$750 million, that’s how much.
By Russ Jackson
This article appeared on page one of the October 2010, Western Rail Passenger Review. On September 30, Amtrak released its plan for the Sunset Limited without a start date. A followup article will appear next month.
Regular readers of this publication, and long time RailPAC members know that one of our goals for the long distance trains is for Amtrak to finally run a daily Sunset Limited eastward from Los Angeles Union Station, bringing daily service to Palm Springs and the large population areas of the southwest. Countless mentions of that goal and countless contact within and without Amtrak culminated on May 2, 2009, during the RailPAC Annual Conference in Los Angeles. On that day Amtrak VP, Brian Rosenwald, announced the “Sunset Route realignment” proposal of a daily train operating from LA via San Antonio and Dallas to Chicago, with a cross-platform transfer to a daily train operating from San Antonio via Houston to New Orleans and that the schedule would be up to eight hours less than the present train. Departure from Los Angeles would return to its historic time of about 10:30 PM in order to offer better times in Arizona. In an article following this meeting, Arizona RPA’s Bill Lindley, who heard the presentation, said, “In my opinion, the Sunset restructuring could bring a far stronger, functional passenger train presence to America’s entire south and west.
Mr. Rosenwald and Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman received high praise for the proposal, although it was not a formal announcement of the service, because of the potential positive financial rewards that would come to Amtrak from this new service of increased ridership and revenues from the train. There were high expectations that the improved “bottom line” for this train would help erase the negative image the Sunset Limited has had for many years, with critics condemning its huge, largely fictional, “loss.” Daily service would be the train’s saviour.
That was May, 2009. Since that time all of us have waited expectantly for the formal announcement of commencement of this new train which would run an additional four days a week in each direction on the same Union Pacific route and on approximately the same schedule as has been operated tri-weekly since Amtrak’s commencement in 1971, and had been run for years before that by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Many railroaders told us that internally railroad dispatchers would be pleased to have the train on the same schedule every day rather having to factor #1-2 into schedules some days but not every day. As time went along other commentators inside Amtrak told us that “we’re working on it.” Month after month we heard that it could happen “soon.” Expectations abounded that the service would start with the timetable change in October, 2009, then May, 2010, and then October, 2010. Amtrak said it would take six months from the date of authorization to get the daily service staffed and ready.
There’s just one problem. And that came to light in January, 2010, when a meeting of the Texas ARP was told that they were starting negotiations with the Union Pacific “in two weeks.” Was it possible Amtrak did not have the UP’s nod of approval going into the process in the preceding year? We will probably not know the answer to that, but since January, 2010, we have waited breathlessly to hear UP’s approval, the Amtrak Board to announce commencement of the service, and a formal date of startup established. Now we come to September 2010. Nothing had been forthcoming until a bombshell was dropped by TRAINS Magazine’s superb writer Fred W. Frailey in an online article on September 3, where he reported, “Union Pacific has told Amtrak that changing the Sunset Limited’s frequency from triweekly to daily will cost the government-supported company about $750 Million in capital improvements.” Frailey said the Union Pacific told Amtrak they plan to run more Z express freight trains across that route in the future. Their “study” resulted in the stated requirement that “There could be no delay to any UP freight train.” The question then arose whether this was a ploy on the UP’s part and would they settle for half of that amount, still an astronomical figure, or was their position “in concrete?”
Bill Lindley commented on the $750 figure, “That’s almost as much as Phoenix spent building an entirely new 20-mile ‘light rail’ system. One wonders, once you spend some millions to restore a missing connection at San Antonio to eliminate back-up moves, add a couple of formerly removed station tracks at places like Tucson, add a bridge here and some signals there…how do you come up with three-quarters of a billion dollars to run one train once a day?” RailPAC’s Noel Braymer asked, “What would it cost the UP to run one more freight train on a daily schedule on that route?” We ask Amtrak: Now what? We’re waiting, just as we have been for 40 years or so. The very latest is that Amtrak will supposedly answer what will happen to the Sunset Limited on or about September 21, 2010. We shall see.