Sunday, May 24, 2009

This Week in Amtrak

Inside the Silver Meteor trainImage via Wikipedia

This Week at Amtrak; May 22, 2009

A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from

United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail •

Volume 6, Number 14

Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at

URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.

1) It’s the “little things” that often start the biggest stories. Progressive Railroading Online featured a story on May 19th about Amtrak launching construction on the much-needed new Auto Train station in Sanford, Florida. The story went on for four paragraphs talking about this new $10 million facility being paid for with federal stimulus fund monies.

It was the last line in the last paragraph which really matters the most. “Amtrak plans to seek other places throughout the country where it can launch other Auto Train services.”


Auto Train, in concept and operation, has consistently been a winner, and has huge potential. Apparently, now that Amtrak is out of full-retreat mode, it thinks so, too.

Today’s Auto Train, with daily service between the Washington, D.C. suburb of Lorton, Virginia, and the Orlando suburb of Sanford, has a “cost recovery” ratio at the farebox of 121%, in Amspeak. In the real world, it makes a profit. The current load factor for the Auto Train is 63.6%, up from 50% where it was for years. Considering this train has no intermediate stops, 63.6% makes this train – even though it is (gasp!) profitable – underperforming. Mostly this is due to seasonal migration of cold-weather states denizens and Canadians coming to the warmth of Florida, or those same people escaping our intolerable heat and humidity of the summer for the cooling breezes of northern climates.

Yes, we need more of this, and good for Amtrak to be looking for other route opportunities.

2) The saga of SunRail in Central Florida continues, with its supporters racing to a deadline of June 30, 2009 with CSX to close the deal, even though the Florida Senate would not vote to approve the deal week in early May. SunRail supporters are looking for a way around the Florida Senate to get the project going. This should be an interesting exercise in government creativity. Despite the fact every leftie in and out of Florida wanted to paint CSX – the current owner of the tracks SunRail will hopefully travel upon after the tracks are sold to SunRail – as evil, money-grubbing, anti-American, anti-human, anti-everything, no rational person can blame CSX for looking for an outcome that will best benefit the company and its shareholders. Everyone seems to forget railroads are not public utilities, but private businesses which have a primary responsibility to create benefits and profits for owners. Anyone who believes CSX should not live up to that responsibility in the best way it can is living in a dreamland.

But, now, some thoughts on Amtrak and some opportunities to prove it’s really an organization dedicated to the proliferation of passenger rail and being an honest provider of transportation, not just dedicated to extracting maximum rents from gullible public agencies.

3) For an exercise, suppose you are a planner in Amtrak’s planning department. Suppose your goal was to harvest the low hanging fruit of opportunities, where passenger train service could be expanded with minimum impact on the need for additional equipment, the establishment of new stations, or blazing new trails, but “closing gaps” in the national system and expansion based on sound matrix theories. What are your obvious choices?

That question has a number of good answers, but we’re going to focus on several easy choices, including extending the Palmetto south from Savannah, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida; pushing the former Kansas City Mule/current Missouri River Runner services to Omaha, Nebraska; extending the California Zephyr from Emeryville, California to Los Angeles, taking the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and Crescent to Boston; extending the Capitol Limited to Florida; and turning the pretty-much wasted Heartland Flyer into a real route, extending it on both ends to form a Chicago-Oklahoma City-Fort Worth-San Antonio route.

4) In the 1980s, at the instigation of United Rail Passenger Alliance, the Amtrak Board of Directors granted an experimental program extending the New York-Savannah Palmetto route to Jacksonville, Florida, an additional 148 miles that includes the route of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. Ostensibly, the Palmetto hauled some U.S. Mail, but the extension mostly benefitted passengers.

