Trains For America

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Sunset Ltd. news in Trains magazine

Apparently, Trains magazine for November carreis a story concerning the proposed discontinuance of the Sunset name and service alterations along the route. These are professional journalists, so we must assume that plans are well beyond the rumor stage.

It must also be realized that there is, according to my sources, not a unanimous opinion inside Amtrak on this plan, and there are some technical obstacles.

Here’s the straight dope, as I understand it.

The Crescent will stop at San Antonio. The Eagle thru cars would continue as a complete train to Los Angeles. There would be NO practical connection between the two routes. The Crescent from New Orleans would arrive mid-afternoon, and the Eagle to Los Angeles would depart sometime around 3am. That sounds like a 12 hour layover, but with the days of operation proposed, as dictated by the most efficient turns of equipment, the Crescent and Eagle would not even make 12 hour connections most of the time — it would be more like 12 hours + 24 hours —- in both directions.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see what a forced 12 to 36 hour layover at San Antonio each way will do for the now growing Los Angeles-Houston and Los Angeles-New Orleans traffic — it will kill it overnight.

The Crescent would replace the Sunset between NOL and SAS, the Eagle would replace the Sunset between SAS and LAX, so the Sunset name would be discontinued. The Sunset name is the oldest name train still in operation, having started around 1902. From Amtrak’s perspective, it is a lightning rod for criticism from the forces of evil who like to quote losses per passenger and suggest that handing out free airline tickets is the answer. So… the Sunset name would disappear, but service would remain over the NOL-LAX route.

The facilities at SAS are a major concern. There is no track space to store an additional train during the layover, and the SAS mechanical department has for years focused only on maintaining Superliners. A large inventory of low-level parts will need to be stocked at SAS, and either track rental or track construction will be necessary to solve the equipment storage problem. Since Viewliner sleepers are in such short supply already, the Crescent would carry only a single car to San Antonio, and in that car, 4-5 rooms would be blocked out for dorm use by the diner and lounge car crew. That amounts to more than a 50% reduction in the present sleeper capacity east of San Antonio.

And the cities east of NO still have no service. Part of the strongest push to get the Sunset back on the east end (or some service, probably not the Sunset as we knew it), is due to the argument that service needs to be provided to the Katrina devastated areas as they continue rebuilding. Same day connections in NO are urgently needed.

Obviously, this proposal is a danger to all long distance trains. The Sunset, operating only three days a week, has been demonized in the conservative echo-chamber. Of course a train that has the same basic infrastructure costs as a daily operation and less than half the available inventory will have problems.

So-called “corridor” trains suffer ultimately because they are often “fed” passengers from long haul routes, and they likewise send traffic on the long distance trains.

My point is this. Let’s not make Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison do all he dirty work. There should be widespread congressional opposition to this crude assault on intercity passenger trains.

The real problem is a lack of equipment. Amtrak needs sufficient equipment to run the Sunset daily and provide thro cars from the Eagle every day.

There are serious infrastructure problems on the UP, and that is a problem for freight and passenger trains. There is a significant national interest in helping provide necessary trackage to accommodate the booming volume of shipments from the west coast.

The next “demon train” might easily be the Eagle or the Starlite. Remember that there is a political component at work here. Bush is paying off his owners at UP and proving he can still be a tough guy to the hardened neocons. He may not have had much luck with al-Queda, but he sure stood up to Amtrak.

It’s late here. Tomorrow, I will have, perhaps, put some bullet points together. Your discussion in the “comments” section might be very helpful.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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