Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Sunset options at first glance

There is no firm decision, but three options appear to be moving forward on restoring service fo east Florida and Orlando. Richard L. Wright was at a meeting in Birmingham and his report is included in full here with permission.

Amtrak Report On Possible Restoration of Passenger-Train Service Along the Gulf Coast Between New Orleans and Orlando:

They started out by stating that the Sunset Limited in the years it ran from LA to Miami/Orlando was a problem train in so far as performance (ridership, equipment and reliability).

They looked at a number of options starting with about 12 train combinations.

They considered times of day and directions of all the different trains.

They also said that there are those who would consider recommending a route change for the Florida service, i.e., serving Montgomery, etc. Research confirmed that was not a desirable consideration.

They assume all stations will be fixed up for Amtrak by owners.

They assume CSX cooperation.

After looking at 12 possibilities they narrowed it down to 3. These are:

1 – restoration of the Sunset as it was prior to Katrina

2 – a through train from Chicago to Orlando,

3 – a coordinated connector train from NOLA to Orlando.

These three options are being evaluated for overall potential performance, i.e., which would give greatest reliability and consistency in performance.

The primary reason for the problems with the original Sunset was essentially the extreme length of the route from LA to Orlando. Problems anywhere along the route impacted the entire route, i.e., a delay in Texas meant a passenger going from NOLA to Mobile was out of luck – no train. This scenario would play out dozens of times all along the route. This very problem is being carefully considered in looking at these three options. They want the option which will result in the fewest problems of this nature.

Before Katrina the Sunset carried about 16,000 – 17,000 passengers yearly between NOLA and Orlando. This is considered very poor. These are the figures with which Amtrak has to work.

It is estimated that options 2 & 3 would result in an increase in passenger count of about five fold – 50,000 – 100,000. There was a de facto realization that a return of the Sunset as was would result in far less of an increase in passenger load.

CSX must be brought on board.

PTC must be considered.

They are looking at possibilities on departure times from NOLA. It is felt that a 5 to 6 p.m. departure may be advantageous. They also looked at an early morning departure, but that would result in a night in NOLA. Some think that is beneficial while others don’t. It would result in a late-night arrival in Orlando which is considered an idea-killer at this time.

There is a realization that a daily train shows far better performance in all areas than a thrice-weekly train.

Equipment is a big problem at the current time. This is an ongoing study. Adding to the difficulty of finding equipment is that they are at this very time also looking at restoration of trains through Utah to Portland and through Montana to Seattle on two routes. The equipment needed has not been determined as the option has not been selected.

All cities on the former route will be contacted for their input on restoration of rail service.

There was no discussion of changes on the Sunset Limited between NOLA and LA. Todd said this discussion was for purposes of exploring passenger service east of NOLA to Florida.

Todd made it very clear that there is nothing final. No option has been selected. He made it clear that option 1 does indeed present the most problems, and by extension restoration of the Sunset Limited east of NOLA the least likely option.

Possibly the most challenging comment which Todd made at the very end, and emphasized is that there is no funding in place. Funding simply is not part of the study at this point.

He and the staff who are working on this study must report back to the Amtrak Board by mid June so time is short. The Board can accept their recommendation or send them back to the drawing board.

There is no estimate on a time frame of restoration of service for all the reasons presented.

Richard Wright – Gulf Breeze

The options under consideration are:

  1. Restoration of LA-Orlando service as previously operated.
  2. Operating a separate train east of New Orleans.
  3. Operating Chicago-Orlando.

These are tentative opinions and your input is requested and needed.

Option one seems the least likely. Running such a lengthy schedule is a nightmare for obvious reasons, as noted above.

Furthermore, operating daily LA-NO is probably a higher priority and suggests greater revenue opportunities.

Option 2 is good and might not require Superliner cars. I am no expert on Amtrak rolling stock, but I presume most of it (including newly repaired cars) is spoken for.

The third option had me quite confused at first, and Mr. Wright must think I am quite dim. The proposed solution would extend the City east after its mid-afternoon arrival. This also works in reverse. One advantage is a good arrival time in Mobile (my home town) each direction. This looks like the strongest possibility, but we are all held hostage by 30 years of bad federal policy and the death-of-a-thousand-cuts policy of the Bush administration.

It is a damn shame Amtrak does not have financial or rolling resources for a  Chicago-Atlanta-Orlando service.

Of course, financial logistical and equipment concerns may continue delays.

