Starlight hopes to get rid of Star-late moniker

Track upgrade could help popular passenger train stay on schedule

There's a glimmer of hope that Amtrak's Coast Starlight passenger train Ñ whose on-time record has been so dismal in recent years that it got the nickname Star-late Ñ soon could turn its timetable from an amiable fiction to near reality.

The train follows a spectacular route along the West Coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. It is among the most popular in the Amtrak system for both its scenery and its deluxe service.

It's notorious, however, for running far behind schedule, with the northbound train often arriving in Portland an hour or two late.

But an Oregon Department of Transportation official said there's hope that the Starlight will be running closer to the timetable as the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the track the Starlight uses, upgrades its track.

When Union Pacific bought the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1996, it inherited years of deferred maintenance, the result of SP's ongoing financial problems, said Robert Krebs, passenger rail coordinator for ODOT. Union Pacific is spending tens of millions of dollars to bring the former Southern Pacific line up to UP standards, but it's a long-term process.

'Unfortunately, it delays passenger trains when they do it,' Krebs said.

'It's very busy for a single track railroad and, yes, it needed work,' said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley.

An extensive program to replace wooden ties with concrete ties now is under way in northern California. 'That's now causing some delays, dependent on the work days,' he said, because the ties are installed by a mechanized piece of equipment that requires the line to shut down for nine hours.

The work is supposed to be completed by June 2.

Also later this spring, Union Pacific will be working on tunnels in the Cascade Mountains between Klamath Falls and Eugene; when that is under way, Amtrak passengers will be bused between the two cities.

Krebs said the railroad also is doing considerable work to upgrade its track in the Willamette Valley.

Because of the track's condition, 'we've had a lot of speed restrictions in northern California and Oregon that have not only affected Amtrak but our own trains as well,' Bromley said.

'Some of the problems the Coast Starlight has had lately probably will go away when the work is completed,' Krebs said. The state and Amtrak are working with Union Pacific on passenger operations, he said, 'to see what we can do to make passenger trains operate more efficiently in Oregon.'

Two years ago, Amtrak and Union Pacific officials were exchanging accusations about the Starlight's on-time problems. The issue, one Amtrak official said, was Union Pacific's slow freights and maintenance problems.

A Union Pacific spokesman countered that the Starlight's schedule was 'not realistic.'

When it comes to recent on-time performance, 'anecdotally, some of the delays are really impressive, but overall it's done better,' Bromley said of the Starlight.

The Starlight recorded one of its most spectacular late arrivals April 24, when it pulled into Portland 17 hours behind scheduleÑ the train had bashed into a Union Pacific crane that was leaning into the main line near Dunsmuir, Calif.

The accident badly damaged a locomotive and also banged up the train's dorm and baggage car. Two Union Pacific locomotives pulled the Starlight, with 360 passengers aboard, from Klamath Falls to Portland.

No one was hurt in the collision, but it knocked out power on the train, which caused its own complications.

Amtrak called a halt to the northbound trip in Portland, sending northbound passengers on to Seattle by bus. The damaged equipment was 'swapped out' at Portland, Amtrak spokeswoman Sarah Swain said.

Union Pacific is investigating the accident, Bromley said. Cost estimates for the repairs are pending.

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