Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Sorting out Amtrak’s Sunset restoration report (again)

The recent comprehensive report on how to get the Sunset rolling east of New Orleans has drawn much reaction and heavy criticism. One intent critic has gone so far as calling for a general housecleaning at Amtrak because of the perceived inadequacies of this document.

This study was mandated by congress. You may look at it as either meddling or prodding, but the results are far from satisfying. That being said, it may be that the compilers have done about as good as might be expected under the circumstances.

Some of the report (available at this link) leaves the ordinary reader totally bewildered and parts are pointedly revealing. Before oiling up the guillotine for those incredibly inept bureaucrats (They’re bureaucrats, so they must be inept. Right?) We think we detect the presence of an elephant in the room.

One of the most serious obstacles to immediate renewed service between New Orleans and Orlando is the demolition of the previous station in Mobile, Ala. It is said to take 20 months to replace this facility, which appears to be the core element of Amtrak’s quickest timetable for getting the Sunset on its coast-to-coast route.

Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in August 2005 and the Sunset has used New Orleans as the east terminus ever since. Critics of Amtrak point to CSX’s prompt action to replace damaged road beds, bridges and signals. The operating railroad correctly anticipates ample revenue production from this major rail service area.

Amtrak, by contrast, sat on its hands until today. Put in the most specific terms, Amtrak’s inaction speaks volumes about the intention to let this service slip quietly into oblivion. How else could CSX interpret the failure to restore trains in a reasonable time?

Being a competent business, CSX moved on and demolished the old L&N station and sold the property to developers. Why not? Amtrak has displayed zero interest in running a train for which equipment and personnel were already allocated.

My suspicion, and I could be very wrong, is that the station situation in Mobile is a bit worse than we might suspect. There must be some new hindrance to gaining access to the platform, which Amtrak critics claim still exists. (I have not inspected the site, so I have no idea.)

One has to believe that, if it were nothing more than putting up a “temporary” Am-shack, that would be among the options. It makes one wonder if the previous site is entirely unavailable. If this is so, some responsibility has to be placed at Amtrak’s doorstep.

There is doubtless much behind-the-scenes history on this matter, and railroading is just tied up in minutia. It is notable that David Gunn was fired as Amtrak president in November 2005. This is a crucial time in which plans for the renewed Sunset should have been high on the corporate agenda.

While not wishing to make excuses for Amtrak management, it was one full year before Alex Kummant was hired as the new CEO. Kummant rode the wild bull for 24 months and departed with a stark suddenness. At minimum, the unbiased observer may witness an instability in top leadership which is very detrimental to the railroad’s operation.

Taking into account the board vacancies and the continuing all out war against Amtrak mounted by congressional critics, it is understandable that there was hesitation on this decision. It is easy to say that caretakers should have moved boldly; however, it was not like starting up some completely new service.

We should also keep in mind that, after Gunn’s departure, it is likely that the Amtrak board explicitly forbade restoring the Sunset. Pressure to split up the system is reportedly what led to his dismissal.

The most recent study, which is so soundly denounced in some quarters, puts forward some unpleasant realities, in addition to the Mobile, Ala. terminal situation.

  • the train operates over “dark” territory for hundreds of miles
  • the pending PTC requirements
  • the difference in rail miles versus highway miles and the variation in travel times (NO-Orlando 18,5 hours on Amtrak, double the driving time).
  • Amtrak’s lack of equipment and operating funds (which effects every management decision)
  • a larger question as to the necessity or desirability of a 59 mph train.

The report has several notable failures, which are not limited to these.

  • A puzzling proposal for new maintenance facilities in Sanford, Fla.
  • A mysterious financial comparison between the three final options, which fails to show why a stand-alone train operating on an almost identical schedule with the other two options performs at a substantially lower level.
  • A lack of explanation as to what might demand 20 months of preparation to begin the renewed coast-to-coast service (other than the Mobile station, which was discussed above).
  • The seeming lack of an analysis of daily coast-to-coast through service between Los Angeles and Orlando.
  • Emphasis on expenses not directly connected to restoration, such as Sanford station construction.

The report does not directly say so, but it seems to set up a  business decision concerning the desirability of restoring one route against another. Put in straight talk, it is the Pioneer versus the east leg of the Sunset. Of course the decision is not so simple.

The Pioneer has some advantages.