Originally, the Amtrak planning department opposed the move, saying the only traffic which would be picked up by an extended Palmetto was local traffic between Jacksonville and Savannah, never taking into account the realities of extra frequencies and how much of a traffic generator going from two trains a day to three trains a day produces. The extension started off with a bang, and much to the dismay of Amtrak planners, Jacksonville passengers wanted to go other places than just Jesup, Georgia or Savannah, they wanted to travel to every station along the route, even all the way to New York City! The extension did well for a period of time, and then came the realignment of Florida service, and the Palmetto was extended to Tampa, and given a new name, the Silver Palm. Despite a number of changes, the train continued to do well for over a decade, until yet another realignment and cuts, including the end of Amtrak Express and mail haulage, which was big business for the Silver Palm (Remember, Amtrak managers are judged on how much money they save in a budget, not how much revenue they produce.), and the Silver Palm went away, and the Palmetto returned, this time only to Savannah. The reason, as quoted by an Amtrak spokesman, was Savannah produced better crew turns than Jacksonville, so the train ended there instead of Jacksonville.

Essentially, Amtrak said the needs of passengers were not important, but the needs of the operating department were paramount.

Moving the southern terminus of the Palmetto would cost relatively little; there is already the required crew base in Jacksonville for the train and engine crew and the onboard services crew, no extra equipment would be required, and the only inconvenience would be abolishing the car cleaner jobs in Savannah and moving those jobs to Jacksonville. Also, the hours the Jacksonville station is open would need to be extended. So, the 296 extra train miles a day, and a few extra hours for the Jacksonville station to be opened are the only large considerations. The route matrix of stations increases from 20 stations (including terminals) to 22 stations, adding Jesup, Georgia and Jacksonville. The possible city pair combinations leap from 190 city pairs with 20 stations to 231 city pairs with 22 stations, nicely increasing the travel possibilities. In the final days before the Palmetto was extended to Tampa and renamed the Silver Palm, it was not unusual for the Palmetto to board up to 40 or more northbound passengers in Jacksonville on a daily basis.

As reported in the last edition of TWA, Amtrak says the Palmetto has a cost recovery ratio of 96%; no doubt, with the additional addition of the two new stops that ratio would easily go into the black, which would make the Palmetto profitable, even under Amtrak’s arcane accounting system. The Palmetto has a 51.3% load factor, using only two train sets of one club-dinette, four coaches, and one baggage car.

To recap:

– No extra equipment

– Only 148 additional route miles in each direction

– No extra train and engine crews or onboard services staff (T&E crews on the Silver Meteor already run between Jacksonville and Florence, South Carolina, where the Palmetto’s southernmost crews board on their way to Savannah.)

– Minimal costs to keep the Jacksonville station open longer hours

– Southbound and northbound schedule can remain as is with additional time added in the evening and the morning to accommodate run to Jacksonville

– City pair combination possibilities jump from 190 to 231 city pairs

– Increased frequency makes train travel more attractive for every city along the route because two more stations have been added, including the Jacksonville metropolitan area market of over 1 million souls

What’s not to like about this proposal?

5) Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner, the service with the snappy new name instead of the older Kansas City Mule, operating between St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri via Sedalia is an opportunity to turn a local, state supported service (Illinois, are you listening?) into a regional service connecting three of Amtrak’s long distance routes with a simple extension. Take the River Runners to Omaha, Nebraska, thereby creating a route from St. Louis to Kansas City to Omaha. The extension would be less than 200 miles, and, with some clever scheduling, would tie together for hubbing the routes of the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, and Texas Eagle. But, really, if you’re going to be aggressive about this, run the trains all the way from St. Louis to Chicago on the Texas Eagle route (Or, for extra credit, be really creative and go beyond the Texas Eagle route and bring the trains into Chicago on the City of New Orleans route, therefore connecting four, instead of three, long distance routes.).

Too many of Amtrak’s current routes begin and end a hubs like Chicago or Los Angeles, but you “can’t get there from here” from anywhere but endpoint hubs, making Amtrak virtually useless for anyone who dares to want to travel in anything but a straight line.

The current fad (as in, hopefully, will go away, like all fads) for Amtrak is to milk money from state governments to run trains which come to a screeching halt at state borders. There is no thought of federalism, or (horrors!) of reducing costs to states (after all, it’s only taxpayer money) by extending state routes and turning them into regional routes. Taking the Missouri River Runners and letting them sprint all of the way from Omaha to Kansas City to St. Louis (and, even into Chicago) creates viable regional connections which provide feeder service from one long distance route to other long distance routes.

