Posts Tagged ‘Southern Pacific’

Less Than Daily Service: A Primmer

October 16, 2020

It might be hard to believe today but rail passenger advocates once stood aside as a railroad shifted the frequency of operation of a long-distance passenger train from daily to tri-weekly.

In the late 1960s Southern Pacific wanted to discontinue its daily Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, citing losses high financial losses due to ridership having fallen by half compared to the early 1950s and revenue having fallen even more.

To reduce costs, SP removed sleeping cars and full-service dining, replacing the latter with an automat car containing vending machines.

That move was heavily criticized by Interstate Commerce Commission examiner John S. Messer and also drew fire from local government officials along the route and the then-new National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Then something remarkable happened. NARP agreed to refrain from criticizing SP if the railroad reinstated dining cars and sleepers.

In return NARP agreed not to protest moving the train to tri-weekly operation.

On the day that Amtrak began in 1971, it inhered tri-weekly Southern Pacific Nos. 1 and 2.

Amtrak will celebrate its 50th birthday next May and the Sunset Limited has never operated on a daily schedule under Amtrak auspices.

Of late Amtrak has been acting much like SP once did by reducing the frequency of nearly all of its long-distance trains to tri-weekly.

Although it has not eliminated sleeping cars, Amtrak has downgraded its dining service by removing from most trains freshly prepared meals onboard with a more limited menu of food prepared off the train.

Amtrak has sought to frame the move to tri-weekly service as temporary and linked it to steep ridership and revenue declines prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It expects ridership to be only half in the federal fiscal year 2021 of what it was in 2019.

Less than daily operation of passenger trains is not a new concept although Amtrak has never operated virtually its entire long-distance network in that manner.

Although not the norm, less than daily service existed in the pre-Amtrak era.

After Western Pacific discontinued its leg of the California Zephyr in March 1968, there continued to be a tri-weekly “California Service” operating over much of the route of today’s Amtrak California Zephyr.

SP operated what is today’s Coast Starlight tri-weekly between Oakland, California, and Seattle.

Examine various issues of the Official Guide of the Railways in the late 1960s and you’ll find several trains that operated weekly, only on weekends, tri-weekly or only during a certain season of the year.

There once were trains that operated every other day or every third day, including a trio of Chicago-Florida Streamliners, the City of Miami, South Wind and Dixie Flager.

The trains were scheduled so there was a daily departure from Chicago every day, albeit on different routes.

The City of Miami and South Wind survived until the coming of Amtrak by which time they had been operating every other day since the 1950s.

Tri-weekly trains have been fixtures at various times in Amtrak’s history. It did not begin operating the Coast Starlight or San Francisco Zephyr (later renamed California Zephyr) daily over the length of their routes until 1973.

The Chicago-Seattle North Coast Hiawatha began life in June 1971 as a tri-weekly train between Minneapolis and Spokane, Washington. It reached Chicago and Seattle combined with the daily Empire Builder.

At various times the North Coast Hi alternated between daily and tri-weekly operation before being discontinued in early October 1979.

The Inter-American, the forerunner of the Texas Eagle, began in January 1973, as a tri-weekly train between Fort Worth and Laredo, Texas.

It later was later extended north to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago. At various times the Inter-American operated tri-weekly south of St. Louise.

And then there is the Cardinal. The subject of discontinuance efforts in the late 1970s, the Cardinal survived largely because of the influence of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd.

When talk of discontinuing the Cardinal picked up again in 1981, Amtrak President Alan Boyd suggested keeping the train as a tri-weekly run between Chicago and Cincinnati named the Midwestener.

Instead the Amtrak board of directors voted in September 1981 to end the Cardinal.

It was revived in January 1982 via a rider placed in an appropriations bill by Indiana Congressman Adam Benjamin. It has operated tri-weekly ever since.

Less than daily service was common in the airline industry even before the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines served some markets only on weekends. Low cost carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier don’t fly every route every day.

Legacy carriers Delta, United and American have flights that don’t operate on certain days when travel demand is less, typically early in the week.

Nonetheless, rail passengers supporters have advocated strenuously against Amtrak’s tri-weekly plan with Trains magazine passenger correspondent Bob Johnston panning it in an article headlined “How to kill a network” in the September 2020 issue.

East Coat-based passenger train advocate David Peter Alan argued in a Progressive Railway essay headlined “farewell, long-distance trains?” that Amtrak is waging war on its passengers by imposing service cuts so severe that the national network as its been known will cease to exist.

The Rail Passengers Association, formerly known as NARP, called Amtrak’s plans disappointing and misguided, saying Amtrak might be setting itself up for failure.

The primary argument made by passenger advocates against tri-weekly service is Amtrak tried it once and failed to save as much money as it claimed it would.

Advocates are fond of citing a Government Accountability Office report on the 1995 cutback to less than daily service on several routes, most of them in the West and South.

The GAO found that passengers did not adjust their travel plans as Amtrak expected and less than daily service led to “less efficient usage of equipment and other unforeseen problems.”

Amtrak President George Warrington told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2000 that Amtrak lost more passenger revenue than it was able to recoup in saved expenses due to the fixed cost nature of the operation.”

Amtrak eventually restored all of those trains to daily but also eliminated the Pioneer between Salt Lake City and Seattle and Desert Wind between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Amtrak has published a set of criteria that it said will guide the return to daily service.

Whether any or even all of the trains can meet those criteria remains to be seen.

Political pressure might force Amtrak to reinstate daily operation or there may develop a situation in which some trains resume daily operation and others do not.

Tri-weekly service may not be an ideal business practice, yet some service is better than no service. If you don’t believe that, ask those who live in cities and regions that have no intercity rail passenger service.

