LOOK! IT’S THE SUNSET LIMITED!!!

How’s the timekeeping on Amtrak trains 1 and 2?
A Report and commentary by Russ Jackson sunset-limited-at-maricopa.jpg
Each month we have been charting on time performances of the Amtrak long distance trains that enter/leave California. This month its the Sunset Limited’s turn.

I know, it’s a losing fight, but several items have come to light in October. 1) TRAINS magazine’s Fred Frailey wrote an excellent piece for the November issue that was distributed in October. 2) Two major rumors were circulating about major changes to trains 1 and 2 routes, as well as its schedule.

Amtrak Marketing’s Tom Sponsler tipped this writer to be sure to read Frailey’s piece before writing this story, and I’m glad he did. Fred’s story is a recent history of the Union Pacific’s capacity problems on the route, and the timetable for their spending $2 billion dollars constructing full double track and other improvements between Los Angeles and El Paso, 818 miles, which will greatly improve the movement of freight to/from the point where the route diverges into three (Tucumcari line, Sunset line, T & P line). The El Paso yard is a major choke point as trains must be refueled and inspected there. East of Palm Springs station the line is still single track to Tucson.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited is a small part of the traffic on this line (three eastbound and three westbound movements) each week, and must weave through not only heavy traffic but past major construction sites. This writer has observed this “Project Sunrise” both from the trains and from the parallel Interstate 10. It’s a huge job, and will not be finished until 2010. When completed, UP will have a first class double tracked railroad with two new yards along this busy route. Mr. Frailey made no mention of Amtrak in his article, only locating the stations on the map.

sunset-limited-at-maricopa.jpg
Train 2 arrives at the Maricopa (Phoenix) station in the early morning hours of November 1, 2001. Today’s schedule calls for it to arrive at 10:57 PM. (Photo by Richard Strandberg)

Rumor (1) that has circulated since August was Amtrak’s plan under consideration to extend the Crescent from New Orleans to San Antonio, with the Texas Eagle extended from SAS to Los Angeles, eliminating the Sunset name altogether. This plan received much coverage and accusations that Amtrak was out to destroy the national system, but it has now been denied and been replaced by Rumor (2) that the Crescent would be rerouted through Birmingham and Mobile into New Orleans restoring service to the Gulf Coast rather than extend the Sunset Limited to Jacksonville, which Amtrak is adamant it will not do without local dollars. This so-called “compromise” has now been discounted and denied at the highest levels, too. So, the Sunset lumbers along on its tri-weekly schedule over its traditional route to NOL, and the Crescent remains on its current route through Mississippi for the time being. But, once the UP’s double track work is completed, Amtrak can take advantage of the benefits and new ideas will crop up. RailPAC has gone on record for many years favoring DAILY service for the Sunset, and resuming its route into Jacksonville to connect with the eastern trains there. So, two proposals were thrown into the wind and both were shot down. For now. This writer does not believe Amtrak is out to “destroy” the national system, just not ready to do the right thing. Passengers continue to ride the Sunset, as sleeper class ridership through July 07 was up 68% and revenue was up 64%.

The last fiscal year ended with the train on time at its end points only 13.8% of the time. Since the new FY began on October 1, 2007, that fell to 7.7% through the first 16 days of the month. As for the current timekeeping, it is interesting to see that there is already improvement between Tucson and El Paso, where most of the double tracking is completed. But, examining the segments for:

Train 1 Between October 2 and 20 the train arrived into El Paso from San Antonio 179 minutes late once (100 minutes into Tucson) the rest were an hour or less most trips. By the time the train arrived at Tucson on each trip it was only double digit minutes late, including on October 18 when it was “on time.” From Tucson its arrival in Los Angeles fell to triple digit minutes late each trip but two, the arrivals on the 5th and 7th which were so close they could be called OT. That’s where the major delays are now.

Train 2 In the same time period, the train arrived in Tucson from Los Angeles triple digit minutes late six times, “only” 22 minutes late once (on the 22nd), and ON TIME on October 11. While data to El Paso is incomplete, that 22 minutes late on the 22nd became 3 minutes late at El Paso, and OT was maintained on the 11th. It just shows that when Amtrak is in its schedule “window” the UP will run it on time. No matter that it’s the UP delays that mostly cause the trains to be late.

Next month we will update all the long CA distance trains including a look at how the California Zephyr is doing on its new shortened schedule. However, the past month has shown that unless there is a major shutdown, such as occurred for the Starlight in Washington state, the trains are back to running close to on time daily. That’s the way it should be. Destroy the long distance trains? No, that does NOT appear to be Amtrak’s intent. To say otherwise is not correct. But, advocates must keep watch as we have been doing for so long. Too long. NOTE: See the editorial on preservation of the Sunset below.
Sources: TRAINS, Amtrakdelays.com

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