Filed under: Amtrak, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail

15 Responses

  1. Allan says:

    Since the City of NO stops here, I would be glad to see any extra passengers tho the train has been pretty full when I’ve ridden it.

    But won’t you run into the same problems with option 3 as with option 1? If the train breaks somewhere along the route then you have a very long route that is affected.

  2. patlynch says:

    Correct. Not much way around that.

    Option 2 looks best. Damn shame Amtrak cannot run an Orlando train through Atlanta.

    This is Bush’s plan to destroy Amtrak (a goal not possible in the overt practice of honest politics) and it has suffered a setback but the ultimate outcome is still in question.

    A Republican gain in the Congressional election of 2010 will wreck more than Amtrak, I promise.

  3. Why not have it run from a little further west, like Dallas, through Shreveport? Or from Little Rock?

    Or it could even run from Houston to Orlando, overlapping with the existing Sunset service, since that’s one of the high-speed rail priority routes. If it left Houston at 9:30 PM, that would give transferring passengers the option of spending a day in Houston or a night in New Orleans.

    Similarly, you could have a Memphis-New Orleans-Orlando train, leaving Memphis at 11PM and arriving in New Orleans at 7:30. Both of those would require sleeping cars, though.

    Finally, in much of the rest of the world, sleeping cars are routinely shunted from one train to another. Why not here?

  4. Woody says:

    This discussion underscores the need for a big order for new passenger trains for Amtrak cars soon. Regular cars and sleepers and dome cars and dining cars, oh my!

    Cap’n Transit has good suggestions. Reportedly Bobby Jindal likes the idea of a train New Orleans-Baton Rouge-Alexandria-Shreveport-Dallas. it’s on the NARp wish list, too.

    And an overlapping set of trains between Houston and NOLA would obviously double the frequency on that route. Or run it NOLA-H’town-San Antonio to link three major tourist destinations and market to Europeans, Canadaians as well as to Yankees. That is the beginning of corridor service.

    But without enough cars on hand to make up one or two trainsets now, how far can we get asking for trains that will be tied up covering more mileage than just NOLA-Orlando?

    I’ll be glad to see a train again running NOLA-Orlando. But we should not stop with that. We need to push to expand Amtrak’s long distance service with other routes and with greater frequency on its existing routes. The Amtrak system will supplement high-speed rail. It is not instead of HSR, and HSR should not come instead of better service on the national Amtrak system.

  5. Chris G says:

    Personally I think two things will make for the best of the 3 options they put out there. Daily, and the Orlando to NOLA separate train. This will shorten the route and also give it the best chance to operate on time.

    I like the ideas of running it to Houston. Doubling that and more importantly giving connecting passengers a day time layover instead of needing an over night. But this assumes sleepers.

    The car order is the biggest issue. Amtrak and the government need to get that through before 2010. Just in case. We can’t afford a setback.

  6. In many ways, this set of possibilities continues the Amtrak policy of taking care of itself, rather than the passengers it is supposed to serve. There is some evidence that this seperate train, a coordinated service, (whatever that means) will be coach only, with minimal food service. That is, a JUNKER. And it may have to be as there are fewer sleepers around than anything else. However, I am not thrilled at the prospect of sitting up all night in a coach, and since my destination is rarely NewOrleans, I have to be concerned about what “coordinated” means in terms of the NewOrleans layover. If it is 2-3 hours in the daytime, or early evening, fine, but if it is overnight, it is a showstopper for me and Southwest Airlines looks better all the time.

  7. Pat,

    I agree with your assessment of Congress. As long as the Democrats are in power, we have an energy policy and other aspects that encourages passenger rail. Let the Republican ideologues back in and what happens to Amtrak will be the least of our concerns.

  8. Woody says:

    Layover time. I’m with Jerry.

    A daylight layover could be a plus for many passengers. Overnight train from Orlando to NOLA. Daylight for touring the city. Maybe even a hotel overnight and two days touring city.

    Then overnight to Houston or on to San Antonio, daylight layover for touring those cities. In that way, the sleeper car expense is not out of the question, because it is transport plus lodging in one price. And of course, for much younger tourists, even coach overnight could be tolerable. (That was me with a Eurailpass back when I was young and broke but the dollar was mighty. Ah, those were the days.)

    Of course, if there were more than one train a day between NOLA and San Antonio, all the more choices about how to spend the time en route.

    I’m not suggesting we should run trains expecting to fill them with tourists alone. But there isn’t a single type of Amtrak customer. Many are tourists, domestic and foreign. Others are making family visits. Some have business reasons for travel, but may not be exactly business people on business travel. Others ride trains because they fear flying, they are obese or handicapped, and for a hundred other good reasons.

