Commentary

Amtrak at 44:  “Happy Birthday” to the Southwest Chief and Sunset Limited

It is no secret that for 44 years Amtrak’s long distance trains have had a target firmly placed upon them.  From the nitpicking of the Congress to the war against growth within Amtrak, we have to ask who is standing up for these trains besides us in the rail advocacy community?   If it weren’t for us could those trains have disappeared long ago?

Apparently the crisis of the past few years to retain the Southwest Chief on its historic route in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico has been resolved, but was it necessary to go through all the hassle?  That train is a national system train.  Always has been.  Why was it necessary for the states to have to go through the political process of trying to “save” it with local money?  That exercise did call attention to the state of disrepair the BNSF line had become in those states, but Amtrak’s whole effort seemed to be directed toward telling the states that if they didn’t come up with the cash they would lose the train, and they were 44 year masters at the psychology of fear.  With the decision deadline coming at the end of this year, the states were jumping through hoops to try to comply.  Colorado took the lead and with ColoRail’s efforts was able to secure a response from their legislature. which insisted on rerouting the train by way of Pueblo.  Kansas, with Colorado, secured a Federal grant for track repair, which is underway.  New Mexico was unable to secure money, as their Governor felt the same as this writer that it was a national responsibility.  Now, Colorado’s funding has fallen through, as it didn’t pass through their Budget Committee, and the Pueblo reroute is off.

BUT, good news came at the end of March, 2015, as Amtrak announced it was no longer considering moving the Southwest Chief to the BNSF Transcon line via Amarillo.  Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s spokesman said, “There are no immediate plans that would result in a cutoff of service to the existing stops.  The Southwest Chief is on the right route.”  Amtrak is still urging the states to acquire federal grants to help pay for track maintenance, and they must be confident they will get it, but they have withdrawn the threats.

Meanwhile, the train keeps running daily taking mostly satisfied passengers where they want to go.    How is the Southwest Chief doing these days?  Not bad.  Like all the trains, the winter was a challenge, but at the end of April this train which arrived EARLY at Los Angeles Union Station on April 30 showed that it “could do it.”  (chart courtesy Amtrak Status Maps)

* Train 3 of 04/28/2015.
* Southwest Chief
* CHI  *  *     1  300P  *     300P  Departed:  On time.
* NPV  *  *     1  335P  *     335P  Departed:  On time.
* MDT  *  *     1  424P  *     428P  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* PCT  *  *     1  446P  *     450P  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* GBB  *  *     1  538P  *     546P  Departed:  8 minutes late.
* FMD  *  *     1  642P  *     647P  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* LAP  *  *     1  751P  *     803P  Departed:  12 minutes late.
* KCY  1  1011P 1  1045P 1010P 1045P Departed:  On time.
* LRC  *  *     1  1152P *     1152P Departed:  On time.
* TOP  *  *     2  1229A *     1231A Departed:  2 minutes late.
* NEW  *  *     2  245A  *     245A  Departed:  On time.
* HUT  *  *     2  320A  *     322A  Departed:  2 minutes late.
* DDG  2  519A  2  525A  508A  525A  Departed:  On time.
* GCK  *  *     2  621A  *     621A  Departed:  On time.
* LMR  *  *     2  659A  *     725A  Departed:  26 minutes late.
* LAJ  2  815A  2  830A  826A  834A  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* TRI  *  *     2  950A  *     950A  Departed:  On time.
* RAT  *  *     2  1056A *     1056A Departed:  On time.
* LSV  *  *     2  1238P *     1238P Departed:  On time.
* LMY  *  *     2  224P  *     244P  Departed:  20 minutes late.
* ABQ  2  355P  2  445P  410P  446P  Departed:  1 minute late.
* GLP  *  *     2  708P  *     708P  Departed:  On time.
* WLO  *  *     2  750P  *     750P  Departed:  On time.
* FLG  2  851P  2  857P  847P  858P  Departed:  1 minute late.
* WMJ  *  *     2  933P  *     935P  Departed:  2 minutes late.
* KNG  *  *     2  1146P *     1214A Departed:  28 minutes late.
* NDL  *  *     3  1249A *     113A  Departed:  24 minutes late.
* BAR  *  *     3  339A  *     345A  Departed:  6 minutes late.
* VRV  *  *     3  418A  *     423A  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* SNB  *  *     3  532A  *     532A  Departed:  On time.
* RIV  *  *     3  553A  *     601A  Departed:  8 minutes late.
* FUL  *  *     3  634A  *     656A  Departed:  22 minutes late.
* LAX  3  815A  *  *     738A  *     Arrived:  37 minutes early.

