There is great potential in re-establishing a direct passenger train service between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Re-opening of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Wellton Branch west of Phoenix would allow the return of a daily Sunset Limited to Phoenix and support new regional trains. The business case for refurbishing the Wellton Branch is based not only on passenger service but also new “medium-haul” freight services between the Valley of the Sun and California (for a more detailed discussion, see The Prospects for Future LA-Phoenix Passenger Rail, 1st Quarter 2021 Steel Wheels).
Amtrak’s Connects US plan, released last year, identified Los Angeles-Palm Springs-Phoenix-Tucson services as one of the “corridors under review” to be implemented by 2035. (See annotated map below.) Amtrak proposed to start a service of one round-trip a day between Los Angeles and Tucson via Phoenix, and three round-trips a day between Phoenix and Tucson. Amtrak has not proposed a budget, a project plan, or a timeline to start such a service. However, in July 2021 Amtrak President Gardner did suggest that LA-Phoenix direct service could start “within three years” but did not offer any specifics on how this could happen. This service would require re-opening of the Wellton Branch.
Wellton Branch- the Phoenix ‘West Line’
The Wellton Branch, also known as the “Wellton Cutoff” or the “Phoenix-West Line”, is a Union Pacific (UP)-owned track which runs west from the end of the Phoenix Subdivision, west of Buckeye, to a junction with the mainline Sunset Route at Wellton. What was formerly 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 (SP) completed this north cutoff in 1926, primarily to enable Golden State and Sunset Limited passenger trains to pass directly through Phoenix. Between Phoenix Union Station and Wellton Junction there are 137 miles of single track, with a few sidings. Aside from a few 50-60 mph curved sections, most of the route is very straight and could easily accommodate 79 mph or faster trains if the track were refurbished and reopened.
About 64 miles of the Wellton Cutoff, from east of Roll in Yuma County to west of Arlington in Maricopa County, has been out of service since 1996. The 64-mile midsection of track is today used as a path by desert animals. The 1995 domestic terrorism incident on this section of track, in which one Amtrak crewmember was killed and scores injured, was not the reason for the track’s closure.
Southern Pacific absorbed by Union Pacific in 1996, had been wanting to discontinue use of the line due to deteriorating track conditions and very light freight traffic. By then the Sunset Limited was almost the only train using the Wellton Branch, and service was slow and bumpy along this worn-out section. SP had requested help from the state government of Arizona to refurbish the line. 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’s political leadership, which was then (and has since been) 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 midsection of the Wellton Cutoff out of service.
To get the Wellton Branch back in service, the necessary capital projects include repair and replacement of ties, rail, and bridges, along with new signals and installation of Positive Train Control. 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 unsuccessful. In 2014, ADOT hired the consultants URS to do a more in-depth Wellton Branch rehabilitation study.
The 2014 Wellton Branch study looked at replacement of ballast, rail, ties, lengthening sidings, signal systems, crossings, and bridges. Four alternative scenarios were evaluated:
- Scenario 1 – Through freight service only (FRA Class 2 Track) w/ max speed = 25 mph
- Scenario 2 – Through freight service and basic Amtrak service (FRA Class 3 Track), w/ max freight speed = 40 mph and max passenger speed = 60 mph
- Scenario 2A – Same as Scenario 2, w/ PTC
- Scenario 3 – Through freight service and higher speed passenger service (FRA Class 4 Track), w/ max freight speed = 60 mph and max passenger = 79 mph
The 2014 study concluded that the level of freight demand at the time did not warrant re-opening the Wellton Branch, although if demand increased, phased rehabilitation made sense. It also recommended that the state seek to identify and develop freight opportunities for the Wellton Branch. Proposed next steps listed in the 2014 ADOT report included development of more detailed engineering design and construction cost estimates, and coordination with UP and Amtrak to conduct further studies.
Upgrades beyond Class 4 track
Ideally, to get the line running again, Amtrak and the ADOT should work with UP to come up with a detailed capital improvement plan. Such a plan would determine exactly what projects are needed and what will they cost. The capital project plan could present an opportunity to propose rebuilding curves (with increased superelevation) and other improvements to increase train speeds. Straight sections could be feasibly improved for trains traveling faster than 100 mph.
New higher speed track than the FRA Class 4 track proposed by ‘Scenario 3’ in the 2014 ADOT study is possible. There is no technical reason to limit the Wellton Branch to Class 4. A staged plan for double-tracking the line is also needed, starting with upgrades to existing sidings. If UP needs to continue storing more railcars in the area, then additional sidings can be built for that purpose.
While UP currently makes some revenue from buried communication lines along the route, the Wellton Branch right-of-way could also be used for electric power transmission. There is abundant solar energy in the area, some existing large-scale solar power facilities, and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near the eastern end of the Wellton Branch. Electrification with 25-kV overhead catenary is also quite possible.