  • To the best of my knowledge, UP mainline between Salt Lake City and Portland is signalized territory and trains operate at 79 miles an hour.
  • There has been strong political support in Idaho
  • This route opens the inter-mountain region to the northwest Portland-Seattle corridor
  • Connections in Denver with the premiere California Zephyr

Returning service between New Orleans and Orlando provides a connection from Florida to both California and the Midwest. Three important cities go back on the Amtrak map: Mobile, Pensacola, and the state capitol of Tallahassee.

The selection of either alternative seems to imply that the service improvements discussed previously for the upgraded daily Sunset west of New Orleans are off the table.In other words, the equipment is now running on the new daily “Sunset-Eagle.”  Failure to promptly implement this service improvement would be a serious error.

Some of Amtrak’s harshest critics on the internet have proposed resolving this dilemma with the rule of “first come, first served.” Using third grade logic dispenses with the often messy process of making hard business decisions. There may be a better way.

It is a false choice to set up one system route against another. both are important and neither can be instantly restored. This is the kind of important decision that languishes while waiting for Amtrak’s next new president, who will be (I think) the fourth in the 21st. century.

The latest report has a tone of tentativeness one might expect in an overly-cautious environment. The latest conceptions for the Eagle-Sunset operation shows some creativity and that is to be commended. The rest is going to take courage.

We think the Sunset-Eagle proposal should be implemented at the Fall timetable change. It looks doubtful from here that any expansion east of New Orleans can occur once this upgrade is put into effect without an infusion of equipment. Fortunately, this is happening with the repairs and announced RFP’s.

It is foolish to ignore the 18 hours needed to travel by rail from New Orleans to Orlando. Likewise, PTC issues can not be set aside, although one might presume that the CSX estimate of $20 million is their opening shot in negotiating a more reasonable price. This is also an issue that must be addressed on a system-wide and industry-wide basis.

Until Boardman’s situation t is settled, it does not seem likely that Amtrak will move on such a provocative and difficult question. With new equipment, Amtrak may be able to entertain modest expansion plans.

Although the report under consideration  has frustrating shortcomings, the  beheadings should probably be postponed. It is also obvious that the writer has  shortcomings and may need enlightenment.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail

10 Responses

  1. Seems to me, given the time and 1 million dollars, Amtrak should have come up with something better then what they did. I have seen excerpts from the report only, but given the slavish attention Amtrak tends to give to the capital demanding NEC, I would suspect the report was tailored to fit pre-determined positions. Comments calling for a “house cleaning” come from the frustration by knowledgeable people observing readily remedied situations which Amtrak management just does not seem to foresee, understand, or act upon.

  2. Jerry H. Sullivan, P.E. (retired) says:

    With regard to the Mobile station, it should be pointed out that a developer was negotiating with CSX and other parties prior to Katrina with the idea of building upscale housing int he area, apartments, etc. and had agreed to provide a replacement station. Then the housing bubble burst and last I read, the developer was belly up.

    The Mobile station, if this train ever is restored,( and in my opinion, this inflated report out of Amtrak was an effort to justify a decision, likely made back in the fall of 2005, after Gunn was sacked, to never restore the service) should be put back at least close to it’s former location – why – this spot is practically across the street from the cruise ship terminal. The only problem with the location is from an ADA perspective in that when the eastbound train stops, the first 2 cars and the engines are inside the “tunnel” under the civic auditorium and there is no platform there, so to be ADA accessible, two stops would have to be made if handicapped persons were getting on the front cars – usually the sleepers.
    Although I advocate for the return of the service, I am not holding my breath, but I hate to think of my twice a year trips to Texas being in a airborne sardine can in the future.

  3. Woody says:

    Restoring the Pioneer in the Northwest, yeah great, let’s do it. Restoring daily, quality Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle service west of New Orleans, really great, let’s get going. Restoring Sunset Limited service east of New Orleans, kinda sorta great. I mean, more than 18 hours, twice as long as an auto?

    Of course, the line could be improved, to raise the top and average speeds, but that would take money. Oh, speaking of money, The Transport Politic is reporting that the State of Florida submitted a proposal to use $2.5 billion of the HSR funds to build a 90-mile line between Tampa and the Orlando Airport.

    I’m beginning to not like HSR. That $2.5 billion could put signals on the Sunset route, install Positive Train Control, double-track a few hundred miles, build a new station in Mobile with a platform extending under the civic auditorium, and leave a hundred million to cover the operating costs of trains running four a day in each direction.

    Oh year, we’d need more cars. Part of the $5 or $6 billion order we need to see placed for Amtrak before the current fleet rusts away.