Today’s Kansas City-St. Louis service, despite having two daily frequencies, boasts of a depressing 37.4% load factor, carrying 151,700 passengers a year, or just 104 passengers on average per departure. That 37.4% load factor, believe it or not, is based on a train consist of two Horizon coaches and one club-dinette car for one train consist, and three Horizon coaches for the other train consist. Train consists this small are designed for failure and constant government dependance.

If you’re comfortable spending other peoples’ money, and not really caring about financial accountability, it doesn’t matter to you what kind of load factor trains have, just as long as trains run on a route. The three routes involved with hubbing in this concept, the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, and Texas Eagle, all have better than average load factors, but all have room for improvement. The Zephyr’s is the lowest, at 52.3%, followed by the Chief and Eagle, both at 63.8%. While technically a long distance route is sold out at 65%, both of these trains today are suffering from short equipment consists, so adding a single car to each consist could produce a great amount of revenue for new travelers with better hubbing opportunity and a greater number of city pair combinations.

To recap:

– Create a regional route connecting three (or four) major long distance routes for greater hubbing and matrix benefits; a poor performing, state sponsored route expands into a greater money maker and provides more transportation output

– Route extension is less than 200 miles

6) The extension of the California Zephyr from Emeryville, California southward to Los Angeles was a favorite of the late Adrian Herzog, Ph.D., one of URPA’s early luminaries. Dr. Herzog, who was considered one of the country’s best computer modelers for passenger train routes (He was an astrophysicist/rocket scientist by trade.), considered the addition of an overnight run down the Coast Starlight route on the very western edge of California to have huge money-making potential.

Today’s California Zephyr westbound arrives in Emeryville, California from Chicago everyday at 5:10 P.M., and departs eastbound the next morning at 9:10 A.M.

The Coast Starlight makes the run between Emeryville and Los Angeles in just a tad over 12 hours. Adding that travel time onto the schedule of the Zephyr, plus allowing from some station dwell time, would permit the westbound Zephyr to depart Emeryville at 6 P.M., and arrive in Los Angeles before the morning rush hour, anywhere from 6:30 to 7:30 A.M. Departing eastbound, the Zephyr could depart Los Angeles in the middle of the evening sometime beyond 7:30 P.M., and be in Emeryville for the scheduled departure back to Chicago at 9:10 A.M., allowing a full 12 hours in Los Angeles for the train to be cleaned and maintained, all during daylight hours.

One extra train set would be required for this extension. The major benefit from this extension would be a full second frequency, offering overnight service, between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, two giant California markets. Not only would this relieve some pressure from the Coast Starlight, but it would also increase travel possibilities, opening up a huge vista of passenger opportunities.

The city pair combinations for single train travel skyrocket from 561 city pairs on the current California Zephyr route to 946 city pair possibilities when you add the 10 stations in California south of Emeryville and down to Los Angeles. The California Zephyr has a load factor of 52.3%, with plenty of room to grow. It runs with one baggage car, one transition dorm/sleeper, two sleepers, one lounge car, a diner, and three coaches.

To recap:

– One extra trainset

– Second frequency, providing desirable overnight service on a highly popular route with high revenue potential on a full service train

– No new stations, but many stations will have to extend hours for an overnight stop

– Two additional train and engine crews, one additional onboard services crew

– Allows California Zephyr to have turn maintenance and restocking at full Los Angeles maintenance base instead of smaller maintenance base in Emeryville

– Existing California Zephyr schedule remains as is, with additional running added before and after present schedule times

7) Moving the northern terminus of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, and Crescent from New York City to Boston isn’t really much of a stretch. Today’s Meteor arrives from Miami in New York City at 11:38 A.M., and returns to Miami at 3:15 P.M. The Silver Star arrives from Miami in New York City at 7:16 P.M. and returns the next morning, departing Penn Station southbound at 10:52 A.M. The northbound Crescent arrives in New York at 2:06 P.M., and departs southbound the next day at 2:15 P.M. It’s obvious too many trains are sitting for too long in Sunnyside Yard in New York; the Meteor, Star, and Crescent each use four full consists under today’s scheduling.

