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The Prospects for Future LA-Phoenix Passenger Rail

Brian Yanity
Vice President-South, RailPAC

[this is an updated version of an article which first appeared in the Q1 2021 issue of Steel Wheels]

Los Angeles photo: © chonechones/123RF.COM; Phoenix photo: © Sean Pavone/123RF.COM; Train photo: © 4045qd/123RF.COM

The fast-growing Phoenix metropolitan area, the Valley of the Sun, is home to nearly 5 million people- two-thirds of all Arizonans. Phoenix itself has a diverse population of nearly 1.7 million within its sprawling city limits. It is both the state capitol and the seat of Maricopa County, the fourth-most populous county in the nation. While it hosts a successful and growing light-rail urban transit network, Phoenix is by far the largest city in the United States which does not have any kind of regional or intercity passenger rail. For the past two decades the nearest Amtrak station (served by the Sunset Limited) is the Maricopa Station, a 35-mile drive south of Downtown Phoenix in Pinal County.  The Sunset Limited halted service to Phoenix in 1996, after which it was diverted to run south along the Sunset Route mainline between Yuma and Tucson.

The Sunset began stopping in Maricopa in 2001, and Amtrak Thruway Bus connections from the station to Tempe and Phoenix began in 2017.  On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the eastbound train to New Orleans stops in Maricopa at 5:30 AM, while the westbound train to LA stops there at 8:52 PM Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. The Maricopa station saw 11,194 Amtrak passengers in the entire year of 2019, a very small number for a station that purports to serve a metropolitan area of 5 million.

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The Potential of the Southern California-Phoenix Corridor

There is a great potential in re-establishing a direct passenger train service between Arizona’s largest city (center of the 13th largest metro area in the U.S.) and Los Angeles, the nation’s 2nd largest metropolitan area.  A new LA-Phoenix passenger rail service could also be easily integrated with future Phoenix-Tucson passenger rail service planned by Arizona, and LA-Coachella Valley service planned in California.  The economies and trade corridors of Arizona and Southern California have long been intertwined. Every year, Southern Californians move to Arizona yet regularly come back for visits.  Conversely, many Arizonans have moved to Southern California.  The growing family and friend connections between the two regions will only grow in the years ahead. Not to mention, business and tourist travel will recover to some extent after the pandemic. The large population centers in Arizona and Southern California are concentrated in relatively small land areas (compared to the overall size of the territory), with relatively straight routes going through vast sparsely populated desert spaces between them.  All of the above-mentioned factors make restoring direct passenger rail between LA and Phoenix an attractive proposition. This would especially be true if it were fast enough to seriously compete with flying and driving.

As shown in the table below, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport saw over 2 million airplane passengers arriving from LA/OC/Inland Empire-area airports in the year ending February 2022. This is about an average of about 5,500 per day. Thousands more drive each day between Central Arizona and Southern California. Capturing just a fraction of this traffic would fill several trains’ worth of passengers per day.

Passengers travelling from LA/OC/Inland Empire-area airports to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport,
(March 2021-February 2022 FAA statistics):

Los Angeles International (LAX)732,000
Orange County (SNA)439,000
Burbank (BUR) 287,000
Ontario (ONT)261,000
Palm Springs (PSP)150,000
Long Beach (LGB)147,000
Total2,016,000
Amtrak Sunset Limited at Phoenix Union Station, circa 1980 (date and photographer unknown)

About three miles west of Sky Harbor Airport is the downtown Phoenix Union Station. The Spanish Revival-style train station was built in 1923 by the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. In 1986, the station was added to city of Phoenix’s registry of historic places. The building was purchased by Sprint Communications in 2004, who put it up for sale in June 2019. As of May 2022, any potential buyers are not publicly known. It is currently not used as a rail facility of any kind despite sitting next to track used by freight trains daily. Sprint has used the station building for housing telecom equipment, using one of the property’s two communication towers. It leases the other to Union Pacific (UP) Railroad, an agreement slated to end in March 2023. Many Phoenicians have long hoped that passenger train service will return to their historic Union Station.  Once it is serving passengers again, it could be revitalized with restaurants and other amenities to become not only a useful transportation hub but also a major economic and activity center of the city’s growing downtown. 

