Improving the Sunset Limited

The Amtrak route most in need of improvement is the Sunset Limited train between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The train passes through huge population centers (like Houston) and the southern part of Arizona as well (although it currently bypasses Phoenix). Following are some suggestions to improve the Sunset Limited:

1.) Operate the train daily. The Sunset currently operates just three-days-a-week, departing New Orleans on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday and arriving Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. The Sunset Limited is the only Amtrak train to never have operated daily, and service every day from New Orleans to Los Angeles would certainly be a lot more useful to rail passengers than the current tri-weekly schedule. Amtrak studied the route a few years back and determined that daily service was feasible and would reduce losses, but when they approached the Union Pacific Railroad about increasing frequencies UP told Amtrak it would need $750 million (!!) to make the train daily. After that Amtrak quietly dropped the proposal. Does UP really need $750 million – probably not, but the railroad will need money for more capacity to operate the increased frequencies. The Sunset is currently Houston’s only train service, and a city with six million residents certainly deserves at least daily service. What could happen in the short term is for Louisiana and Texas to come together to fund a 4-day-per-week supplement to the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Houston (providing daily service between the two cities), but Louisiana currently provides zero funding for Amtrak services operating in the state.

2.) Increase the passenger-carrying capacity. The Sunset operates with very limited passenger-carrying capacity of just two coaches and one full sleeper – it really should have a third coach and a second full sleeper. Who knows how many potential riders are being turned away because the train is frequently sold out.

3.) Change the schedule of the westbound train. The schedule of the westbound train could be improved. Currently westbound train #1 is scheduled to arrive Los Angeles at 5:35 am. – and that actually seems even earlier as one loses an hour moving into the pacific time zone. Usually sleeping car passengers are given a little extra time to detrain at Los Angeles, but coach passengers are expected to detrain promptly at 5:35 in the morning. If the schedule was adjusted just two hours later it would allow for a much better 7:35 am arrival at Los Angeles and still provide plenty of time to connect to the Coast Starlight Amtrak train to Oakland and Seattle.

4.) Reinstate service directly through Phoenix, and restore the eastern end of the route between New Orleans and Orlando. Phoenix was bypassed about 20 years ago due to a downgrade/abandonment of track west of the city with the train now passing 30 miles to the south through Maricopa, AZ. Phoenix used to put about 100 passengers on/off the train and ridership at Maricopa is a fraction of what Phoenix used to be. It wouldn’t take a huge amount of money to restore the track west of Phoenix and reroute the train (the estimate back then was about $20 million), but so far finding the money has been difficult. The eastern end of the route from New Orleans to Orlando was (effectively) discontinued nine years ago after Hurricane Katrina, and this “suspended” route is currently being looked at again for restoration of service (however, no time frame and no funding). The National Association of Railroad Passengers (our parent group) released its own study back in 2006 that showed that the western end of the train was actually strengthened financially by the eastern end, but there was no convincing Amtrak at that time to reinstate the train. There used to be a fair number of cruise ship passengers that took the train to come to New Orleans from Los Angeles, and there was also considerable traffic that passed through New Orleans both eastbound and westbound.