The Sunset Limited has a future?

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SMART: Sunset Marketing and Revitalization Team
Meeting Report, New Orleans, March 29, 2008
PHOTOS and trip report, by Robert Manning, RailPAC Director

SMART is a grass-roots organization formed January 19, 2008 in order to “Save and promote Amtrak’s long distance passenger train the Sunset Limited.” This diverse group, comprised mostly of people from the Gulf States, came together to form this organization to achieve their goal. The group had local mayors, Amtrak officials and others at this first meeting in order to promote their efforts, and apparently this first meeting was a success.

Paul Dyson President of RailPAC was contacted by SMART and asked to send a representative to the next SMART meeting. In order to show support for this new group and help this organization in its continuing efforts concerning the Sunset Limited, this writer was selected by the RailPAC board of directors to attend the next SMART meeting. I was selected because I am the Palm Springs RailPAC Director and we are attempting to have daily Amtrak service between the Palm Springs area and Los Angeles which is currently served by the Sunset Limited. SMART held their second meeting on Saturday, March 29, in the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.

The NOUPT is a very attractive building located in the heart of downtown New Orleans, it is very well kept, and it also houses the Greyhound bus terminal. I must say that this was a perfect location for this meeting and it was nice to see a constant flow of people in and around the train station. I should mention that I was invited to an informal dinner by the SMART group Friday evening. The dinner was at Michaul’s a popular New Orleans restaurant also located in the downtown area. There were approximately twelve people at the dinner including Barbara and Webster Tucker, and Louisiana’s John Sita, one of the original organizers of SMART.

The SMART group meeting. Writer Bob Manning is standing next to Amtrak’s Jim McDaniel who is seated at the head of the table.
The next morning the first order of business was the election of the SMART officers: Elected were:
John Sita Chairperson, Vice Chair Mort Kelly, Secretary, Barbara Tucker and Treasurer, Allan Thomas.
After the elections the Roberts Rules of Order was adopted and chaired by Mort Kelly.

The engineer boards Sunset Limited train #1, at the platform at NOUPT on March 31, getting ready for departure to California.

At this point the goals of SMART were stated and they included the following:
1) Supporting the continuation of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited passenger train,
2) Reestablishing Sunset Limited service to Florida
3) Daily service for the Sunset Limited.

These three items were unanimously approved (and reflect the goals of RailPAC for many years). At this point Amtrak’s Jim McDaniel, Assistant Superintendent, Passenger Services, told the group that he cannot support expansion of the Sunset into Florida as Amtrak does not encourage Florida service at this time. (emphasis added) Jim also told the group that he cannot encourage something that Amtrak does not support. The SMART group understood Jim’s position and Jim excused himself from the meeting. A lively discussion ensued regarding very strong rumors:

1) Amtrak was encouraging Sunset service to Jacksonville, Florida rather then Orlando. Jacksonville service seems to be attractive and favored by the group as direct service from Jacksonville south is in place.
2) An Amtrak route change in Texas may be in the works and several people in the group believe that in fact that may happen in the near future.

Sometimes rumors do have a basis and I guess time will tell. After this topic the group spent some time dealing with membership and how to grow the organization and what would be a model for this group to follow. From there the group decided how to best advocate calling on local officials, chamber of commerce and so on. It was then decided that the next meeting will be held again in New Orleans because of location and the date will be the last weekend of May. It is my strong wish and desires that this fine group of people will achieve their goals and grow as an organization. They have a lot of work to do.

Trip Report: When I first made plans to attend the Smart meeting I planned on taking the Sunset Limited from Palm Springs Wednesday, March 26, at 5:06 P.M., which would arrive in New Orleans Friday, March 28 at 4: PM. No roomettes were available, and only one bedroom for a cost of $1300 (One way) was available, and that price made it unavailable to me. After checking I found that a tour group had booked all of the sleeping car space. I even checked late in the day March 26, and still no roomettes. I had already made my round trip reservations on South West Air Lines and flew into New Orleans. Due to illness I did in fact take the Sunset back home, booking a roomette back to Palm Springs. It was a very enjoyable restful trip.

My car attendant Ken, who I have met before, provided excellent service. The dining car crew, especially John, took very good care of me and the food was very good. When I told the staff why I went to New Orleans and that I wanted to take the Sunset from Palm Springs, March 26 but no bedrooms were available because a tour group had reserved all available sleeping car space, they all laughed. I was told that the tour group WAS A NO SHOW! All of the sleeping car space was empty on the Sunset #2 departing Los Angeles March 26! Not Nice!

The Sunset Limited crosses the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River departing NOUPT, in this photo from the Sightseer Lounge.
In any event the return trip home riding on the Sunset Limited in a roomette was very pleasant. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were enjoyable. I had the hen for dinner the first night and it was good. Being able to eat was nice and I cannot say enough about the dining car staff and just meeting nice people on the train. By the second day the toilets in my car would not flush and that was a problem. However the Texas Eagle had attached to our train and the bedroom attendant on that train, Lloyd Berry whomI have met many times before, placed me in one of the rooms in his car after consulting with the conductor. Lloyd Berry is very conscientious and my new room was very clean. The next morning when I got up from a very good nights sleep, the train was paralleling the Salton Sea, which is not too far from Palm Springs. I then met with the two conductors Dan and Fred who would take the train into Los Angeles. I have met both of these conductors many times before and have always had a very enjoyable trip when they were in charge. I went to the diner for breakfast and enjoyed my oatmeal, biscuit, peach yogurt and very good coffee. The Sunset arrived into the Palm Springs Station at 7:30 AM, less than an hour late!

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