Report and Comments by Russ Jackson, RailPAC, Dallas. PHOTOS by Richard Strandberg, Mike Palmer, Russ Jackson. Maps from the Amtrak timetable.
This article is not only about Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and the recent developments regarding this train. We will be pointing out the highlights of the improvements that are taking place along that line through the work of the Union Pacific Railroad and local agencies. Hanging ominously over this article, however, is Amtrak’s failure to obtain daily service for trains #1 and 2 as they planned to do, and their dragging their feet about restoring service along their authorized CSX route from New Orleans to Florida.
In one case the host railroad, the UP, is fighting the improvement by demanding $700 million from Amtrak, which has rightfully rejected it but with little effort to negotiate, resulting in the newly published May 7 schedule nearly restoring the pre-2005 still tri-weekly schedule. In the other case the CSX railroad approved restoring the train to Florida following its line reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina, but Amtrak declined to do so. Strong efforts to correct both situations are cranking up, one led by RailPAC and the western-oriented Steel Wheels Coalition, the other by the eastern-oriented National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Now to the Sunset Route, moving from west to east state by state.
California. The Union Pacific has been involved in extensive multi-billion dollar physical plant improvements along this line for some time, with the goal of double tracking all of the Sunset Route corridor from Colton to El Paso. In California full double tracking extends now to east of Thermal in the Coachella Valley. Work from that point to Yuma has been delayed by the economic slowdown, but is resuming. The huge UP flyover of the BNSF at Colton Junction has been observed as being under construction. Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited continues to operate tri-weekly using the Alhambra branch of the UP into and out of LA Union Station, but can use Metrolink’s parallel line when needed.
Arizona. There are no current plans for a new double track bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma, but double tracking is evident on much of the route from Yuma through Maricopa to Tucson that was also delayed by the slowdown. There are no plans for restoration of the West Phoenix line from Wellton, across the Roll bridge, into Phoenix, once used by the Sunset Limited. The UP has announced plans for a $9.2 million 48-mile upgrade of part of that line from downtown Phoenix to just past the Palo Verde Nuclear station. The rails are still in place between Roll and Buckeye, but have not been used since 1996 and plans to restore it have all fallen through.
One of the most interesting projects along the line is under construction, however. East of Tucson the original Southern Pacific route had many curves, and when Interstate 10 was built in the 1950’s an undercrossing of the railroad was built which still stands today. That undercrossing has been the despair of the trucking industry, as high load vehicles must detour around that spot adding time and cost to their trips. While not on the UP’s list of projects as detailed by Fred Frailey in the November, 2007 list in Trains Magazine, a new rail line is under construction to eliminate that undercrossing and to straighten the line. The state of Arizona is paying for much of that job!
New Mexico. In recent years this writer has been critical of the so-called “stations” for the Sunset Limited at Benson, Arizona, and Lordsburg and Deming, New Mexico, and we have published photos of the two benches that were chained to a fence location in Deming which have been finally replaced by a shelter and now one of Amtrak’s grey and blue station signs has been added, improving the situation there. However, the location of the Deming “station” at a crossing, off a one-way off-ramp of Interstate 10 and in a restricted UP maintenance of way yard is still not something the town should be proud of.
Of greater interest is the start of construction of a new fueling, inspection, and eastbound block-swapping yard at Santa Teresa, about at milepost 1280, west of El Paso. Extensive earthmoving work can be seen at this location only a short distance from the border with Mexico. Double tracking past this location is complete.
Texas. Slow moving into and out of the El Paso station continues for all trains. Improvements have been made east of the El Paso Amtrak station, but it is still single track from there east to Sierra Blanca.
The UP has three routes to choose from out of El Paso, the Golden State Route up to Tucumcari, then at Sierra Blanca junction trains can use the former Texas and Pacific through Midland to Ft. Worth, or the Sunset Route continues to San Antonio and New Orleans. Each of those are single track lines, but there are plans by the UP to eventually double track the line from El Paso to Sierra Blanca. Sometimes unusual cars are observed on freight trains:
We have been told by observers that the UP is mostly directional, with freights westbound on the Sunset Route west of San Antonio, and eastbound trains on the T&P line west of Ft. Worth. Amtrak weaves its way through those westbound freight trains at the whim of the UP Omaha dispatchers, but cooperation there has been high according to our observers. Alpine, Texas has built a new platform for the Sunset Limited’s 4400 annual riders. It is a crew-change point and meeting point for trains 1 and 2.
Unfortunately, despite some local improvements in San Antonio the Texas Eagle which departs there every morning at 7 AM must still do a two-mile backup move through some hand-thrown switches and wait for dispatcher clearance to move onto the former MKT line around the east side of the city instead of being able to go forward out of the Amtrak station and then onto its north track to Austin. Thirty years ago RailPAC and URPA were calling for construction of a 1/4 mile connector so this time consuming move would not be necessary. Amtrak and the SP, then, and UP now, have forgotten this project, content to do what they always have done and not spend the money.
New Orleans to Florida. Since the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Amtrak has kept the extension of the Sunset Limited to Orlando “suspended,” and “future service has not been determined,” but kept it listed in the timetables. With the CSX resuming freight service on the line, and having said that it was all right with them to resume Amtrak service on their reconstructed line, Amtrak’s attitude has been hard to fathom just like so many other things at the company are.
The intervening seven years without transcontinental service have fostered a feeling of weariness among rail advocates and local officials along the route, but finally an optimistic movement has begun by organizers such as the Tallahassee Mayor complete with rallies and petitions. That city’s classic 1858 train station remains in place, vacant, even with the schedule board showing arrival and departure days and times for the Sunset Limited. They are drumming up local support for restoration of the route, which was part of the “national system,” but Amtrak appears to be waiting for the states to make it a state-supported corridor, and if the states wait long enough that may be the only result that will restore service. The 2008 PRII Act required Amtrak to submit a plan to restore passenger service on the line, and in 2009 Amtrak said it would cost about $33 million and have an annual “loss” of $5 million, but Amtrak has not implemented anything. Will Amtrak respond positively or is the optimism unfounded?