). Amtrak. July 20, 2017. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  4. ^ "California Zephyr Route Guide" (PDF). Amtrak. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  5. ^ "Amtrak Route Ridership: FY22 vs. FY21" (PDF).
  6. ^ "Amtrak FY16 Ridership & Revenue Fact Sheet" (PDF). Amtrak. April 17, 2017. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34705-3.
  8. ^ "Scenic route to be taken by Amtrak". Eugene Register-Guard. March 17, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ "Last passenger trains rolling across Wyoming". Spokesman-Review. July 13, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas (Map) (2003 ed.). 1:250000. Benchmark Maps. 2003. pp. 41–44. ISBN 0-929591-81-X.
  11. ^ Vurek, Matthew Gerald (2016). Images of Modern America: California’s Capitol Corridor. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 42, 43. ISBN 9781467124171.
  12. ^ "Service Adjustments Due to Coronavirus" (Press release). Amtrak. April 6, 2020. Archived from the original on April 6, 2020. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  13. ^ "Amtrak Advisory | Amtrak to Operate on Modified Schedules". Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  14. ^ Lewis, Shanna (October 9, 2020). "Coronavirus Service Cuts For Amtrak Trains Are Hurting The Local Economy And Traditions In Southern Colorado". KRCC. Retrieved October 11, 2020.
  15. ^ "With Increased Demand and Congressional Funding, Amtrak Restores 12 Long Distance Routes to Daily Service". Amtrak. March 10, 2021. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
  16. ^ "Amtrak to restore four long-distance trains to daily service in late May". Trains. Retrieved April 19, 2022.
  17. ^ Lewis, Shanna. "Long distance trains back on track seven days a week in Colorado". KRCC. Retrieved January 16, 2023.
  18. ^ Ruppert, Daniel P. (February 3, 2023). "Update on Acquisitions And Capital Programs" (PDF). PRIIA Section 305 Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee (NGEC) 13th Annual Meeting. Next Generation Corridor Equipment Pool Committee.
  19. ^ a b c "Amtrak Fiscal Year 2009, Oct. 2008-Sept. 2009" (PDF). Trains Magazine. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 30, 2013. Retrieved November 8, 2020.
  20. ^ a b "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 8, 2012. Retrieved July 30, 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^ a b "AMTRAK SETS RIDERSHIP RECORD AND MOVES THE NATION'S ECONOMY FORWARD" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 24, 2020.
  22. ^ a b "Amtrak FY15 Ridership & Revenue" (PDF).
  23. ^ "Amtrak FY16 Ridership & Revenue" (PDF). Amtrak. April 17, 2017.
  24. ^ "Amtrak FY17 Ridership" (PDF).
  25. ^ a b "Amtrak FY19 Ridership" (PDF).
  26. ^ Luczak, Marybeth (November 23, 2020). "Amtrak Releases FY 2020 Data". Railway Age. New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Inc. Retrieved February 18, 2020.
  27. ^ "Amtrak FY21 Ridership" (PDF).
  28. ^ "Amtrak FY22 Ridership" (PDF).


  1. ^ Amtrak's Fiscal Year (FY) runs from October 1 of the prior year to September 30 of the named year.

External links[edit]

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