The Coast Starlate: Why it Matters

By Noel Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review –Since last October, the COAST STARLIGHT on-time performance has dropped to about 2%. Most of the delays happen between Dunsmuir, California, and Chemult, Oregon. In this mountainous area rail breaks are so common that welding crews can’t keep up with the repairs and 10 mph slow orders are common. There are many rumors about possible changes to deal with these problems. One rumor is that the STARLIGHT might be cut back “temporarily” to between Los Angeles and Oakland. The constantly late STARLIGHT has forced Amtrak to use an additional trainset to run the STARLIGHT despite Amtrak’s acute equipment shortage.

The reason for the delays is simple enough. When the Union Pacific bought the Southern Pacific, it got a railroad with valuable routes like the Sunset Line and the I-5 Corridor. But it also got a railroad that was falling apart from years of deferred maintenance and hiring. The old SP has caused many problems for the UP which it is only slowly catching up on. The route of the STARLIGHT north of Roseville is a low priority for the UP. The UP’s solution for the STARLIGHT is to get rid of it.

Why is the STARLIGHT important? It is more than a single train; it is an integral part of a system. Most Amtrak long distance trains run east-west. The STARLIGHT is one of the few that runs north-south. The STARLIGHT was designed to be the connecting train in the West for the EMPIRE BUILDER, the SAN FRANCISCO ZEPHYR, the SOUTHWEST CHIEF and the SUNSET. In addition passengers from the SAN JOAQUINS and PACIFIC SURFLINERS also connect with the STARLIGHT. As the on-time performance of the STARLIGHT and other long distance trains has deteriorated, this system is falling apart. Why is this system important? Money, for starters: the five long distance trains mentioned above regularly brings in more revenue than all the Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor. The STARLIGHT alone brings in more revenue than all the PACIFIC SURLINER trains combined. The STARLIGHT helps pay for the overhead on the stations and maintenance facilities for the entire route it runs on in all three States.

Amtrak’s biggest problem is money. The solution is to bring in more. To do this it has to increase its passenger miles which means having more seats to sell to more places. Amtrak has hundreds of passenger cars in storage. Most of these cars need some repair before they can go back on the railroad. The income “lost” by not having these cars carrying passengers far exceeds the money “saved” by storing them and not repairing them. Adding extra cars to the long distance trains would dramatically improve revenue with little added costs. But the equipment isn’t available. In 2000 Amtrak’s car fleet numbered 2,272. Today it stands at 1,700, of which 1,345 are considered part of the active fleet. Summer is the peak travel season. Amtrak use to be flush with cash at the end of the summer. The reason was simple: income from the long distance trains carrying summer peak travel business. Since the late 90’s as the long distance trains have deteriorated, this is no longer true.

Only five years ago the COAST STARLIGHT was Amtrak’s premiere train! This was not only because it has the most scenic route, connects with some of the largest cities in the country and has the largest passenger loads of any single train. Until 2002 when as part of Amtrak West which operated out of Oakland and not Washington, it was allowed to pioneer new marketing innovations. On-board service was improved, the dining menu upgraded, the “California Parlor Car” was introduced and was a great success. The trains were often sold out. Up to 4 sleeping cars and 6 coaches were common. There was demand for more trains but equipment wasn’t available. Brian Rosenwald who was responsible for many of the STARLIGHT’S innovations was promoted and moved to Washington. But after 2002 all Amtrak train operations were recentralized and instead of the STARLIGHT being the model for the rest of Amtrak, it is slowly returning to the general level of Amtrak mediocrity. There is again more talk of “saving money” by cutting those routes of the long distance trains which are “losing money.” There are none. The long distance trains are not the problem. Having to much overhead and too little product to sell (i.e. seats) is Amtrak’s problem. Cutting more trains will only reduce income and do nothing to reduce overhead. The long distance trains are Amtrak’s only hope!

(RailPAC NOTE: Due to UP track work windows in the Cascades, from July 28 to August 28 2006,  Train 14 will depart LA at its regular time, 10:15 AM, until Klamath Falls. If it arrives on schedule, 8:25 AM or after that, it will be held at KFS until 11:00 AM, which means an arrival in Portland at 6:15 and Seattle at 11:39 PM. No adjustments are made to the southbound #11 schedule at this time. – RJ)

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