The tri-weekly Sunset Limited is the other train facing the constant 44 year hassle.  On February 28, 2012, Amtrak and the Union Pacific agreed in writing to implement the current departure time schedule, and for two years Amtrak agreed they would not make a request to the UP to increase the frequency (daily service), or ask the UP to add any trains or make any other changes on the Sunset Route.  Those two years were up over a year ago, yet the agreement appears to have continued.  It is understood that the UP’s extensive Sunset Route double tracking project is not completed, and daily service would not be totally feasible until it is done.  In April, 2015, reader Ralph James saw extensive  progress on the line east of Niland into Arizona, but there is much left to be done there by the UP.

Going back 44 years to 1971, Anthony Haswell, who was there at the formation, remembers “Revision of the final Amtrak maps to include key Southern Pacific routes was a mixed blessing, as it preserved the 3 day a week Sunset.  I am (still) firmly opposed to operation of any year-round train on less-than-daily frequency.”   Mark Murphy, Amtrak’s current General Manager for Long-Distance Services told a 2015 meeting that “Three times a week is not sufficient,” but his job is to “reduce Amtrak’s financial footprint.”  He could add capacity “if he or his department could find a creative way to do it.”  Here’s the answer to that:  add cars to meet the demand in time to fill them.  See what I mean about the war on growth?  That’s an example right there.  According to Trains Magazine’s Don Phillips, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman “cut off discussions and publicly criticized his marketing department” for advocating improving service on the Sunset Route.  How can you fight that if you are an employee who sees what can be done?  The Sunset Limited’s on time performance has been pretty good through the winter.  Here’s the train that arrived at Los Angeles Union Station on Friday, May 1, Amtrak’s birthday:  (chart courtesy Amtrak Status Maps)

* Train 1 of 04/29/2015.
* Sunset Limited
* NOL  *  *     1  900A  *     900A  Departed:  On time.
* SCH  *  *     1  1030A *     1031A Departed:  1 minute late.
* NIB  *  *     1  1156A *     1200P Departed:  4 minutes late.
* LFT  *  *     1  1224P *     1235P Departed:  11 minutes late.
* LCH  *  *     1  155P  *     200P  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* BMT  *  *     1  348P  *     355P  Departed:  7 minutes late.
* HOS  1  618P  1  655P  601P  655P  Departed:  On time.
* SAS  2  1205A 2  245A  102A  246A  Departed:  1 minute late.
* DRT  *  *     2  549A  *     549A  Departed:  On time.
* SND  *  *     2  824A  *     824A  Departed:  On time.
* ALP  *  *     2  1038A *     1040A Departed:  2 minutes late.
* ELP  2  122P  2  147P  136P  204P  Departed:  17 minutes late.
* DEM  *  *     2  318P  *     346P  Departed:  28 minutes late.
LDB  *  *     2  413P              MT
* BEN  *  *     2  518P  *     532P  Departed:  14 minutes late.
* TUS  2  645P  2  735P  650P  735P  Departed:  On time.
* MRC  2  852P  2  902P  847P  909P  Departed:  7 minutes late.
* YUM  *  *     2  1149P *     1159P Departed:  10 minutes late.
* PSN  *  *     3  202A  *     207A  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* ONA  *  *     3  354A  *     331A  Departed:  23 minutes early.
* POS  *  *     3  404A  *     340A  Departed:  24 minutes early.
* LAX  3  535A  *  *     424A  *     Arrived:  1 hour, 11 minutes early.

An hour 11 minutes EARLY?…arrived at 4:24 AM?  Amtrak announced recently that train #1 passengers arriving in Los Angeles would no longer be allowed to stay in their rooms until 6:30, but the First Class Lounge at LAUS would open at 5 AM.  May 1, Amtrak’s birthday, was a celebration of that policy for sure.

Has anything positive been done by Amtrak recently?  Well, according to reader Anthony Lee, new connecting Thruway bus service for the Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle and some other routes, has been established in connection with Greyhound, including buses connecting Ft.Worth/ Dallas with Houston, Albuquerque-Las Cruces-El Paso, and faster schedules for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star on the East Coast due to the introduction of new Viewliner cars.  More about the Silver Star in the next post from this writer.

After 30 years of writing these reports nothing much seems to change.  Amtrak birthdays come and go, the trains keep running, riders keep coming, and yet the problems continue; in some cases get worse.

Russ Jackson served on the board of the Rail Passenger Association of California, and was editor-writer of the Western Rail Passenger Review.  He is now retired near grandchildren in Texas.

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