From downtown LA and downtown Phoenix, the driving distance via Indio on Interstate 10 is 372 miles.   To be competitive, a train journey would need to be less than the minimum 6 hours that it takes to drive. The rail distance from LA to Phoenix via the Sunset Route and Wellton Branch (all on existing rail right-of-way) is 426 miles.  To make the journey in 6 hours along this corridor, a train would have to average 71 mph. Given that the majority of route (the existing track of the Sunset Route) would be shared with UP freight trains, achieving such a high average speed is quite unlikely using the existing rail infrastructure.  The present-day Sunset Limited takes 7.5 hours to go westbound from LA to Maricopa, and 8.5 hours eastbound to LA.  According to a 1993 Amtrak schedule, the LA-Phoenix running time of Sunset Limited was 8.5 hours both ways, or an overall average speed of 50 mph over the 426 mile route. The conundrum is that the existing UP Sunset Route between Southern California and Arizona is a high-volume major freight route, with dozens of UP freight trains each day.  It is also a somewhat circuitous route, about 50 miles longer than the I-10 right-of-way between the Coachella Valley and Phoenix.  Truly high-speed rail would require a new route from the Coachella Valley eastward into Arizona along the I-10 corridor, with dedicated passenger tracks unencumbered by UP freight trains.

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Background map of population density, from Fig. 6 of Federal Railroad Administration, Southwest Multi-State Rail Planning Study, Technical Background Report, September 2014 (annotations by author)

If direct rail service along the I-10 corridor between downtown LA’s Union Station and downtown Phoenix’s Union Station were to average 150 mph, the trip could be made in 2.5 hours.  The LAX-PHX gate-to-gate flight time typically averages around an hour and a half.  Considering getting to/from airport, check-in, security, etc. time is at least an hour on each end of the flight- the total minimum time to get from downtown Phoenix to downtown LA via plane is about four hours. Weather and congestion-related flight delays are also not unheard of. So it is entirely conceivable that a train on this corridor could be faster than flying.  The experience of high speed rail around the world has shown that between city pairs with distances very similar to that between LA and Phoenix (less than 500 miles), trains averaging 150 mph or better are serious competitors to airlines. High speed rail has proven in Asia, Europe and even the Northeastern U.S. to take a significant enough bite out of the traffic market share on such corridors to cause airlines to discontinue some flights (reducing GHG emissions). Fast, frequent rail service can also stimulate new travel demand at the same time.

In 2014, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in collaboration with UP, BNSF, state and local transportation agencies, released the Southwest Multi-State Rail Planning Study. This effort involved conceptual planning of ‘high-performance rail’ interstate network connecting California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The 2014 study described the Greater LA-Phoenix Corridor as having a particularly strong demand for rail travel, and recommended it to be a “Core Express” route with frequent , electrified trains over 125 mph on new dedicated track. According to the study, in 2010 the Greater LA-Phoenix corridor had 38 million annual trips along it, or over 100,000 per day (most of which presumably were part of the way between LA and Phoenix). The 2014 report recommended a “blue-ribbon commission” to study a high-speed rail link between Southern California and Phoenix, and the establishment of a Southwest rail working group to initiate implementation of the Study’s recommendations and integrate them into existing and ongoing transportation planning efforts.

More recently, Amtrak’s Connects US plan released in spring 2021 identified Los Angeles-Palm Springs-Phoenix-Tucson services as one of the “corridors under review” to be implemented by 2035 (see map below).  Amtrak proposed to start the service as one round trip a day between Los Angeles and Tucson via Phoenix, and three round trips a day between Phoenix and Tucson. However, Amtrak has not given a budget or project timeline needed to start such a service.

Wellton Branch- the Phoenix ‘West Line’

The Wellton Branch, also known as the Wellton Cutoff or the Phoenix-West Line, is a UP-owned track which runs west from the end of the Phoenix Subdivision, west of Buckeye,  to the junction at Wellton to the mainline Sunset Route.  Historically what was the Southern Pacific’s “Wellton-Picacho Cutoff” through Phoenix is today divided into UP’s Wellton Branch to the west and the Phoenix Subdivision to the east.  Southern Pacific completed this north cutoff in 1926, primarily for Golden State and Sunset Limited passenger trains to pass directly through Phoenix.

Between Phoenix Union Station and Wellton Junction it is 137 miles of single track, with a few sidings.  Aside from a few 40-50 mph curved sections, most of the route is very straight and could presumably accommodate trains 79 mph or faster when the track is refurbished and reopened.

Southern Pacific speed limits table from 1965- listings highlighted in red show that passenger trains ran 79 mph on the Wellton Branch, aside from several short 50-60 mph sections.  Capacity of the segment was roughly 20 trains per day in the 1960s.

