Arizona and passenger rail: Now and in the exciting future

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson, PHOTOS by Russ Jackson, Mike Palmer, Bill Lindley.
We all know that two major transcontinental railroads have crossed the state of Arizona for over 100 years, built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in the north and the Southern Pacific across the southern route. Today the AT&SF is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the SP route is owned by the Union Pacific. Passenger trains have always been a part of the state’s railroad picture from the days of Fred Harvey and the tourist trains that brought winter visitors to the state. Amtrak operates the daily Southwest Chief across the BNSF and the tri-weekly Sunset Limited on the UP, but is there a chance for increasing that level of service? Not likely, what with the current hard-nosed attitude that exists at the freight railroads and Amtrak’s reluctance to challenge it. What the UP and BNSF do is run the current passenger schedules quite efficiently; trains 1 and 2 ran 66% on time at end points on the UP in the fiscal year 2011 which ended September 30, 2012, and 92.3% in the month of October, 2012. Trains 3 and 4 were at 80% for the FY and 91.9% on time on the BNSF in October.

In the fiscal year 2011, Arizona riders supported long-distance passenger rail quite well. The Sunset Limited brought Amtrak almost $4 million of revenue from its four Arizona stations despite the tri-weekly schedule. The Southwest Chief’s state revenues were just over $9 million. Just think how much more revenue Amtrak would have had with daily service on 1 and 2! The largest revenue and number of passengers was at the Flagstaff station (photo left) which over 41,000 riders used, and it generated over $5 million of revenue for Amtrak. Tucson was second with over $2 million and 23,896 riders, Kingman was third with $1.6 million and 10,700 riders, Williams Jct. was fourth with $1.3 million and 7,487 riders, and Maricopa, the station that poses as the station for the entire Phoenix metro area was fifth with $1.1 million and almost 11,000 riders. (Statistics courtesy Great American Stations). The smaller stations of Benson (photo right), Winslow and Yuma did well considering their size. RailPAC correspondent Ralph James’ wife has boarded the Coast Starlight in Sacramento twice this year on trips that connected with the Sunset Limited in Los Angeles for her destination of Benson, Arizona. She has been very pleased with that restored Amtrak connection and the service on board, as well as the on time performance and meals on both trains.

Phoenix Union Station, now abandoned.
What is hugely disappointing is that the Phoenix area, which has 3,255,500 population and its metro market ranks 14th in the country (Arbitron figures), continues to have only distant train service and no dedicated connecting bus service to/from the Sunset Limited, but the Southwest Chief does and the ridership-revenue figures at Flagstaff reflect that! Obviously direct service back into Phoenix and daily service on 1 and 2 are still high priorities, but Amtrak is not interested in pursuing these goals, at least not under its current agreement with the UP, and there is not much likely to happen from the state financially. Adding an additional passenger train on the BNSF “Transcon” line is likely to get the same negative response.

Historic Tucson SP depot has been restored, with a night club, market, rail museum, and a farmers market.

Yes, Arizona is (fairly) well served for east-west train travel. But, the north-south corridor between Tucson and Phoenix is still not connected by rail, and highway traffic on Interstate 10 continues to grow and grow and grow to where it is jammed just about every hour of every day. A third lane in each direction is under construction in some areas, but some say it will not help much as the development growth along the route will exceed that capacity by the time it is completed. The corridor population can double in the next 30 years, and the trip could be 5 hours instead of the 2 now. So, what to do, Arizonans? The distance by rail is close to the length of the Los Angeles to San Diego route. Surprisingly, Arizona leaders are considering rail alternatives, and are coming up with some interesting ideas in a $6.3 million study. ADOT, the Arizona Department of Transportation, will select a preferred route next year, and while no money is yet available the planning has begun and public meetings are being held. The ADOT “blueprint” has six (6!) possible routes between Phoenix and Tucson, with 3 to 11 possible stops and running times of 73 to 126 minutes. Arizona Rail Passenger Association President, Rob Bohanan, told that “They’ve gone from paying it lip service to taking it seriously. What I don’t see is anybody setting a target.”

The ADOT plan does not rely only on the current UP rail structure for all their plans! The UP, of course, is well known for its outrageous cost estimates for adding passenger service anywhere on its system, so Arizona may have to build its own rights-of-way out of the Phoenix-Tempe-Mesa area that would end up connecting to the UP main line which is soon to be fully double tracked, somewhere near Picacho. They would either use that UP line from there or build a new parallel r-o-w to Tucson. Currently the favorite route seems to be to use a new r-o-w east from Mesa paralleling US60 before curving south to Florence, which is east of the current UP line. Another possibility which this writer hopes is considered is restoring the historic line south from Tempe to Maricopa along the present SR347 highway that at one time was an SP rail line carrying Phoenix passengers who were transferring to/from SP trains in the time before the SP built the West Phoenix branch. That r-o-w largely still exists and would make possible commuting from that fast-growing town. Why not build both alternatives? RailPAC/ARPA Tucson member Richard Strandberg advocates that the new line to Maricopa be a combined freight-passenger railroad, not passenger-only, which means there would be additional revenue to support it.

A station track would have to be restored at the Tucson station.

As for financing of this ambitious project, there isn’t any money committed to it. Yet. They will be looking at new sources of public money as well as private investment. But, this rail plan has one big drawback as far as that small state is concerned, in that it could divert too many precious dollars away from needed highway projects. ARPA’s Rob Bohanan admits that money will be the big problem, “But I think this is just a matter of time. Someday, there will be a comprehensive rail system in Arizona, but will it be in my lifetime? I don’t know.” There have been studies of rail in Arizona dating back to 1980 that are collecting dust. The benefits of rail are well known, including job creation, environmental improvements to the air, and increased mobility potentials. As Mr. Bohanan says, “We need somebody to say we’ll have trains between Tucson and Phoenix by 2020!”
NOTE: Writer Russ Jackson grew up in Tucson, and spent many days with his father watching SP trains come through the Tucson depot. He is a past officer of RailPAC , edited their publication, and is a frequent contributor to and Steel Wheels. He can be reached at [email protected]