New freight service between Southern California and Arizona
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. The west side of Phoenix is now home to many large warehouses and logistics developments, much of it heavily reliant on truck traffic from California via the increasingly congested I-10. The 205-mile Class III Arizona & California (A&C) Railroad currently provides the only direct rail service between Southern California and Phoenix, interchanging with BNSF Railway at Matthie, Arizona (about 57 track miles northwest of Phoenix) and at Cadiz, California (about 100 track miles east of Barstow). This combined BNSF+A&C routing is about 512 miles between LA and Phoenix, longer by 86 miles than the 426 miles on UP if the Wellton Branch were reopened. Much of the A&C track is also limited to slower speeds compared to the BNSF or UP mainlines. The driving distance on I-10 is even shorter: 370 miles.
With a refurbished Wellton Branch, there would be a variety of new ‘short-haul’ and ‘medium-haul’ freight rail services possible along the Ports of LA/Long Beach-Inland Empire-Indio-Yuma-Phoenix corridor. International 40’ containers imported on ships through the Ports of LA/Long Beach could go by direct rail service to west Phoenix and there be transloaded to 53’ domestic containers. LA basin/Inland Empire-Phoenix direct service also offers opportunities for domestic 53’ intermodal containers, trailer-on-flatcar, and carload freight. There is also potential for Yuma-Phoenix direct short-haul freight service.
The Wellton Branch as a “Toll Road for Trains”
To get Amtrak and UP on board, funding must come from outside the normal budgets of both railroads. Public money or private investment could pay for the capital projects and allow UP and Amtrak to avoid 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. Even if it is assumed that UP, the state of Arizona, or Amtrak remain unwilling to contribute money for refurbishment and repair of the Wellton Branch, there could be other sources.
Two possible candidates to be an ‘independent entity’ which could purchase or lease the 137-mile Wellton Branch segment from UP include:
1. A ‘joint powers agency’ of Maricopa and Yuma counties (perhaps also including key cities)
2. A private infrastructure-owning company other than UP or another Class I railroad, perhaps a Class II or Class III railroad.
UP and its predecessor, SP, have sold tracks and rights-of-way to public and private entities before, for the right price. With proper planning and supporting policies, either a public or a private “independent” owner could accomplish the goals of improving and utilizing the Wellton Branch for maximum public benefit.
Imagine for a moment that the Wellton Branch was in Germany. Railroad infrastructure in Germany is publicly owned by DB Netze, the infrastructure division of the state-owned national railroad, Deutsche Bahn (DB) AG. Like other European track owners, DB Netze more or less treats its track network as a “toll road for trains”, open to access by any pre-qualified train operator, passenger or freight. The infrastructure owner in this “open access” system has a financial incentive to maximize the number of trains using its tracks. More trains means more “tolls” (track access fees), and thus more revenue for the infrastructure owner.
According to the US Census Bureau, Phoenix is the 13th largest Combined Statistical Area (CSA) in the US with 5 million people, while greater Los Angeles is 2nd with 18.5 million. It should be kept in mind that Metro Phoenix is not much smaller than the metro areas of Berlin (6 million), Munich (5.7 million), or Frankfurt (5.6 million) –all cities served by hundreds of intercity passenger trains every day. Phoenix has none. Maricopa station, a 35-mile drive south of Downtown Phoenix in Pinal County, is technically within the Phoenix metro CSA. Served three days a week each way by the Sunset Limited, 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.
With open access, many segments of underused, abandoned or ‘fallow’ railroad lines like the Wellton Branch could suddenly have tremendous value. Other mothballed lines in Arizona could be brought back to life, such as the Yuma Valley Railway, which has been out of service since 2005. But this is just a thought experiment. Even if an independent entity owned or leased the Wellton Branch, UP would still control access to both ends of it. In the absence of a national ‘open access’ policy like those of Europe, the Wellton Branch would be like many U.S. short lines: at the mercy of the Class I roads that control outside access to their lines.
Another way to incentivize rehabilitation of the Wellton Branch is to consider it to be a “climate investment”. Arizona is already suffering badly from climate change, and increasing the mode share of rail transportation in the state is a sure way to reduce GHG emissions.
Realistically, the state of Arizona, meaning both the Governor and Legislature, will have to support restoration of Wellton Branch in some significant way. Even if the state government of Arizona itself does not purchase or fund repairs of the Wellton Branch, it may have to bless the creation of any rail joint powers agency, or any new passenger rail service within the state. Fortunately, the examples of state-supported passenger rail in states like California, Utah, North Carolina, Virginia, and Illinois, as well as multi-state collaborations such as the Cascades (Oregon and Washington) and the Heartland Flyer (Texas and Oklahoma) provide examples from which Arizona could learn.
Special thanks to Todd Liebman (President- All Aboard Arizona), Tom White (VTD Rail Consulting), and Jon Talton ( https://roguecolumnist.typepad.com/ ), and for providing information and review of this article.