Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
The Union Pacific’s recent demand for 750 Million dollars in capital improvements before allowing a daily Sunset really said “go away kid, you bother me”.
The UP’s premise was based on the assumed costs to create a railroad that would eliminate conflicts with any late passenger or freight trains with significantly increased freight traffic in the future. A major issue raised by the UP was from delays caused by Amtrak at San Antonio from switching cars between the Sunset and the Texas Eagle. But Amtrak has addressed this problem by planning to eliminate most of the switching by running trains directly from Los Angeles through San Antonio to Chicago. A separate train would run from San Antonio to New Orleans. Amtrak’s proposal also would reroute the Sunset/Eagle to the BNSF out of Los Angeles through Fullerton and connect to the UP at Colton. This would bypass a major UP bottleneck between downtown LA and Colton Yard. Many of the problems the UP would have with a daily Sunset/Eagle can be negotiated with modest schedule changes and agreements by Amtrak to pay for improvements in the future as they are needed and for increased payments for operations. But this can’t happen as long as the UP isn’t willing to negotiate in good faith.
The Class One Railroads have legitimate concerns about the impact of increased passenger service on their freight service. This is particularly true when giving priority to passenger trains on a busy single track railroad. Many of these problems will be solved as the Class Ones add more double track. For Amtrak to pay the Class Ones more money to use their railroads, Amtrak will need more equipment to run more, longer trains with better connections to more places. Amtrak’s current plans to upgrade their 4 lowest performing Long Distance Trains: Sunset/Eagle, California Zephyr, Capitol and Cardinal are steps in the right direction. These are near term projects which reflect the limited resources Amtrak has now.
The plan for the Sunset/Eagle is to run a daily train leaving Los Angeles around 11:30 PM and arriving at 5:05 AM. Passenger would be allowed to stay on the train at Los Angeles until 6:30. This will give better daylight service for Arizona and bring back connections to the Coast Starlight and San Joaquins. The new schedule would also take out much of the padding from the current schedule. For the California Zephyr the main emphasis will be to improve on-board service and add cars between Emeryville and Sparks as well as between Denver and Chicago. A longer range goal would be to see the return of a Desert Wind section between Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. For the Cardinal the plan is to run daily service by combining the equipment of the Cardinal and the Hoosier State. A section to St. Louis is a long term objective. The Capitol which runs between Chicago and Washington would get a section from Pittsburg to Philadelphia and New York City by combining it with the Pennsylvania train.
The key for future growth for long distance trains is better connections. A high priority for this goal centers on the Heartland Flyer. The states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are looking at both night time connections at Newton, Kansas and a day train between Fort Worth and Kansas City. A connection by the Flyer between a daily Sunset/Eagle and Southwest Chief in both directions would produce much more revenue than a local Forth Worth/Kansas City service. This would provide more service to more places to the states sponsoring the Flyer. A problem with the Southwest Chief is between New Mexico and Kansas where the railroad has little freight traffic. Because of this the BNSF has little reason to maintain this line for 79 miles per hour speeds and has reduced top speeds for the Chief in western Kansas to 60 mph. Federal and State money will be needed to maintain the tracks decently, but to justify such spending more passenger service will be needed.
New Mexico and Colorado are talking about rail passenger service between Albuquerque and Denver. The sooner this happen the better for fixing up the rail line. With Denver/Albuquerque service it would be possible to have connections from the Chief at Denver with the California Zephyr. If service was extended from Albuquerque to El Paso there could be connections also to the Sunset/Eagle. The Chief can also be expanded. Having 2 sections could have service from the Bay Area down the San Joaquin Valley to Barstow. At Kansas City the Chief could be split again on to St. Louis and there up to Chicago.
These improved connections won’t happen overnight. But for a person in Oklahoma rail passenger service is limited to Fort Worth and connections to the Texas Eagle and a Tri-Weekly Sunset. With a daily Sunset/Eagle that person would be well served to west Texas, southern Arizona and Los Angeles. Extend the Heartland Flyer to Kansas and Oklahomans have connections to Kansas City, Chicago, as well as Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona and Southern California. Add the connection to Denver from both the Sunset/Eagle and the Chief gives service from Oklahoma to also Salt Lake City, Reno and the Bay Area. Running a section of the Chief from Kansas City to St Louis and Chicago then Oklahoma has service across Missouri and a future St. Louis hub could open up more service to the east. Not only Oklahoma, but all of the states with passenger rail service will see greater expanded service mostly using existing trains. These new services would give Los Angeles to Denver, Oakland to Kansas City, and Oklahoma City to Springfield, Illinois are just some of the new connections that could be made. With expanded service there will be more government money to maintain freight railroads with passenger service. These services can improve capital and operation funding for the Class One railroads and should be run so not to interfere with freight service.