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.