Ultimately, the question of how often Amtrak’s long-distance trains operate or even whether they will operate at all is a political one that will be “resolved” by the political process and how Amtrak management responds to it.

There are many unknowns that will influence how that plays out including how the travel market rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic that has dramatically cut the use of public transit, idled cruise ships and jet airliners, and led to an unprecedented shrinking of the world’s airline route network.

Texas Museum Buying Amtrak Diner

May 1, 2019

Another Amtrak dining car will find its way into a museum collection tied to the car’s heritage.

Amtrak Heritage fleet diner 8527 is being acquired by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.

Based in Houston, the chapter collects historical rolling stock that was used by railroads of that region.

No. 8527, was built in 1950 by the Budd Company for use on the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited  between Los Angeles and New Orleans.

During its time at Amtrak, the diner primarily operated on routes in the eastern United States, logging 6.9 million miles in revenue service.

The sale of the car to the Gulf Coast Chapter is expected to be completed later this month.

It was among the last Heritage fleet dining in revenue service on Amtrak. At SP the diner carried roster number 10212.

During its time at SP, the diner had an interior design that featured the works of Louisiana artist/naturalist John James Audubon, including hand-painted reproductions of many of Audubon’s paintings.

Other design features included drapes with a bird-of-paradise motif and fern pattern carpet.

Those design features largely were removed when Amtrak rebuilt the car.

The Gulf Coast Chapter said it plans to retain the Amtrak interior but will repaint the exterior of the car into striping and lettering evoking its SP ancestry.

Texas County Seeks Daily Sunset Limited

January 29, 2019

The Jefferson County Commissioners Court in Texas is trying to push for the tri-weekly Sunset Limited to operate daily.

The court voted unanimously to go on record as favoring daily operation of Nos. 1 and 2 in Southeast Texas.

Public officials in San Antonio, Houston and Tucson — all of which are served by the Sunset — have also expressed support for daily service.

The tri-weekly operation of the Sunset Limited has existed since the first day of Amtrak, a relic of less-than-daily service under Southern Pacific.

“I think if they want to make an appeal for more transportation-related opportunities for citizens along the Amtrak route, I’m certainly not going to stand in the way of that progress,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said.

Those trying to get daily service by Nos. 1 and 2 have pointed to a growing population base in the states served by the train, including a 22 percent increase between 2000 and 2016.

However, a rail plan issued by the Texas Department of Transportation said that host railroad Union Pacific has told Amtrak it wants $750 million in track rehabilitation and other capital improvements before it will allow Nos. 1 and 2 to operate daily.

Marfa Seeks to be Sunset Limited Stop

February 12, 2018

Amtrak is considering establishing a stop in Marfa, Texas, for its New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited that would supplant a long-time station in Sanderson.

The move, if done, would be the culmination of a campaign by San Antonio resident Bruce Flohr.

Flohr, a former Southern Pacific manager, has been pushing for the stop in Marfa because he said the station in Sanderson is underused.

He said that Amtrak Vice President Bob Dorsch told him in a letter that the passenger carrier would look into the proposal in its long-term plan but would make no decision in the next two to five years.

In a follow-up letter, Dorsch said the decision will now be made by the end of this summer.

“After we looked at the info from [Flohr], we’ve started an analysis of the stop. It seems to make sense and is something we’ll definitely look into,” Dorsch said. “It’s one of the things we have in deep discussion.”

Flohr became interested in the matter after taking Amtrak No. 1 from San Antonio to Alpine, Texas.

He actually was traveling to Marfa.  “Nobody got on or off in Sanderson. The stop lasted for around 28 seconds,” Flohr said. “There’s also no platform, no building, no outdoor lighting, nor is it in compliance with the [Americans With Disabilities Act]. There would definitely be a demand for a stop in Marfa. It’s not that complex of an issue.”

The former SP depot in Sanderson was razed in October 2012.

Creating a stop in Marfa will need local financial backing to build a platform that meets ADA and other federal requirements.

Flohr said Marfa residents need to write letters to Amtrak, Union Pacific and elected officials to lobby for the stop.

“Now is the time for you all in Marfa to take action. I encourage everyone to write to [congressman] Will Hurd. Government agencies tend to react a whole lot more if they hear from elected officials,” he said.

Marfa has sought an Amtrak stop before with no success. In 2011, former Marfa Tourism director Terry “Tex” Toler led a campaign to get Amtrak to stop there.

Amtrak Station in Tucson

April 27, 2017

The streetside view of the former Southern Pacific station in Tucson, which is now used in part by Amtrak.

Last October I was  on vacation in Tucson, Arizona. I paid a visit to the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, which uses a portion of the former Southern Pacific station.

Amtrak still uses the SP station, although it shares it with Maynard’s Market, a deli-type operation.

I was there on a Thursday and Amtrak’s Sunset Limited was not scheduled to operate in either direction. Tucson is still a staffed station with checked baggage service.

The size of the Amtrak facilities appear to be appropriate for the use that the station gets and the depot has been nicely restored.

The streetside entrance to the Amtrak station. The depot is located on Toole Street.

The exterior of the station as seen from the trackside view.

The Amtrak ticket office in the Tucson station.

Another angle of the Tucson ticket office.

One end of the waiting room. In the distance is the former CTC machine used by Southern Pacific dispatchers to control traffic on the Sunset Route.

The other end of the waiting room, which has a number of historic photographs on the wall. The ticket office is to the left and straight ahead.

The door to the platform as seen from inside the waiting room.

On the platform. The building on the other side of the tracks is the maintenance facility for the Tucson streetcar network.