Sunset Limited: One month on the new schedule

Report and Comments by Russ Jackson, RailPAC Photos!

How is Amtrak’s Sunset Limited doing since the schedule change on May 7, 2012, for the tri-weekly service which dates back to the pre-Amtrak days when the Southern Pacific reduced its departures from daily in the late 1960’s. The new schedule has train #2 depart Los Angeles Union Station at 10 PM on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. Train #1 is scheduled to arrive at LAUS at 5:35 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Restoring connections from the Coast Starlight and the San Joaqins has been beneficial and enhanced revenue even though already nearly-sold-out trains have not resulted in consist expansion to meet increasing demand.

This couple is boarding a Sunset Limited-Texas Eagle sleeping car bound for Texas on the platform at LAUS (file photo by Noel Braymer)

Here are actual arrival times for #1 at Los Angeles during the early part of the first month of the new schedule: 6:24, 4:28, 5:54, 4:35, 4:27, 5:18, 6:16, 6:31, 5:25, 4:49, and 5:30. Train #1 that arrived on May 14 only 19 minutes late was four hours late at one point due to a freight train derailment it encountered just outside New Orleans, so there is still much padding in the schedule. Metrolink had little interference to worry about during rush hour, with the Sunset Limited not breaking Metrolink’s rule of no arrivals by Amtrak between 6:30 and 8:30 AM and they want the equipment out of Union Station by 7:00. For the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2011, the trains were on time 79.9% at endpoints, but this FY is a bit different, as in April, 2012, the combined #1-2 was OT just 57.7%. For comparison we found the on time statistic for the 15 major airlines at Dallas-Ft. Worth was 84% for the first three months of this year.

The big exception to good on time performance happened when train #1 of June 2 arrived at LAUS at 8:08 PM, 14 hours 33 minutes late, and train #2 of June 1 arrived in Houston at 7:12 PM, 31 hours 16 minutes late because the Union Pacific had put 10 cars of a TTX train “on the ground” in Hudspeth County, east of El Paso, which affected single track traffic in both directions and caused Amtrak to do some passenger busing from El Paso, but El Paso did not have enough buses available so some had to come from Albuquerque!

The Sunset Limited at El Paso, Texas (file photo by Russ Jackson)

On the days train #1 arrived early in LAUS, Gene Poon reported that “sleeping car passengers were allowed to stay on board until 6:30, as the timetable says. Most of them did. Seems like the sleeper passengers are getting their money’s worth.” As for the Union Pacific, Poon says they seem to be running more freight trains between Los Angeles and Tucson, which is still mostly single tracked east of Palm Springs, resulting in potential problems later. The double track from Tucson to El Paso has Amtrak running mostly OT between those cities. As for the El Paso based crews that brings train #1 to Maricopa, they get flown home now, and the El Paso crew that will take train #2 that departs LAUS on Sundays is flown into Phoenix and taxied to Maricopa. That doesn’t sound like a money saving situation.

Train #2, the eastbound train, fared almost as well in its journey. RailPAC’s Robert Manning rode the on time May 9 departure from LAUS, but because of Texas tornado damage between San Antonio and Houston he arrived in New Orleans 2 hours and 9 minutes late. See his story on New Orleans mechanical forces were short-staffed for a while but have generally maintained the new overnight departure schedule which was designed to save expenses of crew lay-overs and free up one trainset, and while we have not been able to ascertain where that trainset’s cars are re-assigned, it is apparent there will be no problem with adding a third sleeping car to the California Zephyr this summer.

Sunset Limited #2 arrives at Maricopa, AZ (file photo by Richard Strandberg)

A big hang-up for train #2 has been the Maricopa, Arizona stop, the “station” for Phoenix and a crew change location. While train #1 is now scheduled to stop there at about 9PM, train #2 is scheduled at 5:30 am after its overnight run from Los Angeles. That time is the beginning of rush hour for folks living there who work in Phoenix, Chandler, Mesa, Tempe or the vicinity on its arrival days of Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. How did train #2 do at that location since the new schedule started?: 5:44, 6:12, 6:24, 6:26, 5:50, 5:38, 5:16, 5:43, 6:53, 5:44, 6:13, and 5:55. When the State Highway 347 crossing gates are down the train can sit there for anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes with two or three platform stops not unusual, all of them blocking SR 347. A photo on the site showed hundreds of vehicles backed up from the 347 crossing. The city is calling for a new station at city-owned Estrella (cotton) Gin property a few blocks west of the current site that will not require crossings to be blocked, and they have the attention of the State, Amtrak, and the UP who agree “something must be done.” In fiscal year 2011 9,819 train riders used the Maricopa station and generated $1,102,255 in revenue to Amtrak. While that is far less than what Phoenix generated when the train directly served that city, the new schedule was adjusted to help improve those figures in Arizona.

The most recent UP track improvement is east of Tucson. This is the west end of the new alignment that eliminates the old track that crossed I-10 (photo by Richard Strandberg)

Are passengers happy with the new schedule? Certainly the ones that want to go to/from Palm Springs by train are not. The 12:30 AM #2 arrival from Los Angeles is doable, and those riders can take the new daytime Amtrak buses at Palm Springs that require riding a Pacific Surfliner at Fullerton, then take the train back from Los Angeles after a long day. Complaints at LAUS about the early arrival continue when riders have to wait any length of time, according to Gene Poon. And, most businesses inside the station are still closed when this train arrives. It will take time for procedures to be ironed out, and we are confident they will be as much as possible. Comment: Many of the problems could be solved with train #1’s schedule adjusted to spend an extra hour before departing San Antonio. But, the UP has said “no talk” about the Sunset Limited for two more years. And, they mean it. So does Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman, who doesn’t want anything more to do with trains 1 and 2. According to Fred Frailey’s excellent article in the July Trains magazine, this new schedule is “a fig leaf that covers a teeny bit of embarrassment.”

The loneliest station on the Sunset route is Sanderson, TX, a flag stop and former crew change locaction (file photo by Richard Strandberg)

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