Gene Poon, a highly qualified and reputable journalist covering transportation issues, posts this item on “All Aboard,” which is copied here with his permission and our thanks.
Remember the bad old days when the Sunset was constantly late and Amtrak killed the guaranteed connection to the Starlight? The cost of buses and hotel rooms due to a late #1 were staggering. With the mid-afternoon departure of the Sunset, there is no connection FROM the Starlight, either. That kills any connecting business from outside Southern California, and NO…an overnight connection is not acceptable. The vast majority of passengers won’t do that just to ride a train. They’ll fly or drive, instead.
Under the new daily Sunset plan, Amtrak wants to go back to guaranteed connections with the Starlight. They estimate to make between 1.5 and 3 million dollars revenue per year just on this connection. This is a powerful reason to want to go daily, and a vindication of the theory that intercity rail services must be looked upon as a network, a matrix of connecting services; not singly as has too often been the case.
The new plan calls for the eastbound leaving LAUPT in the vicinity of 11pm, and the westbound arriving around 730am. There will be some changes in crew assignments, other than the added personnel needed: under this plan crews would make two trips a week for about 41 hours, all night work with no held away time during the layover in Arizona.
Since the eastbound Sunset will be a guaranteed connection from the southbound Starlight, a very late Starlight will force the Sunset to sit around, waiting. This could result in the crew not being sufficiently rested in Arizona to bring back the westbound. If the Eagle from Chicago…which is still likely to be the “through” train…is very late, then the same go-round with bus connections to the Starlight and/or hotel rooms with next-day reaccommodations again become possible.
Amtrak are currently hiring additional engineers and trainmen out of El Paso and San Antonio. This IS more than likely to handle a daily train (unlike Los Angeles, where new hires may be needed for, or may choose to staff, Metrolink). The date that keeps coming up for the new operation is Oct 31st, but nothing official has appeared as of yet.
Equipment… something that works, not the same old broken-down stuff that Amtrak keeps running now…is another issue. Often the eastbound Sunset is late leaving the yard, and late out of Los Angeles, because of mechanical problems. Cars and engines may come in bad-order; or if they are in good condition, they may be pulled for the Starlight or the Southwest Chief and broken-down cars from those trains have to be fixed up for the Sunset. When the Sunset departed Los Angeles late at night, much of the work would not get done until AFTER the Chief was all together and out of the yard. On occasion, not one car went back out on the Sunset after coming into Los Angeles that same day; the whole consist was sent out as the Chief and the broken down cars that came in on the Chief would be fixed up for the Sunset. The Sunset came last, not only in schedule but in priority, and the Band-Aid® job that often wound up being done to fix broken-down equipment, ended up breaking down again out somewhere out on the road.
Knowing the way LAX mechanical works, many see these same problems if the Sunset returns to a late night departure.
On-Board Service crews are another issue. The original plan plan called for Los Angeles OBS personnel to take the train LAX – CHI, due to the number of complaints about Chicago OBS employees on the Texas Eagle (yes, some of those stories about them ARE true). Chicago is dead set against this and wanted OBS crews to be changed at FTW. Now the plan is that Chicago OBS crews will change at San Antonio or run the train all the way to Los Angeles, but nothing has been decided as of yet.
Oh yeh…probably the most important reason for the train NOT going daily: As far as I know, Union Pacific has not given its blessing. Should they say no, all this planning will just be another waste of time. Granted, UP traffic has been down and the train has been getting over the road and into its terminals early, but things can change, especially if the economy recovers, and UP has managers that are already planning and anticipating that recovery.