Thursday, May 15, 2014

Amtrak through SLC? Every night east and west

Perhaps you've been down to the intermodal hub lately. If not, you might want to check it out. There are many features, but one of the most interesting things about the hub, and the focus of this post, is the fact that it's home to SLC's only Amtrak station. The corresponding route? One of Amtrak's last remaining cross country jaunts, the California Zephyr, which has been in service since 1983. This 51 hour route runs every day from San Francisco (actually Emeryville) to Chicago and vice versa. Despite the fact that it's scenic, novel, and leisurely, the tickets aren't cheap. It runs $140 for a seat and $663 for a guaranteed bed (what they call a "Superliner Rommette", but in other parts of the world might be called a hard or soft sleeper) on May 28th from here to Chicago (34 hours). From here to San Francisco on the same date, it runs $98 for a seat and $215 for a sleeper (18 hours) which is a veritable steal compared with a sleeper to Chicago .

Every night at 11:30PM the train to San Francisco passes through the SLC Amtrak station and at 3:30AM it passes through heading toward Chicago. When my wife and I were dating and were out late one night, I convinced her we should head over to the station to watch the train stop on its way towards Chicago. She tolerated it, but thought I was crazy. Cross country passenger trains didn't seem a real SLC thing until seeing it person, but if one listens closely around 11:30PM (and I imagine 3:30AM) one can hear the whistle blog before it departs. The Amtrak "building" at the intermodal hub  is a bit of a ramshackle affair and was built in 1999, making them the first tenants of the intermodal hub. It appears a temporary shelter was constructed and the promised permanent structure has never been built. The office only opens for an hour or so before each departure, which makes it difficult to wander down there and get a sense of any SLC train culture.

Fancy California by morning?
SLC Amtrak office: opens at ~10PM

After leaving SLC en route to San Francisco, the train's next stop isn't till Elko, NV. BUT, if you're looking to soak up some of that old-timey feel of the rails in Utah, after passing through SLC towards Chicago, the train also makes stops in Provo (see also here), Helper (see also here), and Green River (see also here). So for those counting, Utah has four cross country passenger train stations.

See here for more on Amtrak at the Intermodal hub, and here for more on the California Zephr. Amtrak has a surprisingly informative guide to the route, which has a bit of a 1960s feel ot it, here.

In terms of history, from 1977-1986 the Union Pacific Depot (now the music venue "the Depot") served as the SLC Amtrak station, after which Amtrak moved to the Denver and Rio Grand Western Depot (otherwise known as the Rio Grand Depot) from 1986-1999, after which Amtrak moved to the Intermodal hub. The Rio Grand Depot today now serves as the home of the Utah State Historical Society, the Rio Gallery, and perhaps a ghost. The under-sung Rio Grande Cafe adjoins the old building.


  1. I've ridden the California zephyr several times. Cool things: once you enter California, members of the California historical society come on the intercom and provide interesting facts about the railroad, California history, etc. There are also some beautiful views going through the mountains. Not cool things: schedules can be extremely unreliable. Amtrak shares the tracks with union Pacific, and UP trains get right of way, so sometimes you'll just be stuck sitting for hours waiting for another train to pass. One time took me 24 hours to get from Roseville to Provo. Also uncomfortable and way too long for how expensive it is. But it's cool to try it once if you're not in a hurry.

  2. Good stuff, thanks Ben! I kind of forget how spectacular the views would be away from the highway, in the middle of nowhere.