Take the whole bunch, and push them each to Boston, including the Lake Shore Limited, while keeping the separate Boston section, but setting it up as it’s own Boston-Chicago train as a second frequency between Boston, Albany/Rensselaer, and Chicago. All cities along the Northeast Corridor are horribly under served by Amtrak trains going east-west. It would require no extra equipment for any of these trains.

Boston is already servicing the Boston section sleepers of the Lake Shore, and has a full turn maintenance base today, so moving each of these trains to Boston from New York will only impact the onboard services crews of the Lake Shore and Crescent, as the Meteor and Star are staffed by the Miami Crew Base.

Since all of the track on the NEC between New York and Boston is either owned by Amtrak or Metro North, pushing these trains north is not a major consideration, and each train can keep its current schedule, just adding time before and after the current schedule for running between Boston and New York.

Amtrak for decades has had an unsavory habit, except during the Christmas season, of running long distance trains on the NEC as “receive” or “discharge” only, preventing local business between New York and Washington. No matter what excuse may be given about time keeping, quick movement on the corridor, or, Amtrak’s favorite – the dog ate its homework – the only reason this is done is to funnel local revenue to Acela and Northeast regional trains instead of the long distance trains. With proper yield management in place, this receive/discharge system could be abolished, and passengers wishing to travel on a full service train with a complete dining car and private sleeping car accommodations could be filling empty spaces (particularly northbound) on these trains and adding to both food and beverage revenues and accommodations up charge revenues.

As with other routes, the city pair combinations for same train service, by adding either the Shore Route or the Inland Route between Hartford, Connecticut and Boston go up dramatically.

On the matter of sending the Lake Shore from Penn Station in New York directly to Boston, this merely creates a desirable “L” shaped route, which suddenly provides the passengers along the New York-Boston section of the NEC with more travel choices without having to change trains.

On the other side of the coin, by creating a new train between Boston and Chicago via Albany/Rensselaer (such as the old New York Central train, the New England States), this ploy requires only additional dining cars, and, most likely, more coaches to keep up with the increased demand in business because of a second frequency along the current Lake Shore Limited route. The current consist of the Boston section of the Lake Shore is one baggage car, one sleeper, one Horizon food service car, and two coaches.

Today’s Lake Shore Limited sits for 12 hours in Chicago before it heads back east, and the Boston section lays over for 14 hours on the east end. By keeping the current Lake Shore schedule (or, perhaps, departing Chicago 60 or 90 minutes earlier, the new Boston train could depart Chicago an hour later, providing the major metropolitan city of Cleveland, Ohio with a more marketable eastbound train time, from the current 5:05 A.M. to a slightly more civilized 6:00 A.M. and still arrive in Boston before late night because of eliminating the extra time in Albany for switching from one train to two trains. The same theory holds true westbound; by leaving Boston a bit earlier than its current noon departure, and eliminating the switching time of combining two trains into one, the new train from New England could be in Cleveland closer to midnight than 3:27 A.M., and still be in Chicago after 7:00 A.M.

Let’s stop for a moment, and veer to the right. If you’re a resident of Cleveland, and want to ride the train, you better be a night owl. Cleveland’s Terminal Tower downtown station at one time was one of the busiest stations in the country, with dozens of trains serving this major northern city. Today, Cleveland is only served by the Lake Shore Limited and the Capitol Limited. The Capitol’s Cleveland times aren’t much better than the Lake Shore’s, arriving westbound at 1:55 A.M., and eastbound at 2:48 A.M., all at a relatively small Lakefront station. Even though the Ohio legislature and governor’s office are working on creating a new Three C Corridor of Cleveland-Columbia-Cincinnati, that will only provide daylight service, and the southern terminus of that route will be in Cincinnati, which at the moment is only served (you guessed it) in the middle of the night by the tri-weekly Cardinal running between New York, Washington, and Chicago. Cleveland and Ohio all deserve better than what Amtrak has provided lo these many years.

