The sun is setting earlier now, but what about the fate of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited?

Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC
Opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of the RailPAC Board

The summer of 2014 is thankfully almost over. As this is written there is a week to go until Labor Day, and then the Congress will return to Washington DC for two weeks of yelling at each other and doing nothing. One thing they probably will do is enact a “Continuing Resolution” to fund the U. S. Government into next year or they will run up against the 2015 Fiscal Year starting date on October 1. None of them wants a government shutdown in an election year…well, maybe some of them do.

Passenger Rail advocates can hope that this “CR” happens, as that means the 2015 Dept. of Transportation appropriations bill passed in the House of Representatives will not likely reach a conference committee before the end of the year. That bill contains the two “poison pills” for Amtrak’s long distance trains: The Sessions (R-TX) amendment that would mandate the elimination of Amtrak’s worst performing train (the Sunset Limited) and the Gingrey (R-GA) amendment that mandates that no money in this appropriation could be used to support the Food & Beverage service on the Amtrak system. If both of those amendments survive in a final bill the slow death of the long distance trains will accelerate.

How would that happen? Andrew C. Selden wrote the following that lays out the situation: “If the diners go, so will the sleepers, because average trips span four or more meal periods. Many of course are much longer. If the sleepers go, so does the core economics of the long distance network, so soon all of these trains will be at risk of discontinuance.” The Sunset Limited would be the first to go, probably followed by the Texas Eagle. In the case of the Texas Eagle, losing the 30,000 annual transfers to the Sunset Limited that take place in San Antonio to/from the west would be a huge financial blow, as the nearly $25 million revenue from those transfers accrue to the Eagle.

How has the Sunset Limited been doing this summer? Try to get space leaving Los Angeles on any of the three nights it runs in the next few weeks. During the week this report is being written only four roomettes and one family bedroom and very few coach seats are still available on the three trains. Trains #1 and 2 have had successful on time performances. For the FY through June they are at 64% on time, and in July it was 65%.

The other long distance trains have had disastrous timekeeping, due largely to freight interference and construction projects on the host railroads. The Coast Starlight was 85%, but the Empire Builder was on time only 19% in July, the Southwest Chief was 21%, and the worst was the California Zephyr at 8.1%. Most of the Zephyr’s delays were on the BNSF in Nebraska and Iowa, and in August the situation was even worse. Even the eastern trains had problems, with the Lake Shore Limited having huge delays almost daily. Of course in California the big jolt on August 24 brought the system to a halt until any earthquake-caused damage could be discovered. Fortunately none was, and the California trains returned to normal schedules the next day.

But, back to the Sunset Limited. What else has happened this summer? One positive step was Amtrak announced there would be new Thruway bus routes that would put several Gulf Coast cities back on the Amtrak map. Connections would be made to the City of New Orleans, the Crescent, and the Sunset Limited “in a partnership with Greyhound Lines.” That means that Biloxi and Mobile, which were on the Sunset’s Florida extension until 2005 now have some connecting service. That is supposed to soothe the disappointed riders there, but a bus is a bus and not the train they wanted to return. The Texas Eagle has been “busing” riders between Ft. Worth and San Antonio all summer while the construction at “Tower 55″ in Ft. Worth is completed, which means that riders transferring to/from the Sunset Limited are riding buses, and a bus is a bus not a train. Between Dallas and Ft. Worth Amtrak is using the TRE line instead of the UP. Even with a shortened route the Texas Eagle on time performance is down 29%, due partly to the August accident in NE Arkansas when two UP 90 car freight trains crashed head on.

Has the political situation been addressed? The Texas Rail Advocates group has contacted all of the Texas cities along the route of the Sunset Limited, to inform them of what could happen. The only press report to come to our attention was a June 23 article in the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson) quoting NARP’s Sean Jeans-Gail, who said, “When you start chopping it and making these decisions without regards to how people use the network (that’s the key word, -RJ) there are a lot of unintended consequences.” There were 25,416 passengers who caught the train at Tucson’s Amtrak station last year, more than double that rode in 2007, despite it being only tri-weekly service. Another article was posted the same week on the local CBS TV station’s blog, quoting Congressman Ron Barber (D-AZ) who called the train an “important alternate to planes and cars for people traveling to Tucson.” However, in the same report Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), said “…in general, I don’t believe taxpayers should be on the hook for subsidizing Amtrak.”

So, the war for the Sunset Limited will continue. If the “CR” mentioned above passes, it only postpones a final decision on all Amtrak funding. The Congress is good at doing that, of course, but what will this November’s election do to the prospects for the long distance trains and the rest of the Amtrak system? Time will tell, and meanwhile Amtrak and its CEO plod along in limbo. So…”What else is new?”

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