    We fill the trains when we keep all the different segments of the riding public in mind. What they all need first is more trains more often, and then trains going faster on average than cars. That isn’t asking too much.

  9. Mad Park says:

    Here’s a very long fro Bruce Richardson post both on the Sunset and on enhanced higher speed rail service. As always, read for his concrete ideas on how to improve Amtrak so that it truly fulfills its mission.

    http://www.unitedrail.org/2009/04/26/this-week-at-amtrak-2009-04-27/

    None of us will completely agree with all the he says; provocative he is, but in a thoughtful way, as always.

  10. James Zumwalt says:

    No funding– for a train that was never officially cancelled. Great work, Amtrak. CSX does not “need to be brought on board”- they’ve been there longer than Amtrak has; A year after Katrina, they declared the road ready for Sunset restoration. It has been four years at this point, and Amtrak still drags its feet. The length of the route, cited as a logistical nightmare, is really one of the greatest strengths of this train in terms of revenue production- if we were to have the eastern end going to Chicago, with thru cars to LA and Orlando, we’d have a hell of a train, and in this era of freight cooperation, anything is possible, as long as Amtrak has the impetus… heh heh

  11. James,

    Thanks for the reminder. I had intended to say many of the same things, and it is rather mysterious how Amtrak suddenly does not have funding for a train that has never been officially discontinued. You are also “on point’ concerning CSX.

    I do think the train probably needs to be in two segments. I can not imagine how filthy it must be at the end terminals.

    I have several “wise guy'” observation on some earlier posts, but let sleeping dogs lie.

    Pat Lynch

  12. Woody says:

    Thanks for the unitedrail.org link, Mad Park. I keep learning stuff on these sites, and a lot of what I learn is bad news. So under Clinton they cancelled the River Cities trains that ran Kansas City-St Louis-Centralia, IL-Memphis-New Orleans. A damn shame.

    And now when looking at Sunset Limited east of New Orleans, why not go on to Tampa?

    But the main point made at unitedrail.org is the importance of restoring routes and increasing frequencies. Well, duh. One train a day means it passes through your town in the dark, while two trains a day gives you daylight service. One train means you have to overnight at the destination, even if it is just 2 hours down the line, while two means you can go in the morning and return in the evening. More routes means you can get from Dallas to the riverboat casinos at Shreveport, or to Bourbon Street in N’awlins, or to a convention in Atlanta.

    The institutional memory of Amtrak is all nick-knack tally-whack: cut, then cut again, then cut some more. It needs to get a new corporate culture devoted to growing the national system. I hope that new way of thinking can develop with the little dribble of new money coming from Obama and the new Democratic Congress.

  13. I am one of those travelers (and a Amtrak advocate) that would not use a train, regularly, that required a layover all day, or all night, in NewOrleans, or anywhere else for that matter. On this specific route, I have only terminated in NewOrleans once, back in 1995. All of my other trips have been through to Houston. When I rode the train, and my last trip was 3 weeks pre-Katrina, most of the through passengers were going to Houston or SanAntonio, so if the connection gets messed up in NewOrleans, I believe ridership will suffer. Now on the other hand, my wife would welcome a day or a night in NewOrleans.

  14. Woody says:

    If you get two trains a day, then a possible layover is automatically an option for those who want one. Arrive a.m., depart p.m., tour the city in between. Move to next city, repeat. But with one train a day, you’re confined to quarters for whatever the length of the layover, 2 hours or 4 or 12, and that’s no good for anybody. O.K., your vision of how to ride trains may be different from your wife’s. The beauty of it is, not everyone has to do it just one way if the trains are running on time and often.

    Are we fussing about whether the layover needs to be padded long enough to absorb potential delays on trains coming 2,000 miles from L.A. or 1,000 miles from Chicago? We should be agitating for increasing frequency on the Sunset Limited, the City of New Orleans, and all the long-distance routes.

    There’s pent-up demand for every route Amtrak operates — and for the many it fails to operate. We need to get the national conversation about Amtrak to include adding more routes, making all long distance routes daily, and adding more frequencies per day to the existing routes. That will mean ordering hundreds or even thousands more cars for Amtrak to expand its fleet and then replace its obsolete cars. There’s enough business in that kind of order to open a new passenger-car factory in the US and keep it running past Obama’s second term.

  15. […] Sunset options during first glance « Trains For America […]

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