As said before in this space, the most efficient answer to the problem of providing any type of adequate service to Cincinnati is to do what the Commonwealth of Virginia has done with its two new trains – extend an existing NEC train over the route of the Cardinal between Washington and Cincinnati. Amtrak has two daily trains which originate in New York before 6 A.M.; either of these trains extended to Cincinnati would arrive well before the Cardinal does at 1:03 A.M., not only providing a second frequency along this very scenic route, but bolstering the fortunes of the Cardinal, which Amtrak has indicated next year it will look at making a daily train. A return eastbound train from Cincinnati could launch from its terminal anytime after 7:00 A.M. and provide good daylight service until close to arriving in Washington, D.C.

On the west end of the route in and out of Chicago, the Hoosier State operates on days the Cardinal does not, on the same schedule. Once the Cardinal goes daily, again, an opportunity opens for the Hoosier State to operate from Chicago earlier in the afternoon than it does now (about mid afternoon) and still arrive in Cincinnati before midnight, with the return westbound train leaving Cincinnati early in the morning during daylight hours and arriving in Chicago mid afternoon. This also provides the major city of Indianapolis with much improved passenger train service.

But, back to the issue at hand, moving the northern terminus of all east coast long distance trains from New York City to Boston.

To recap:

– No additional equipment needed, except for fleshing out a new Boston-Chicago train by adding a diner and a couple of coaches because of added passenger demand

– Minimal changes in crew bases; moving the Crescent food service crew base from New York to Boston, and moving the Lake Shore Limited crew base from New York to Boston. Boston already has a major crew base. No additional onboard services crews on existing trains, and only minimal additions for new Boston-Chicago train

– Additional train and engine crews needed between New York and Boston, and 231 route miles added to each train between New York and Boston

– Better equipment utilization instead of train consists having long layovers in New York’s Sunnyside Yard. No schedule changes south of New York City

– Passengers better served by single train service for entire east coast to Boston; elimination of receive/discharge restrictions north of Washington allows for these trains to be better financial performers, and provide a new array of choices for local passengers on NEC

– No additional stations costs

8) It’s time to revive an old idea at Amtrak that never made it to reality: taking the Capitol Limited south from Washington to Orlando, Florida. The way the current schedule for the Capitol runs, the train arrives in Washington early afternoon just after lunch, and stays in Washington until the next afternoon at 4 P.M. These trainsets spend more time sitting around than they do on the road; it’s less than an 18 hour run between Washington and Chicago. It takes three train sets today to run the schedule with one baggage car, 2 coaches, one diner-lounge, one lounge car, two sleepers, and one transition dorm/sleeper. The Capitol has a load factor of 66.9%, but with only two coaches, there is ample room for growth, even with an additional coach already added during high revenue periods.

Extend the train down the former Atlantic Coast Line route of CSX via Rocky Mount, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina, and terminate the train at Orlando (Tampa would be better), making use of the excellent Auto Train maintenance facility in adjacent Sanford, just as the Sunset Limited in brighter days used the Auto Train maintenance facility.

Keeping close to the current Capitol Limited schedule would provide a civilized 9 A.M. or so arrival in Orlando, perfect for starting the day in America’s family vacation capital. The return train would leave Orlando after 9 P.M., and resume the northbound Capitol schedule in Washington. Since the current misuse of equipment for the Capitol Limited takes three trainsets, this change would only require one extra trainset, and would most importantly resume through train service between Chicago, the Midwest, and Florida without blazing any new trails (or having an expensive reopening of any old trails). Since the route between Washington and Orlando is already served by both the Silver Meteor and Silver Star as well as the Palmetto (see above), the addition of a Florida-bound Capitol Limited would provide and additional popular frequency feeding passengers into Orlando from the Midwest with through-train service.

An extended Capitol Limited would provide good marketing hours for major stops south of Washington, such as Richmond, Virginia; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Florence, South Carolina.

