Commentary, Issues

Sunset Limited in jeopardy is serious business: Part 2, Comments from the Texas Rail Advocates

NOTE: Reprinted with permission of Peter LeCody and the TRA, from their website: www.Texasrailadvocates.org

(Washington) In a last minute voice vote on the House appropriations bill for transportation, Texas Representative Pete Sessions (R-District 33-Dallas) succeeded in his efforts to kill an Amtrak route that has been a financial target of the long distance trains. This came after an amendment failed that was authored by Sessions to kill six long distance routes that have the highest cost to maintain service to small to larger size communities.

The amendment to kill Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which travels east through Texas to New Orleans and west to Los Angeles was passed with a voice vote. The funding for Amtrak in Texas was part of the Appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. “It doesn’t seem like Congressman Sessions wants to find a solution to make the national passenger train network financially stable by working within the system”, according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “It seems he is more interested in tearing the system apart limb by limb, piece by piece.”

“What the Congressman doesn’t realize is that by cancelling the Sunset Limited route that feeds other trains with passengers that transfer right here in Texas, he is putting in jeopardy both Amtrak’s Texas Eagle service to many small and medium size towns and the Texas and Oklahoma state partially supported Heartland Flyer”, according to LeCody. National and state rail advocates had been pushing to extend the Sunset Limited from only three days a week to a daily service, which would put it on a more sound financial basis through higher ridership revenue. “It’s impossible to make a three day a week train financially viable”, said LeCody. “The Congressman should find a way to work with Amtrak and Union Pacific to run this train daily and boost the revenue numbers. Killing this train service to El Paso, Alpine, Del Rio, San Antonio and Beaumont within the state removes a transportation choice many people count on.”

The amendment passed by the House reads that “none of the funds made available (under the transportation act) shall be used to support Amtrak’s route with the highest loss, measured by contributions/(Loss) per rider, as based on the National Railroad Passenger Corporation Fiscal Years 2013-2017 Five Year Plan from May 2013”.

Sessions was instrumental in obtaining a $700 million Full Funding Grant Agreement from the federal Transit Administration for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Green Line “but he does not support a network of intercity passenger rail services that give a higher farebox return per passenger than light rail lines,” according to LeCody. “It’s OK to spend federal funds in your own backyard, but apparently not in other parts of Texas.”

Russ Jackson of the California-based RailPAC advocate organization wrote in an e-mail to members that “many of us ride it. We all know that these trains run with full cars most of the route and that not everyone rides the full distance. In fact, less than 20% of the train’s riders do. When the train reaches San Antonio two cars, a sleeper and a coach, are added to the train or taken from the train to/from the Texas Eagle. Those two cars are almost always filled with riders coming from or going to the mid-West.” Jackson also noted that “the financial success of the Sunset Limited is constrained by its tri-weekly service. Currently, trains 1 and 2 have an excellent on time performance, nearly 80% for the fiscal year 2013. Efforts to get daily service on the route have been unsuccessful, not that much effort has been made by Amtrak to accomplish it.” Jackson further stated that “the current agreement with the Union Pacific is that Amtrak will not even bring up the subject of daily service for another year, or when the railroad’s double tracking project between Los Angeles and El Paso is completed. That is a good idea, but does Amtrak plan to re-introduce the idea with the UP? They may not have to.”

An Amendment first brought forward by Sessions would have prohibited use of funds to support any Amtrak route whose costs exceeds two times its revenues, as again based on the same five year plan from a year ago. The transportation appropriations bill will move to the Senate for further action.

This link shows how each member of Congress voted: Roll call: http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2014/roll294.xml

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