Traveling by Amtrak from Sacramento to Tucson before and after the May 7 Schedule Change

Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC

My wife left on the morning of March 15 for a flight out of Sacramento to Tucson AZ for several days to visit our daughter. The Sunset Limited schedule was something we had discussed in passing during the planning since she prefers rail travel to flying as long as it is reasonably convenient. Because of the 3 PM Los Angeles departure eastbound we knew the only reasonable connection from Sacramento was via San Joaquin 702 and the bus trip over the Grapevine. Before going any further, this option was vetoed because, short of national emergency, she refuses to travel via the Bakersfield bus connections any longer. Although the Amtrak buses are fairly nice as buses go and we have used them from time to time in the past, she has just had enough of the extra luggage transfers, the long walk at LAUS and 2-3 hours in an uncomfortable bus seat, especially when traveling alone. We did not get to the point of even checking fares or the specific days of operation.

Given the restoration of normal thru connections after the May 7 schedule adjustment, I decided to check the actual details of Amtrak travel both before and after the change just for information. It quickly became evident that the Yield Management team had been working overtime and the common sense team had been on vacation, at least for part of the information available on the Amtrak website.

From the common sense perspective, the explanation for days of operation east of Los Angeles was completely lacking on the reservations screens. As an experienced Amtrak traveler it still took me several passes through the reservation process to figure out that the computer interprets the requested departure date from Sacramento as the absolute governing factor (as opposed to suggesting the next day’s travel date) and thus shows the only possible connection to the next day’s Sunset as being the Capitol Corridor evening departure, the red-eye overnight bus to Santa Barbara and the Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles with a 5 1/2 hour layover to the Sunset departure at 3 PM. This combination is patently ridiculous for nearly all travelers, and there is no mention of the fact that the Sunset only operates on certain days and that the logical connection is San Joaquin 702 at 6:40 the next morning with a 30 minute connection to the Sunset in LA. Such is the difference between a computer and a real person using common sense designing an itinerary.

Also in the unnecessarily complex and useless category of computer thinking, is it really necessary to show two completely separate itineraries from Tucson to Sacramento depending on which of the two buses one takes between Stockton and Sacramento? This difference is not a real choice since the drivers sort passengers to the best bus before boarding and the blitz of information would be modestly reduced without it.

Compared to a near low end air fare of $413 round trip with one plane change, Amtrak coach fares ranged from just over $200 to over $300 for the round trip with some significant bus-train-bus transfers required north of Los Angeles on some options. The Starlight connection was reasonably priced for the dates checked and directions it was available. The vast array of pricing points was a bit intimidating and it was obvious that the Eagle coach seats were more precious than the Sunset coach seats on the common portion of the route as they were consistently offered at a significantly higher price. Here again, common sense would suggest that the seat inventory be held off-line with the lower priced seats being offered first instead of creating clutter with a completely separate itinerary block of more expensive identical seats that nobody would ever choose. Pricing for a roomette ranged from $96 to $287 and many points in between. The lower-end pricing is doable if available but the upper end pricing puts train travel out of the running compared to flying.

Compared to the airline fare structures which are also stepped on yield management, figuring an Amtrak trip after the May schedule change was vastly more complicated, particularly if booking a roomette on the overnight portion. As just one example, several third-party websites show convenient airline listings by price where it was very easy to see how much savings accrued from a 5 AM departure vs. a 7 AM departure vs. a noon departure. The price disparity can be significant, but we settled on the 7 AM penalty of only $9 as being worth an extra two hours of sleep. That being said, it was possible to set up a hypothetical Amtrak itinerary a couple of months out that included travel via the Starlight both ways and a roomette east of Los Angeles using Senior fares for only slightly more cost than the air travel that was used on this trip, and this option will be considered in the future. Travel time is a full day longer in each direction, but with only one reasonably direct transfer in Los Angeles each way the extra time would not normally be a problem and the stop at Benson rather than Tucson would cut nearly an hour off the pickup time required for our actual destination. Station times in Arizona will also be much more reasonable after the May schedule change and compare very favorably to the pre-dawn checkin required to obtain reasonable air fares.

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