To recap:

– Requires one additional set of equipment, and makes more efficient use of current three sets of equipment which now have long, unprofitable layovers; also more efficient use of onboard services crews

– No new stations or new routes

– Provides single-train service from Chicago and the Midwest to Orlando, Florida

– Makes more efficient use of Auto Train maintenance facility

– Adds to frequencies on popular east coast routes to Florida

– Combined with previously mentioned concepts such as extending the City of New Orleans east and south to Orlando, extending the Capitol Limited, too, would create a pair of strong services between the Midwest and Florida, with each train complementing the other, and creating huge matrix theory opportunities

9) Bless its steel soul, the Heartland Flyer is probably Amtrak’s most lovable, yet terrible route. Just 206 route miles long, this bump which sits atop the Texas Eagle schedule runs from Fort Worth, Texas almost due north to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with five intermediate station stops. Departing Fort Worth northbound at 5:25 P.M. after the Texas Eagle has called at Fort Worth in both directions, the Heartland Flyer arrives in Oklahoma City at 9:39 P.M., sits overnight, and leaves the next morning at 8:25 A.M., trundling back to Fort Worth and arriving at 12:39 P.M. in time for the southbound Texas Eagle.

It takes one trainset of two Superliner coaches and one Superliner snack coach for this toy route, and the State of Oklahoma pays Amtrak millions of dollars to operate this train on its behalf. The Heartland Flyer generates $1,680,500 in revenue, with ridership of 80,900 passengers per year, or an average of 111 passengers per departure. The load factor, typical of a short run such as this, is 43%, even with a very short consist of equipment.

There has been a good movement afoot, including the state governments of Oklahoma and Kansas, to expand this microcosm of passenger railroading to something useful that has half a chance of being financially successful in the process.

The Heartland Flyer needs major surgery, in two easy steps. Get rid of its base in Fort Worth, and extend the southern terminus of the train either southwest to San Antonio (providing a much-needed second frequency between Fort Worth and San Antonio), or southeast to Houston via Dallas, restoring a long-lost Amtrak route which would reconnect by rail the two largest metropolitan areas in Texas.

The second easy step is to extend the Heartland Flyer northward to Newton, Kansas (on the route of the Southwest Chief, and, coincidentally the near exact middle of the continental United States) and take the train to Kansas City or, even better, to Chicago or St. Louis.

These two easy steps turn the Heartland Flyer from a nearly-useless and tragically expensive stub route into a powerhouse route serving major metropolitan markets and important intermediate stops, and, just as importantly, connects discreet existing routes with new travel opportunities so “you can get there from here” without having to go around the Horn of Africa.

Concepts such as this take money-losing routes like the Heartland Flyer and turn them into real transportation providers, ignoring invisible boundaries falsely built by near-sighted executives who only seek to raid government treasuries instead of completing Amtrak’s real mission of being a truly national passenger railroad company.

To recap:

– Expands a poor-performing local route into a strong regional route

– Connects two other long distance routes and major metropolitan areas through hubbing which has not previously been possible

– Provides real transportation alternatives in lieu of what is essentially a high cost local train which provides no real transportation output

– As a stand-alone route, the Heartland Flyer has 21 possible city pair combination. Combining the Heartland Flyer and its present connection to the Texas Eagle brings the city par combinations up to 1,128; extending this train and connecting it to the Southwest Chief route in Kansas explodes the number of city pair combinations to 3,160, a huge jump from the 21 combinations on the present route.

10) The battle for the hearts and minds and souls of Sunset Limited fans and admirers has gained momentum with lots of discussion going on over Amtrak’s proposed changes to the route of the Sunset, replacing America’s oldest continuously operating named train with three distinct new trains, and one of them being a renamed and extended Texas Eagle operating daily from Chicago to Los Angeles via San Antonio, Texas and then west on the Sunset route to Los Angeles.

Here are a couple of ways to look at this.

First, Amtrak has taken a proactive approach to ending the days of the Sunset being an unacceptable tri-weekly train, stuck with most of the overhead of a daily train but not with the earning potential. The extension of the Texas Eagle to Los Angeles and making it daily all the way with a new name such as resurrection of the respected “Golden State” name (formerly of the Rock Island Railroad) makes senses, because, as Amtrak has said, that has the greatest potential for earning revenue.

