While driving back from Reno this evening, I spotted a UP freight moving slowly westbound. (It's a rare trip between Fernley and Reno that doesn't have us see at least one train.) I wondered why it was moving so slowly on the single-track line. As we rounded a curve, I could see the rear end of an eastbound container train on a siding, which wasn't so odd, nor was it unusual to see the eastbound Amtrak California Zephyr on the main track, as if it had been on time out of Reno, it should have been here about then.
What was unusual — and Lisa spotted this immediately — was that the train wasn't all there. There was no locomotive, and only about half the train was on the track! As we continued to swing around the curve, we could see the rest of the train about a quarter-mile ahead, with the locomotives, and we could see an Amtrak conductor standing at the head of the set of orphaned passenger cars as the forward part of the train was backing up toward him. Lisa said she could see passengers in the lounge car (which was in the marooned section) looking somewhat bewildered. All the cars appeared to be on the rails.
Unfortunately, this happened in one of the stretches where there are no turnouts, frontage roads, or any other way for us to get off the freeway to go see what was going on. I speculated that the train might have decoupled at speed, which would have certainly been exciting (and not in a good way, as the emergency brakes would have set and people would have no doubt been treated a bit roughly). We continued on back to Fernley with other speculations about what happened.
A while later, while in the living room getting the computers running, I heard a train approaching (which isn't at all unusual) and ran to the window. It was the eastbound Zephyr, whole again, but very odd-looking: the single-level baggage car (normally right behind the locomotives) was located one car from the back, with one Superliner car coupled behind it.
For those of you who may have seen an Amtrak double-deck train go by or ridden it but don't know the details: Amtrak baggage cars' inter-car connections are on the lower level (on the standard height of all single-level cars). The double-deck Superliner cars connect only on the upper level. The only way you can get between double-deck cars and the baggage car (or any other single-level equipment) is via a "transition/dorm" car, which has a single-level connection at one end and a high-level connection at the other. Normally there's a transition car immediately behind the baggage car so that the crew can access the baggage car while the train is in motion.
We still don't know exactly what happened or why they had to shuffle the cars around in the consist, but shuffle they did. We can't think of anything that would bad-order a car in a way that it would have to shifted around like that but that would still allow the train to continue at speed.
According to the Amtrak web site, the Zephyr left Reno on time at 4:06 PM today and is scheduled to make its next stop at Winnemucca 1 hour and 40 minutes late. Now we know what caused the delay, but not why.