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Sunset Limited Marketing Meeting

Reported by Robert Manning, RailPAC Director, with comments by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President.
Wednesday June 10, 2009
I have just arrived home after attending the Sunset Marketing and Revitalization Team meeting which was held June 6, 2009 in New Orleans, LA. I should remind everyone that this SMART (not to be confused with the Sonoma-Marin project) came into existence for the following reasons:

  • 1. To insure the survival of Amtrak’s oldest named train the SUNSET LIMITED.
  • 2. To move the Sunset Limited to a daily train.
  • 3. To restore Sunset Limited service from New Orleans back to Florida.
  • A detailed report of the meeting was reported by SMART member Richard Wright (his report is repeated at the end of this post), who wrote an excellent report on what the speakers said at the meeting but, I would like to add two comments.

      First: Numerous people asked what Mr. Richard Phelps (Amtrak Vice President of Transportation) actually said regarding the ordering of Superliner equipment. Mr. Phelps simply identified the need for ordering a large quantity of bi-level Superliner style equipment as that type of equipment is preferable for the west coast long distance type of service.
      My second comment is service restoration from New Orleans to Florida. The SMART group as a resolution went on record demanding daily service only from New Orleans, back to Florida. Several proposals were offered including thrice weekly service, extending the City of New Orleans to Orlando and maybe adding new service.

    The “attention getter” was the three day a week service. Three days a week service disenfranchises the passenger, is fiscally irresponsible and does not make logical sense. If we are attempting to make the Sunset Limited a daily train for all of the right reasons, why even consider three day a week service back to Florida.
    Robert Manning, RailPAC Director

    Further comment from Paul Dyson, RailPAC President:

    We all need to listen carefully and report what was said, not what we want to hear. (Good work, Bob). While Amtrak may (and should be) reviewing the need for additional Superliners there has been no decision made to place an order. RailPAC’s call for an immediate large order for Superliner style equipment for California and other corridor service as well as the overnight trains still stands and it is vital that we keep up the pressure until this happens.

    While there are as many opinions about how to reconfigure the Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans as there are RailPAC members, Bob and I agree that the priority is to establish daily service as quickly as possible based on the plan Brian Rosenwald and the Amtrak team put together. That’s not to say that we give them unqualified support. It’s simply that now is the moment to make something happen and we cannot delay the process with further debate. And back to the rolling stock issue, the options that we really want, daily through service on all routes including to Florida, are not available because of the lack of cars. We will watch to see how the service operates and make suggestions for fine tuning in the months ahead, but first we must get the operation started.

    RailPAC will be putting together a resolution which we and you, our members and supporters, will be taking to counties, cities, chambers of commerce and other interest groups supporting daily service. We need you to get involved in this issue, including individual letters to Mr. Boardman, to make it happen. Watch this website for more details.
    Paul Dyson 6/10/09

    Amtrak Sunset/Eagle report from New Orleans June 7, 2009
    Posted by patlynch in Amtrak, Regional USA Transportation. The following item appeared on an internet discussion group and is reproduced here, with permission. My thanks to Richard Wright.

    Good news is that the Sunset west of New Orelans is probably headed for a significant upgrade, as is the Eagle, which serves my hometown, Little Rock. The bad news is that the restoration of service east of New Orleans is very likely two or three years away.

    Mr Richard Phelps spoke first. He made it clear Mr. Boardman is a strong believer in an improved Amtrak with a strong emphasis on “connectivity. ” He made it clear they are aware there is a railroad “west of DC.”

    The have found from experience that when freight railroads run Amtrak trains on time their freight schedules improve, and this helps in selling Amtrak timeliness to the freight railroads.

    If freight railroads do not meet an 80% on time performance level for Amtrak trains the government can and will take action.

    For the latest reporting period the Sunset Limited had the best on-time performance of any train in the country.

    They are currently looking at the possibility of reinstating the Hiawatha and Pioneer as well as has been previously reported.

    They are looking at ordering new superliners as well as viewliners. (This apparently puts to rest the rumor of mass abandonment of large areas of the country due to no new superliners being ordered.)

    There are two projects being looked at for service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. One being a private consortium that would provide equipment, but Amtrak would operate. They apparently are well funded. There are problems which must be worked out though. However, Amtrak is also looking a reinstatement of that same service via a “Desert-Wind- type” service. Initial planning only has service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but continuation on to Salt Lake City as did the Desert Wind is both possible and logical.

    Superliners are preferable to viewliners due to longer-lasting construction, and just generally works better in service.

    Viewliners will be looked at for shorter routes preferably for day runs.

    Any cars ordered will require 3-1/2 to 4 years from order to acquisition. If the order is large enough (100 minimum roughly) time could be cut to about 2-1/2 years. They expect to place a large order which should cut the time to the latter time frame.

    The damaged cars in Beech Grove will be rehabbed. The biggest questions about them is where they will go. They could go on current routes to expand service or be used for new service. Those decisions simply have not been made.

    Word from VP Biden coming from Pres Obama is that funding will continue for Amtrak at a priority level. They have promised a commitment to passenger rail.

    Mr. Phelps felt that this is a great time to approach the Union Pacific about increasing service on the Sunset/Eagle routes.

    Todd Stennis was to have spoken to us about the Sunset Limited east of NOLA. Unfortunately due to a family medical situation he was unable to attend. John read a report from Todd. The report basically said precisely what has already been reported from the meeting in Birmingham. We have three options.