While the creation of a second daily train on a daylight schedule to replace the Sunset between San Antonio and New Orleans is offensive to some because it will require a cross-platform change for those traveling all the way from Los Angeles to New Orleans, at least this – again – gets rid of unacceptable tri-weekly service and puts daily service on the line to important cities like Houston, Texas, and the many smaller cities between Houston and New Orleans. Amtrak has also speculated it will provide through-car service all the way from Los Angeles to New Orleans when more equipment is available through being rescued from the wreck line and re-manufactured at Beech Grove in Indiana. Since Amtrak has already restored the Boston sleeping car to the Lake Shore Limited, this bolsters confidence Amtrak is looking at concepts that work, and understands the strength of through-car business.

And, Amtrak openly saying it will take some of the surplus sleepers from today’s Sunset after it is reconfigured and put them elsewhere where strong demand exists so it can capture the revenue from these cars is not only revolutionary coming from Amtrak, but highly welcome.

The second way to look at this is Amtrak has cut and run from the constant bickering over the Sunset Limited name being used as a poster boy for bad management by both politicians and the news media, and is looking to replace what was once America’s only true transcontinental route with three trains (including whatever happens east of New Orleans) that has more consideration for Amtrak’s operating and maintenance departments than the comfort and convenience of its passengers.

A third alternative was offered this week by the prestigious and highly respected Passenger Train Journal magazine, with a full article on how to “fix” the Sunset Limited, complete with reroutings and restructuring so the train has more major metropolitan areas to serve, and better connections with other trains.

Since Passenger Train Journal, along with Progressive Railroading, are the two most important and credible national magazines regarding railroading, it’s tough to ignore what PTJ has to say without some serious discussions.

No matter how you choose to look at the fate of the Sunset, there have been howls of protest from some who simply want what is there now with some improvements, and nothing more. But, these howls overlook the fact Amtrak is taking a critical look at much of its long distance system and attempting to fix some problems which have long needed fixing. While almost any changes to the Sunset as we know it today other than taking it daily are sure to be painful, it’s important to look at the big picture regarding the Sunset and seeking what is the best solution from a combination of interests, including financial, passenger services, and the ability of Amtrak to offer a worthwhile service. The way the Sunset is today accomplishes none of those goals. A changed and/or reborn Sunset under a new name has a chance to accomplish those goals, even if it takes some getting used to by those of us on the ground.

11) This resolution was passed by the attendees of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada and National Association of Railroad Passengers joint meeting in Los Angeles on May 2, 2009.

[Begin quote]

Whereas the Rail Passenger Association of California is deeply concerned that there has been no new investment in rolling stock for the Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief (the western overnight trains) since 1991, and

Whereas currently up to 95% of Amtrak’s capital investments go to the North East Corridor trains and infrastructure, and

Whereas there is a growing demand for rail passenger travel and these western trains are often sold out, and

Whereas old equipment is expensive to maintain, is subject to mechanical failure, and is unattractive to passengers, and

Whereas without new investment these trains and other routes will eventually be withdrawn for want of serviceable equipment,

Therefore the Rail Passenger Association of California calls upon the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (“Amtrak”) to meet its obligation to provide a national network by allocating a reasonable proportion of its capital investment budget to purchase new coaches, sleeping cars and dining cars for the western overnight trains, to a common design that can also be used for corridor services.

[End quote]


Before you start any conversation about the above suggestions, keep in mind, even after Amtrak funds the repairs to wrecked equipment through stimulus funds, there will still be another 200 or so pieces of equipment which can be repaired and put into revenue service. It’s all just a matter of priorities and how much desire Amtrak has to fulfill its mandate to provide a true national system of passenger trains, or its present plan to suck as much money as possible out of government treasuries while providing the least amount of service.

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J. Bruce Richardson


United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.

1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203

Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA

Telephone 904-636-7739

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1 comment:

Woody said...

So the Palmetto service to Jacksonville was cut back in the 90s. Lessee. The population of the Jacksonville Metropolitan Area was about 750,000 in 1990, 1,100,000 2000, and 1,300,000 or so by 2008 (U.S. Census est). And the city had 2,800,000 overnight visitors, according to their tourism outfit. It does seem these figures would support the extra miles and few extra hours of extending the service from Savannah to Florida's biggest city.