    We need to keep our eyes on the big problems and the big solutions needed — running at least two trains a day on every Amtrak route at least 9 hours apart so every stop gets daylight service, restoring and adding many routes, modernizing and expanding the entire fleet, doubletracking thousands of miles of track and otherwise speeding up the conventional trains to at least match the best times of the earlier century. Otherwise we are left to fuss over the crumbs left for us by the Bushies.

  4. Mad Park says:

    @3 While I agree with most of what you write, Woody, it was the Carter and Clinton administrations that are equally culpable for the sorry state of our national passenger rail {non}system. We need higher speed rail, we need long distance trains run daily, we need Business Class on long Distance for those who cant afford the pricey sleepers, we need economy sleepers, food service all night, real food on short distance trains and so much more. Most of all we need a board and execs at Amtrak who are entrepeneurial, responsive, customer service oriented and not slaves to the bean counters and politicoes in Washington and along the NEC.

  5. Jerry H. Sullivan, P.E. (retired) says:

    I have to agree with Woody and Mad Park both. Both of you make interesting points, however, lets not begrudge the 18 hour run
    east of NewOrleans. Too many see that as a problem, and for a day train, it would be. HOwever, to make the proposed connections in NewOrleans, this is going to be largely an overnight run. It can be run, at least NewOrleans to Jacksonville a little faster. On my last trip, three weeks before Katrina, which we now ought to call, “Amtraks excuse” we left NewOrleans on time, and arrived in Jacksonville 30′ early. Even so, there was padding that was not required on that particular run, and we could easily have arrived in Jacksonville by 3pm instead of 4:10 that trip (schedule called for 4:40pm). Eastbound, you lose an hour, so we actually left NO at 11:30pm, and made the run in 16.5 hours. It could have been done in 15 hours with dispatching as efficient as on that trip. Regrettably, that dispatcher, a long time friend of mine (and a railfan) has now retired and runs the train at Mouseland East.

  6. Nathanael says:

    Looking carefully at this, I think track improvements are needed.

    First of all, the route from Mobile to Pensacola is absurd. Serious improvements would come from brand new passenger track following I-10. One of the least popular stations on the line would go, but the running time would drop by *half an hour*.

    Second, given the likely PTC mandate, planning should be for faster track, up to 90 mph, because that would clearly speed up the trip.

    But of course, Mississipi and Alabama don’t have any track improvements planned. Mississipi didn’t even ask for any money from the high speed rail funding in ARRA, and most states were asking for the moon.

  7. patlynch says:

    With all possible respect and kindness, building new rail right-or-way from Mobile to Pensacola involves many miles of bridge work. It is some of the most expensive construction imaginable to connect cities that are not even in the top 50.

    Mississippi (wisely) did not apply for HSR funds because it has even less population. Even using the “high performance rail” formulation of the FRA, the first corridors to be improved have to be winners because the enemy stops at nothing to protect its position.

    You may recall that ultra-conservative Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour proposed relocating the CSX coastal main line after Katrina. He suggested improved freight and passenger service. Dead on arrival.

  8. Pat,

    Remember that Haley Barbour (and Trent Lott) wanted to relocate the CSX track so they could build a new highway to the Casinos. Modest improvements to the CSX track would mean that train loads could come in from as far as Orlando for a weekend of spilling money. Carloads did on the old SUnset fairly regularly. Of course more recently the Casinos tried operating charter flights from the St. Augustine Airport.
    I still say that the 18 hour schedule is not a problem in the short run. We aren’t going to have two trains on this route, daily, we will be beyond real lucky to get one and it will run overnight. Later, for a day schedule that might be a problem.

  9. Joe Versaggi says:

    There is a track connection problem in Portland with the Pioneer restoration: crossovers were replaced and streched out just east of the Steel Bridge onto the UP line. They would have to do some back and forth to get across.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Amtrak service east of New Orleans is DOA. Amtrak has no intention of restoring service and will use any and all stalling tactics in its arsenal in the hope that the idea will just go away. The beautiful Amtrak station in Pensacola would best serve the public as an eatery or maybe a new Library. Its original intent is long gone. What we have here is an example of prime property being allowed to lay fallow for years on end. 18 hours just to travel 350 miles is just crazy. Forget track improvements as well. Neither CSX nor Amtrak would ever sink money into improving infrastructure in order to shorten passenger train running times between N.O. and East Florida for a train that will more than likely never use it. Florida should consider extending its own rail servce to Pensacola vice a HSR between Tampa and Orlando…..it just show what they think of west Florida….we dont exist.

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