Tuesday was not a good day for the Sunset Limited

Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC, Dallas

All passenger rail advocates know Amtrak’s Sunset Limited travels between New Orleans and Los Angeles three times a week in each direction. Many of us ride it. We all know that these trains run with full cars most of the route and that not everyone rides the full distance. In fact, less than 20% of the train’s riders do. When the train reaches San Antonio two cars, a sleeper and a coach, are added to the train or taken from the train to/from the Texas Eagle. Those two cars are almost always filled with riders coming from or going to the mid-West. The financial success of the Sunset Limited is constrained by its tri-weekly service, and the successful through cars from the Texas Eagle are not credited to the Sunset but belongs to the Eagle. Currently, trains 1 and 2 have an excellent on time performance, nearly 80% for the fiscal year 2013. Efforts to get daily service on the route have been unsuccessful, not that much effort has been made by Amtrak to accomplish it. The current agreement with the Union Pacific is that Amtrak will not even bring up the subject of daily service for another year, or when the railroad’s double tracking project between Los Angeles and El Paso is completed. That is a good idea, but does Amtrak plan to re-introduce the idea with the UP? They may not have to.

Then came Tuesday, June 10, 2014. This writer was watching CSPAN while the U.S. House of Representatives passed its Appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Prior to the vote several last minute amendments were offered on the floor that were not in the original bill coming out of the committee run by Mr. Tom Latham (R-IA). One, by Mr. Pete Sessions (R-TX) called for the elimination of the funds for Amtrak’s “subsidy.” That one was rejected, and was opposed by Mr. Latham. Two others, however, were approved and are in the final bill: One by Mr. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) again calls for the elimination of Amtrak’s “subsidy” for Food & Beverage service. The other, which is more germane to this discussion, again by Mr. Sessions, mandates that Amtrak eliminate its route that loses the most money. Pete Sessions made it clear that meant the Sunset Limited. Yes, a Texan opposes a train that runs through his state, but not his district. Mr. Latham did not oppose these two amendments. And so stands the potential fate of the dining cars, future long distance ridership, and specifically the New Orleans to Los Angeles train that has traveled that route for close to 100 years. Andrew C. Selden says, “If the diners go, so will the sleepers, because average trips span four or more meal periods. Many of course are much longer. If the sleepers go, so does the core economics of the long distance network, so soon all of these trains will be at risk of discontinuance.”

True, the U.S. Senate bill will not contain those two line items, the amounts of money for Amtrak differ greatly, and the two bills will have to go to a conference committee where the real bargaining will take place. In the past Amtrak and rail advocates could count on the Congress to compromise and these two items could be modified or eliminated. This year that may not be possible. In the current makeup of the Congress the mood to compromise on anything is nearly gone. Does Amtrak have the will to stand up and fight for its Food & Beverage service or its “biggest money loser route?” Does Amtrak plan on letting the Sunset Limited disappear just as they let other western long distance routes like the Pioneer and the Desert Wind become extinct? Are they so afraid of the Congress that getting rid of the annoyance of having this train be a target is more important than standing up for it so they can concentrate on the real business of the Northeast Corridor? They also must cope with the well organized battle to retain the Southwest Chief, preferably on its current route but possibly re-routed on the BNSF. Right now it looks like Amtrak management is not forcefully standing up for that train either and are content to let the affected states pay up to support a national system train.

Passage of the Appropriations bill with those two provisions was not all that happened on Tuesday, June 10. Primary elections were held in several states, including Virginia where the sitting Majority Leader of the U.S. House, Eric Cantor, was denied the nomination to run for re-election. The battle now begins to see who will become the new Leader. Several names have already been mentioned, including the current number two Mr. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) from Bakersfield. Others will come forward who want that top job, and perhaps that number two job in the House below the Speaker. Mr. Cantor will step down in July and the election to succeed him will be June 19. Two potential candidates for those jobs are Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) and Pete Sessions. Yes, the same Mr. Sessions who introduced those amendments that would go a long way to cripple the Amtrak long distance trains. Both are guaranteed re-election to their seats. If Sessions is the incoming Majority Leader do you see any way that he would let himself be embarrassed by having his provision eliminated from this bill? Or, if McCarthy, Hensarling, Gingrey, or any of their soul-mate colleagues are selected? Would President Obama veto this bill over such items? Hardly. The answer is to get those two items out of the bill.

Who will take a leadership role in fighting to preserve the long distance trains, and specifically the Sunset Limited? The National Association of Railroad Passengers is the logical place for such a campaign, but history has shown that NARP has not been willing to take on tasks like this. This writer is going to do all I can to call attention to the potential destruction of the national network of trains that are so important to the future of transportation in the country. Will NARP take a measure of how lukewarm Amtrak management is to having these items eliminated and do as it usually does by sacrificing good things for the continuance of the company as a whole? It took NARP eight years to stand up for restoration of the New Orleans to Florida section of the Sunset Limited and you can see how unsuccessful they have been at getting Amtrak to change its mind about that issue. RailPAC is going to be up to its neck in state issues like the last minute amendment in the same bill that Mr. Jeff Denham (R-CA) placed eliminating federal funds for the California High Speed Rail Project. While RailPAC supports the long distance trains, they rightly should leave the campaign for preservation of the Sunset Limited to the “National” Association of Railroad Passengers. This writer urges readers to communicate not only with their political structure, but also to put pressure on NARP to take ACTION!

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