Daily Service on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited June 30th, 1991
Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has operated its New Orleans-Los Angeles route with a tri-weekly Sunset Limited. In choosing to cover this important segment of its national routes with such minimal frequency, Amtrak has continued the policy of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had downgraded the Sunset Limited to tri-weekly service prior to Amtrak’s creation. In addition to reducing the train to tri-weekiy frequency, Southern Pacific had also curtailed onboard service amenities to limit both operating losses and, ultimately, ridership-opening the way to justification before the I.C.C. to eliminate rail passenger service on the route altogether.
Fortunately for the American traveling public, Congress took a foresighted and bold move by creating Amtrak to assume control over and reinvigorate the nation’s rail passenger service. Now, 20 years later, both friends and foes of Amtrak agree that the corporation has largely fulfilled its mission to stem the demise of American passenger trains. With the assistance of nearly 7 billion dollars in taxpayer investment, Amtrak has rebuilt the rail passenger system in this country, bringing back high standards of service and recapturing significant market share in selected locations.
It, therefore, perplexes and troubles this Association that Amtrak continues to maintain — 20 years into its existence-the same tri-weekly frequency that Southern Pacific initiated on the Sunset Limited over two decades ago.
It is the position of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association that, for any long-distance rail passenger service to be viable, such service should be conducted at minimum on a daily basis.
Specifically, the Association holds that Amtrak must upgrade the operation of its Sunset Limited to daily frequency as soon as administratively feasible but no later than April 1992.
As an advocacy organization, the Arizona Rail Passenger Association has worked over the years to have the Sunset Limited brought to a daily frequency-even as significant service improvements have been effected elsewhere on Amtrak’s system. Communicating directly with Amtrak’s senior management and working through our elected representatives in Congress, the Association has sought to demonstrate the need and wisdom of daily service for the Sunset Limited. While some at Amtrak and many in Congress have now agreed on the desirability of daily service, no commitment has to date been given. Instead, several factors have been cited as to why the Sunset Limited may not be operated daily. These factors, together with the Association’s responses, are listed below:
1. The Southern Pacific Railroad will resist contracting to allow Amtrak to operate the Sunset Limited daily.
The Association’s response: This argument was most frequently espoused during the 1970s but occasionally is put forth today.
In fact, since landmark litigation in 1979, the Southern Pacific and Amtrak have worked cooperatively. Indeed, because of frequent service on other tracks owned by the Southern Pacific, Amtrak is one of the Southern Pacific’s best customers in terms of revenue generated. A daily Sunset Limited would enhance this steady revenue source for Southern Pacific without significantly congesting the freight railroad’s right of way.
2. Amtrak does not have sufficient operating funds to bring the Sunset Limited to daily service.
The Association’s response: Whereas the Association recognizes and supports Amtrak’s goal to run its business prudently while reducing its dependence on Federal operating grants, the Association firmly disagrees that bringing the Sunset Limited to daily service will thwart that goal. In fact, the Association maintains that daily service, when structured and marketed appropriately, could generate operating profit to assist Amtrak in its financial goal. (Please see numbers 3 and 4 below.)
Additionally, daily service would allow for lucrative mail and express contracts – markets in which Amtrak has aggressively and successfully competed elsewhere. The arrangement of metropolitan areas on the Sunset Limited’s route is particularly suited to such extra revenue.
3. With the intense airline competition in the region where the Sunset Limited operates, Amtrak just cannot pull in enough market share to justify investing further in the route.
The Association’s response: On this point, the Association cannot disagree more. It is expressly because of that airline competition that Amtrak should investigate its market potential along the Sunset Limited’s route. The airlines well understand the tremendous travel market flourishing in the Southwest U.S., and they jockey to profit by it. All combined, the Sunset Limited directly serves metropolitan areas totaling 23.2 million in population and indirectly serves an addional 76.2 million through exchange of coaches or a single change of train. Thus very nearly 100 million potential passengers throughout the U.S. could benefit from increased frequency on the Sunset Limited’s route. Furthermore, the train serves three of the fastest growng states (Arizona, California, and Texas), portending a market that will continue to grow rapidly.
And while Amtrak, like the airlines, provides service botween these metropolitan areas, Amtrak can also serve a market that eludes the airlines: bringing travelers to and from the smaller communities between the large cities.
As it stands now, the inconvenience of tri-weekly service inhibits the potential of the Sunset Limited’s route. The added convenience of daily (or more frequent) service increases ridership multifold, as travelers can choose Amtrak because the train matches their schedule. With an increase in focus on this route, Amtrak could easily fill one daily Sunset Limited; some would argue three daily Sunset Limiteds.
4. Investment in daily service is not justified becasue the Sunset Limited traverses a large, sparsely populated area between San Antonio and El Paso.
The Association’s’ response: Beyond what is stated in #3, the Association would add that Amtrak’s highly successful Empire Builder crosses over 1,000 miles of thinly populated prairie and mountains from Fargo, North Dakota, to Spokane, Washington. As it has for over a decade the Empire Builder provides daily, useful, and well-patronized service to numerous communities along its route.
5. Amtrak has insufficient rolling stock to provide for daily operation of the Sunset Limited.
The Association’s response: This factor is currently the most frequently cited.
While Amtrak’s success-as measured by sold-out trains-has indeed constrained the capacity of the railroad’s rolling stock, many observers point out Amtrak’s operating practice of letting equipment lay over dormant between runs, thus diminishing the revenue-generating potential of the equipment. Nowhere is this more the case than in the equipment dedicated to the Sunset Limited’s tri-weekly schedule.
The Association joins those who advocate an equipment-utilization program for Amtrak that more closely resembles programs of the airlines: where passenger equipment is continuously generating revenue except when undergoing maintenance. Some consultants in the field of transportation logistics claim that, if Amtrak were to initiate such a program, enough rolling stock would be freed up to allow for a daily Sunset Limited now.
Amtrak maintains that it does not presently have sufficient equipment to bring the Sunset Limited up to daily service. It has, however just contracted to have Bombardier build 140 new Superliner cars to begin revenue service in mid-1993.
Regrettably, and of keen interest to this Association, Amtrak has announced plans for these Superliners that do not include using them for a daily Sunset Limited. Amtrak refers to a potential order of Superliners later in this decade that would be used for a daily Sunset Limited.
The Arizona Rail Passenger Association finds Amtrak’s plan unacceptable. This further delay in bringing the Sunset Limited up to daily service contradicts assurances made to this Association by members of Congress and by executive management at Amtrak.
6. Amtrak has no will at present to upgrade the Sunset Limited to daily service.
The Association’s response: Compelling arguments exist to operate the Sunset Limited on a daily frequency, to the benefit of both Amtrak and the traveling public.
The Arizona Rail Passenger Association, therefore, resolves to press-through its membership, its elected officials, the traveling public, and the management at Amtrak-for daily service to be established for the Sunset Limited no later than April 1992.
Dr. Richard Malcolm, President
Jay L. Myers, Amtrak Committee Chairman