About 64 miles of the Wellton Branch, from east of Roll in Yuma County to west of Arlington in Maricopa County, has been out of service since 1996. Track on either end of the out-of-service segment is used by UP for storing freight cars.

The 1995 domestic terrorism incident this section of track (in which Amtrak crewmember was killed and scores injured) was not the reason for the track’s closure, as is sometimes believed. Southern Pacific, which was absorbed by Union Pacific in 1996, had been wanting to discontinue use on the line due to deteriorating track conditions. By then the Sunset Limited was practically the only train using the Wellton Branch, and service was slow and bumpy along this worn-out section of track. The Southern Pacific had requested help from the state of Arizona to refurbish the line up to standards needed to handle 79-mile-per-hour Amtrak trains. The estimated cost at the time was $27.5 million (about $47 million in today’s dollars). Neither UP or Amtrak wanted to pay for refurbishment and maintenance costs, and did not find any outside financial support from the state of Arizona or anywhere else. The state’s political leadership at the time, as it has since, was unwilling to use any state funds to support intercity passenger rail. Thus by June 1996 the Sunset Limited was bypassing Phoenix, and UP promptly put the 64-mile mid-section of the Wellton Branch out of service.

To get the Wellton Branch back in service, capital projects needed include repair and replacement of ties, rail, and bridges along with new signals/PTC installed. In 2009, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) requested federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to help restore the Wellton Branch and bring the Sunset Limited back to Phoenix, but was not successful. ADOT updated the cost estimates in 2014 with the Wellton Branch Railroad Rehabilitation Study (see below table and map from this study). To get Amtrak and UP on board, funding must come from outside the normal budgets of both railroads.  Public money could pay for the capital projects, and absolve UP and Amtrak of any financial obligation.  The state of Arizona could investigate purchasing the right-of-way, which would allow it to lease the branch to Amtrak or other train operators. To get the line running again, Amtrak and ADOT should work with UP to come up with a capital improvement plan- to determine what exact projects are needed along the line, and what will they cost.  The capital project plan offers an opportunity to propose rebuilding curves (with increased superelevation) and other improvements to increase train speeds on the Wellton Branch. Given that it would be presumably be operated mostly as a ‘passenger-only’ section of track, the straight sections could be feasibly improved for trains greater than 100 mph. Passenger trains taking the Wellton Branch and Phoenix Subdivisions between Wellton and Picacho through Phoenix also benefit UP freight traffic by freeing up capacity on the Sunset Route mainline.  

Cost estimates from 2014 Arizona Department of Transportation Wellton Branch Railroad Rehabilitation Study
Map from 2014 Arizona Department of Transportation Wellton Branch Railroad Rehabilitation Study

A new route along the I-10 corridor via Blythe would save about 55 miles of distance, or a 12% reduction in overall trip length.  The new dedicated track on this very straight corridor could be designed to handle trains 200 mph or faster, several times the speed of the existing Sunset Route and Wellton Branch. As described by RailPAC President Steve Roberts:

“If you operate more than four frequencies you are going to have add much capacity on the Sunset Route, then you might as well build a separate high-speed passenger railroad…. spending billions for a 50 mph railroad to get 3 or 4 frequencies does not make sense. In my opinion, beyond a daily Sunset and a couple of frequencies, Riverside County Transportation Commission ought to focus on high-speed rail as a solution utilizing an upgraded current Metrolink Riverside route through the urban area, then a Route 60 alignment Riverside to Beaumont (these segments publicly funded as a starter route) then let the private sector finish it to Phoenix.”

RailPAC’s position is to support any operator, public or private, who can provide safe, reliable passenger rail service for a fair price, and would welcome discussion with Brightline or a similar company about the LA-Coachella Valley-Phoenix-Tucson corridor. In the future, both LA-Indio and Tucson-Phoenix service could be upgraded to ‘higher speed’ electrified service, at speeds up to 125 mph, on ‘blended’ corridors which would also host trains going over 125 mph on the Indio-Phoenix segment. For example, some higher- or high-speed trains originating in LA could just go to Indio, while some would continue to Phoenix, or perhaps extend to Tucson. Between LA and the Coachella Valley, blended high-speed trains could run on the same tracks as non-high speed commuter/regional trains.  Then east of Indio, HSR trains could run at truly high speeds all the way to Phoenix.  Assuming this new track would run along the existing I-10 freeway right-of-way (in a similar manner proposed by Brightline along I-15 to Las Vegas), the distance would be about 250 miles between Indio and Phoenix.

