Commentary, Issues

Amtrak changes the Sunset Limited schedule: Positives, Negatives, and they agreed to WHAT?

Analysis and Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

From out of the blue, so to speak, on March 13 came an Amtrak News Release from New Orleans, not Washington DC, saying a new schedule for the Sunset Limited would take effect on May 7, 2012. This new schedule will have major impacts all along its route, affecting the travel plans for riders. Those who already have summer reservations are in for a surprise, but will be notified of the changes. Amtrak says these changes “are expected to increase ridership and revenue, and reduce crew layover costs.” We shall see. Oh, daily service? Forget that. It’s still tri-weekly, just as it has been since the Southern Pacific converted it from daily in the 1960’s, and Amtrak has continued it since 1971. Does this new schedule look familiar? It should, it’s basically the same one that existed before 2005 with the departure of #2 from Los Angeles at 10 PM, and #1 from New Orleans moved back to 9 AM.

The Positives. 1) Connectivity. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, reminds us that it has been a long time goal of the organization to improve connectivity for all trains, but particularly to restore the connection from the southbound Coast Starlight to the eastbound Sunset Limited at Los Angeles. This schedule change does that, and we commend Amtrak for finally accomplishing it. They must have confidence that the Starlight will arrive at Los Angeles Union Station close to on time. In February and March, 2012, train #11 has arrived at LAUS later than the 9 PM scheduled arrival time only 4 times. Three of those were later than 10:00 (one didn’t arrive until the next morning), and all the others arrived early, in the 8:00 hour. Remember, though, that this has been a relatively mild winter on the West Coast. What Amtrak doesn’t say is the new schedule also restores reliable connectivity to eastbound train #2 from the Los Angeles arrivals of San Joaquin train/buses 702, 712, and 714. More on that in a separate article by writer Ralph James. Connectivity to the northbound Coast Starlight or San Joaquins is unchanged, as current times have been acceptable.

2) Equipment utilization. By changing the departure day for westbound train #1 from New Orleans from Friday to Saturday one less trainset will be necessary to operate the route. That means an arrival in Los Angeles on Monday morning rather than Sunday, while all other arrival and departure days at both ends remain as they now are. The question is, what will they do with the now available “saved” cars? Andrew C. Selden comments that “The cars ‘saved’ from the Sunset pool sound like one set. Those aren’t enough cars to add even one car-line to any long-distance train, so those cars will either go into a daily regional train like the Heartland Flyer or a KC-STL train, or be put into reserve service as bad-order protection cars. The Empire Builder, for example, on the current pattern of turning 7 to 8 on the same day at Seattle, requires five sets, so adding a single car-line requires at least five and maybe six identical cars (say, sleepers, with the sixth car for protection, or as a maintenance cycle deal) just to add one car to each train. The Sunset’s “saved” cars don’t add up to enough to do even that. Maybe someone figured out to add a Chicago-Denver sleeper to 5 and 6, but that’s about all you could do with those cars. Paul Dyson was dead on when he said we need a thousand cars; my point is simply that a thousand cars is a start, not a program.” Gene Poon says, “The problem is that Amtrak needs those cars just to keep running in place, with what they ran last summer. So much for growth.”

3) “Improvement” at San Antonio. Amtrak says “the change will significantly reduce the layover for through passengers (on the Texas Eagle) at San Antonio by more than seven hours for eastbound passengers and three hours for westbound passengers when railcars are exchanged between the Sunset Limited and the Texas Eagle.” There are no changes in the arrival or departure times of the Texas Eagle there, so westbound passengers in the Eagle Sleeper and Coach will now wait from 10:00 PM (or earlier as often happens) until 2:45 AM, five hour of sleepless waiting while the cars are shuffled unmercifully from one train to the other, and northbound Eagle passengers will wait from 4:50 AM until train #21 departs at 7:00. That is a seven hour improvement, but is it enough time to do the “shuffle” if the incoming Sunset is late? Sunset Limited #1 will now arrive from New Orleans at Midnight, and depart at the bad time of 2:45 AM, and #2 will depart San Antonio for New Orleans at 6:25 AM, a very reasonable time and better than the current Midnight. A mixed bag. If only we could have had those SP/UP track improvements that would have eliminated the 2-mile backup movement and hand-thrown switches when departing that station.

The Negatives. 1) The early morning arrival of westbound train #1 into Los Angeles Union Station. Is 5:35 AM too early? Some say it isn’t, based on historic patterns of airline departures, and the train’s historic arrival times prior to 2005. What is disturbing is the extra schedule padding that could put the train into LAUS at 4:30 AM if it is “on time,” as it has been frequently. In February and March, 2012, the train has been early five times. Amtrak says, “Arriving Train #1 sleeping car passengers at Los Angeles will be invited to remain aboard the train until 6:30 AM.” We hope they convince the crews that this will happen.

2) Palm Springs will be a big loser, as the arrival time eastbound will become 12:35 AM instead of 5:35 PM, and the westbound schedule shows 2:02 AM instead of 4:54 AM. Historic timetables, including the SP days, had the westbound train arriving in the Coachella Valley in the 3 or 4 AM hours. Will riders who are now used to the current schedule accept going back to those days? Paul Dyson says, “The effective loss of service (at reasonable hours) to Palm Springs is a big negative but could go either way. We should use this to galvanize support for a corridor train to Indio or beyond to start in 2014, which is probably as soon as it could get done.” The newly instituted bus-train service connecting with the north and southbound Pacific Surfliners at Fullerton will become the primary intercity service out there. As Trainweb’s Steve Grande says, “All I know is that these time changes still don’t allow any way for me to come out to Palm Springs for the day, even trying to use this schedule in combination with the new bus connection. None of this is really useful for getting tourists to Coachella Valley until there is some way to get out to Palm Springs or the casinos in the morning and then get back to Los Angeles / Orange County in the evening.” Bruce Richardson says, “All this means is they are going back to historic schedules, which Amtrak departed from to intentionally break connections and not have to pay passengers for missed connections.”

3) The new Tucson and Phoenix (Maricopa) times “make possible an attractive next morning arrival” to/from Los Angeles, with the westbound #1 Tucson departures of 7:30 PM and Maricopa at 9:02 PM. The eastbound schedule has #2 departing Maricopa at 5:40 AM and Tucson at 8:15 AM. Wait a minute, that means Phoenix riders will have to travel the 30-some miles to Maricopa that early and that’s an improvement? Tucson is definitely helped, but according to a recent rider, conductors were telling passengers that they were on a full train arriving into Tucson and Maricopa with many passengers getting off, and would be departing both cities with all seats occupied by new riders. And Amtrak says one of its goals is to improve ridership to those cities? Nothing will be improved there unless additional capacity, more cars, are added to the tri-weekly trains, and we know that won’t happen. Perhaps they are counting on fewer passengers wanting to travel to/from California in the middle of the night?

And they agreed to WHAT? Although it isn’t in the Amtrak News Release, Trains magazine’s Bob Johnston reported that in the agreement with the Union Pacific to change the schedule, “Amtrak would not pursue a daily Sunset or propose any non-state supported trains on UP trackage for two years.” RailPAC has confirmed this is true, but the ban only applies to the Sunset Route. While details of that bombshell are still not confirmed, Paul Dyson says “it seems to indicate possibilities after the 2 years are up and we all know that you can’t do anything in less than 2 years!” The Sunset Limited saga continues.
To see the new May 7 schedule, go here and click on the News Release.

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