    Todd Stennis has spoken with every mayor or city leader along the Sunset route about these options.

    1 – Resume the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Orlando. That is the cheapest method. However, Amtrak confirmed that this means a tri-weekly schedule with possibly a long wait for a daily train. There is no correlation between the daily service west of New Orleans and service east of New Orleans. In other words with use of option 1 we would have a situation where only three days a week would people be able to continue on to Orlando with that option. Daily service east of New Orleans would be a matter for another decision, and could take some time. No new equipment needed.

    2 – Running the City of New Orleans from Chicago via New Orleans to Orlando. This route picks up the most potential passengers, and has the best effect on revenue. Would require a total of two sets.

    3 – Running a brand-new train from New Orleans to Orlando. This is the most popular option of city leaders along the route (probably due to most likelihood of on-time performance) , and is the most expensive option. Service is not definite, but would not include first class immediately. Would also require a total of two sets.

    I spoke with Mr. Rosenwald during a break, and he says he does not know which option will be recommended by Todd and the other planners so we will have to wait until that is announced. Their report will be made within days though.

    SMART went on record officially as supporting a daily option so by extension that means option 1 is not a viable alternative for SMART members to support due to tri-weekly service.

    I also spoke with Mr. Rosenwald during break about the time frame of all of these options. He told me there is no difference in time. Any one of the three will require from 2-1/2 years to 3 years in all likelihood – even the return of the transcontinental tri-weekly Sunset Limited. He said it’s not equipment, but training for the crews. In spite of the fact that it was formerly a route it’s been abandoned for some time. I will leave it up to Amtrak people with the expertise to explain that any further.

    Brian Rosenwald spoke to us about the Sunset Limited west of New Orleans. First of all he is working on six routes right now, the Sunset, Empire Builder, Lincoln Service, Lake Shore, Adirondack and Crescent for improvements.

    They are looking at numerous aspects of each. For example on the Sunset things such menus, special dishes and china versus plastic is being studied. They’re looking at restrooms, and essentially anything that affects passenger comfort and convenience.

    One thing he made very clear is that nothing they do with the Sunset/Eagle west of New Orleans will in any way harm the plans for the service east of new Orleans. Whatever is finally decided for this service they will connect with it. The two items are simply being worked on by different groups, but they they will work together when decisions are made.

    One recurring theme is that daily service is a must. Tri-weekly service is simply unworkable for reasons we all know.

    They expect 115,000 more riders annually on daily service.

    Daily service is expected to move the Sunset from dead last in revenue versus cost to right in the middle of the pack.

    As we already know the combination of the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle into one train between Los Angeles and Chicago is a near certainty. The train remains unnamed at this point. It will be daily and full service. They intend to make it a premier train. The reason is simply revenue. Far more passengers will be reached on that route versus the Sunset route.

    The San Antonio layovers will be eliminated both directions with no more than 90 minutes each way.

    The route between San Antonio will be serviced by a “stub” train consisting of coaches with one being divided into business class with attendant and amenities, and diner cafe. Future improvement will depend on ridership. There is great optimism the train will flourish. This train also remains unnamed.

    This new route consist is expected to result in many millions in revenue which will make it very lucrative for Amtrak.

    There will be a later departure for the Sunset to connect with the Coast Starlight. Exact schedules are not set definitely, but there is a general feeling that most of the cities will be served at more convenient times once the final schedule is “tweaked.”

    This should result in an improvement of about 25% in cost recovery.

    This new routing for both Los Angeles – Chicago and San Antonio -New Orleans will require seven sets. Essentially all the equipment being used today on these two routes will be pooled, and then new consists will be developed to make this routing work.

    This could literally happen within six months. No guarantee, but they’re looking at sooner rather than later.

    The Los Angeles consist will leave with a splittable train just as is done now with the Sunset/Eagle. The “stub” train will be split off at San Antonio while the main train will continue to Chicago. Both will be daily.

    Passengers will be able to go first-class from Los Angeles to Chicago. Those going Los Angeles to New Orleans will be able to go first-class from Los Angeles to San Antonio and business-class from San Antonio to New Orleans. It’s recognized that this is not optimal, but it’s felt most passengers will be accepting.

    They are considering pulling superliners from the City of New Orleans and replacing them with viewliners to free up superliners. This is only being looked at, but seems logical at this time.

    One caveat that was mentioned throughout all presentations is that all of this is contingent upon funding continuing to be available. Currently there seems to be excellent support for supporting and expanding Amtrak, however, Congress has to act, and everyone is aware of the budget crisis.

    The only real bad news is simply that we cannot expect a train running from New Orleans to Orlando in less than three years regardless of the recommendation made for the option. Mr. Rosenwald seemed pretty firm on that. That will mean around seven years without a train through North Florida. However, we can balance that with the news that getting that service is almost a certainty. We simply have to have patience. (No one is more unhappy with that than am I. I’ve waiting four years for a train in Pensacola, and it appears it will be three more now.)

    Mr. Rosenwald admitted that Amtrak did not handle the Sunset situation as well as they could have, but we all are aware of the various problems that Amtrak faces, and much of it is simply beyond their control, and we all know much of it has to do with funding.

    I very much enjoyed the Amtrak presentations, and personally really appreciated them taking their time to speak to us.