Even with a brand new HSR track corridor built from Indio to Phoenix (via Blythe) along I-10, the Sunset Limited and other passenger trains would still serve Yuma on the Sunset Route, and Phoenix on the Wellton Branch.  The greater Yuma area has over 200,000 year-round residents (more in winter), and is worthy of daily train service to Phoenix and LA. The Sunset could also provide a useful late night/early morning compliment to LA-Coachella Valley or Phoenix-Tucson service.

High speed train service between LA and Phoenix could make mid-point stops at Blythe and Quartzsite, which would be a great aid to the economic development of these desert towns. Quartzsite, Arizona has about 4,000 year-round residents but the area can swell to over a quarter million than in the winter months, with snowbirds bringing their RVs from colder climates.  Quartzsite is the largest city, and gateway to La Paz County (pop. 20,500) and recreational sites on the Colorado River.  Year round visitors and winter snowbirds alike are all attracted by boating and other activities along the river.   From a future rail station, passengers could connect from the Quartzsite station by bus 35 miles north to the county seat Parker, and further north to Parker Dam and Lake Havasu.  Blythe, California has about 21,000 people, in an area along the Colorado River also attracting hundreds of thousands long-term visitors in winter.   Within a 50-mile radius of Blythe (which includes Quartzsite, Parker and the Parker Strip along the river) in the mid-winter there can be over half a million snowbirds!  Thousands of winter RV residents in the Blythe and Quartzsite areas could make quick getaways to Phoenix, Palms Springs or LA via high speed rail.

The Rail “Bookends” in California and Arizona

Coachella Valley- San Gorgonio Pass Rail-

LA-Inland Empire-Coachella Valley rail service is currently in planning and environmental studies by the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) and its partners (see Riverside County article in Q4 2020 Steel Wheels). At least several new passenger trains are proposed to run each day from LA Union Station to Palm Springs, Indio and points in between, likely in a state-supported manner like that of the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. The intrastate Coachella Valley train service could also be extended into Imperial County, to the international border in Calexico.

In Riverside County, mainline rail capacity upgrades such as additional track and sidings, along with other improvements are proposed along the UP Sunset Route in the San Gorgonio Pass/Coachella Valley section of the Yuma Subdivision.  This additional track capacity would enable upgrades of passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley and also Arizona, including a daily Sunset Limited. Of the multiple congestion bottlenecks along the Sunset Limited route which need to be relieved to allow daily service, the San Gorgonio Pass/Coachella Valley segment in Southern California is among the most important.

An important first step to improve passenger rail service between LA and Arizona would be for RCTC to reserve passenger train ‘slots’ on UP and BNSF tracks in Southern California, to accommodate a daily Sunset train (both ways) along with new Coachella Valley passenger trains. Securing these slots as part of the current RCTC Coachella Valley rail planning process would be early win for the daily Sunset campaign. RCTC has leased track access and slots from the freight railroads for Metrolink trains since the early 1990s.

The 2018 California State Rail Plan called for planning for “development of future electrified regional services and phased implementation HSR services in the Inland Empire”. Phase 2 of the High Speed Rail plans to pass through Riverside County on the way to San Diego, and could connect to rail eastward to the Coachella Valley and Arizona.

Proposed Coachella Valley- San Gorgonio Pass passenger rail service.

Phoenix-Tucson “Sun Corridor” Rail-

Long a goal in Arizona is passenger rail service between Phoenix and Tucson, along what is known as the Sun Corridor.  The Arizona Passenger Rail Corridor Study led by ADOT resulted in a Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision on the preferred corridor alternative, both completed in 2016.  The only thing holding back development is funding and political structure. All Aboard Arizona and others have proposed a Joint Powers Operating Authority comprised of Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, metropolitan planning organizations, tribal governments, and regional transportation agencies to facilitate operation of passenger trains between Phoenix and Tucson. Extensions of the ‘backbone’ intrastate service could extend to Buckeye and Nogales.

The preferred alternative in 2016 was estimated to cost $4.5 billion, in part due to a third track dedicated to passenger trains between Picacho Junction and Tucson. No funding sources or construction schedule has yet been identified. Amtrak-style corridor service on the Sun Corridor could first be established, as a precursor to higher- or high-speed rail.

Valley of the Sun Regional/Commuter Rail-

Since 2007, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) in association with ADOT and other stakeholders have studied regional (commuter) rail in the Valley of the Sun. and initiate regional/commuter service to such suburbs as Buckeye, Goodyear, Glendale, Peoria, Surprise, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler. The 2018 study update estimated a capital cost of about $2.5 billion to start a Valley of the Sun regional rail system with 30 stations on two lines on over 100 miles of track along existing freight rail corridors.  Projected weekday ridership was estimated to be almost 21,000 by the year 2040.

The City of Phoenix, or other public entity such as MAG or a future joint powers agency, could purchase Phoenix Union Station and refurbish it as a hub for regional passenger rail, Amtrak, and future high-speed rail service.

Next Steps

Some key rail capital projects and new passenger rail corridors along the Sunset Route supported by RailPAC and All Aboard Arizona.

There is a need for a new, publicly available capacity study for the entire Sunset Route. The scope of this capacity study would describe the projects in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana needed for projected future passenger and UP freight traffic of the next 20 years, with preliminary designs, environmental clearances needed, cost estimates and construction schedules. Following the successful example of recent efforts to support the Southwest Chief, state and local governments can apply for federal funds outside of the normal Amtrak budget (such as BUILD or CRISI grants, etc.) to leverage local dollars for capital improvement and maintenance projects along the Sunset Limited route. Fortunately, the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directs the FRA to undertake a two-year study of restoring discontinued long-distance routes and increasing service frequency to daily Amtrak’s two tri-weekly long-distance routes, the New York-Cincinnati-Chicago Cardinal and the Sunset Limited

For the long term however, a daily Sunset on its own is not sufficient to be the prime mover of rail passengers between LA, Coachella Valley, Phoenix and Tucson. Dedicated Southern California-Arizona corridor passenger trains should start with a minimum service of two daily trains each way, morning and evening from LA and Phoenix/Tucson (complimenting other future LA-Coachella Valley and Tucson-Phoenix trains). The most economical plan for new infrastructure would start by setting a service plan first, then figuring out a meeting point that would serve the morning and evening pair and ensure double tracks or at least a siding where they meet. This meeting place would be on the UP Sunset Route presumably somewhere in Imperial County, between Indio and Yuma.

RailPAC and All Aboard Arizona’s ongoing collaboration on advocacy efforts for the daily Sunset, Coachella Valley and LA-Phoenix service, are a natural nucleus to start a “Southwest rail working group” or “LA-Phoenix blue ribbon commission” as proposed by the 2014 FRA Southwest rail study. Both organizations however support the creation on an official Sunset Route Rail Commission, modelled after the Southern Rail Commission, that would involve state and local governments, Amtrak and others. Such a commission could start by acting on the findings of the FRA study (mentioned above) slated to examine a daily Sunset Limited, as well as the supporting the shorter corridors being implemented.  This commission could be a focal point to help coordinate the early corridor development efforts of each lead agency.

Under the banner of a Sunset Route Rail Commission the following initiatives listed below (with key organizations) could collaborate on seeking funds and planning, and include accommodations for a daily Sunset to Phoenix as part of their plans:

  • LA-Coachella Valley regional passenger rail (RCTC, UP, Amtrak, Caltrans)
  • Wellton Cutoff improvement and restoration plan (UP, ADOT, Amtrak)
  • Phoenix Union Station purchase and restoration (City of Phoenix, MAG, UP)
  • Sun Corridor (Buckeye-Phoenix-Tucson-Nogales) passenger rail (ADOT, UP, Amtrak)
  • Valley of the Sun regional passenger rail (MAG, ADOT, UP, BNSF)
  • Imperial Valley Rail to Calexico (Imperial County, UP, RCTC, Caltrans)

Potentially this list would expand to include New Orleans – Houston, Houston – San Antonio corridor service initiatives. For FRA’s new Corridor Identification and Development Program, the focus will be on those links that are “usable segments” and have some degree of planning progress completed or underway.  To start, it would not include the whole list of routes and route extensions listed above. So the leading routes first out of the gate are LA-Coachella Valley with RCTC as the lead, and Phoenix-Tucson with the lead agency TBD.  

High speed rail on new, dedicated track along the I-10 corridor between LA, the Coachella Valley, Phoenix, and Tucson should also be studied. Since the environmental and planning stages for a whole new line would take some time, they should be done concurrently with the first steps to improving passenger rail between Southern California and Arizona: upgrade the existing Sunset Limited to daily service, and bringing it back to Phoenix Union Station by restoring the Wellton Branch.

Special thanks to Todd Liebman (President- All Aboard Arizona ) Steve Roberts (President- RailPAC), Jon Talton (https://roguecolumnist.typepad.com/ ), and Tom White of VTD Rail Consulting for providing information and review of this article.