Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sunset route revamp put on hold: Union Pacific wants $700 million inupgrades for daily Los Angeles-New Orleans passengerservice.(PASSENGER).

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'You tell that conductor who's been writing down all the delays to put the pencil back in her pocket!" a voice on the radio drawls through the cab of Amtrak's eastbound Sunset Limited. It was dispatcher Doug Hurley's way of telling engineer Bobby Berroteran and conductor Christina Wilson that disabled UP freight 8449 East had hobbled into a passing siding ahead. After 20 minutes of 15-mph running and an advisory to another train crew ("I've got Amtrak and three more [freights] bunched up"), Hurley promised green signals for Amtrak No. 2 all the way into Alpine over the single-track line meandering through West Texas.

Back in 2005, Amtrak and host railroad Union Pacific lengthened the Sunset's running times to improve reliability on a transcontinental freight route booming with double-stack, auto, and chemical traffic. UP's big double-tracking project between Los Angeles and El Paso has helped, too. East of El Paso, though, the line reverts to single track, and the Sunset plays hopscotch with a multitude of freights for the rest of its 1,995-mile run between L.A. and New Orleans.

"It's been pretty good for about a year and a half," comments Amtrak Road Foreman Fernando Cervantes, who was riding the head end with Berroteran on a broiling August day, squinting to verify indications on aging searchlight signals that would soon be replaced. Normally, Berroteran would be alone in the cab for each 219-mile, four-hour run between his crew base at El Paso and Alpine, where Claude Jones and Alan Daniel were waiting to take the train another 386 miles to their San Antonio homes. One quirk of the Sunset's triweekly operation is that when train crews finish their shifts at Alpine, they must wait at least 46 hours to return. "I always have two days off at Alpine," remarks San Antonio-based conductor Art Guevara. "It's a good living, but not a good life." If the Sunset Limited ran every day, that idle time would be cut in half.

Poor crew utilization is just one of the many inefficiencies that Amtrak management is trying to correct with a plan to convert today's triweekly Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited into a daily Los Angeles-Chicago Texas Eagle. Under the plan, a daily New Orleans coach and lounge-diner train would connect across-platform at San Antonio. Amtrak figures it has enough coaches, lounges, sleepers, and dining cars currently sitting for days at New Orleans and overnight at San Antonio to run the daily service with existing equipment.

A side-by-side comparison of the existing and proposed schedules (at left) shows that running times would remain essentially unchanged, but dwell times would shrink significantly. The adjustments would restore a connection with the Coast Starlight at Los Angeles and introduce passenger-friendly times at Tucson, San Antonio, and Houston in both directions.

Amtrak's plan to improve the operating performance of the Sunset, Eagle, and three other financially challenged long-distance trains (the Cardinal, Capitol Limited, and California Zephyr) were mandated under Section 210 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008; the complete plans were released on Sept. 30 (available at www.TrainsMag.com). But Section 213 of the legislation also puts host railroads on notice that they could be held accountable by the Surface Transportation Board for delays if they fail to provide dispatching preference to passenger trains.


Perhaps the potential chilling effect of this regulation was a contributing factor that prompted Union Pacific to model capacity needs for the new Amtrak trains to avoid any freight delays. The additional infrastructure cost UP wants Amtrak to pay for adding eight trains a week to the six it now operates across the Sunset route comes to approximately $700 million. That amount stopped Amtrak's plan in its tracks [see Fred Frailey's column, pages 14-15].

"Union Pacific has invested almost a billion dollars on Sunset Route capacity since 1997," reasons UP spokesman Tom Lange. "Amtrak's existing trains use this capacity, and Amtrak is not paying for its share today." He notes that 70 percent of the freights on UP's El Paso-Los Angeles route are premium trains, and "new delays due to new passenger trains would hurt the performance of our high-priority trains." The capacity modeling confirms, Lange says, that "placing two daily highest-priority trains that run faster than any other on the line causes far more serious delays than running only one."

What Union Pacific has effectively done, however, is impose a "no delay to any train at any time" standard that Amtrak's existing Sunset schedules do not require and no host railroad currently mandates. There is enough built-in, negotiated dwell time (at stations) and recovery time (schedule padding for anticipated but unspecified delays) to give UP dispatchers the flexibility to routinely hold Amtrak Nos. 1 and 2 for freight trains and still earn on-time performance incentives. Lange suggests that depressed freight levels helped the Sunset achieve its 88 percent on-time record in Amtrak's 2010 fiscal year (ended Sept. 30)--the third straight year of improvement--but as the economy rebounds, Lange says the railroad must prepare for more freight trains in the future, hence the giant price tag for daily passenger service. As of press time, Amtrak and Union Pacific were still negotiating a way to make the daily Sunset/Eagle plan work.


Giving passenger trains operating priority and route access dates from Amtrak's original Congressional authorization 40 years ago. Although the passenger railroad or states will pay for capacity improvements on multi-departure corridors where passenger trains genuinely impact operations, UP's request that Amtrak foot the entire bill for adding eight trains a week is unprecedented.

Until the impasse is resolved, though, travelers and crews are stuck with a tri-weekly schedule that serves no one well, and hasn't since Amtrak first took over the service.

Westbound schedule

Current triweekly Proposed daily
(Read down) (Read down) Major stops

11:55 a.m. 9:45 a.m. New Orleans, LA
9:13 p.m. - 9:50 p.m. 6:25 p.m. - 6:35 p.m. Houston, TX
san Antonio, TX
3:00 a.m. - 5:40 a.m. 11:00 p.m. - 1:10 a.m. (sunset Limited)
9:55 p.m. - 5:40 a.m. 10:30 p.m. - 1:10 a.m. (texas Eagle)
10:40 p.m. - 11:30 p.m. 6:49 p.m. - 7:20 p.m. tucson, AZ
8:40 a.m. 5:05 a.m. (6:30 a.m.) Los Angeles, CA

Eastbound schedule

Current triweekly Proposed daily
(Read up) (Read up)

2:55 p.m. 9:00 p.m.
4:40 a.m. - 5:10 a.m. 11:58 a.m. - 12:10 p.m.

9:30 p.m. - 11:55 p.m. 6:50 a.m. - 7:50 a.m.
9:30 p.m. - 7:00 a.m. 6:50 a.m. - 7:40 a.m.
1:05 a.m. - 1:55 a.m. 10:17 a.m. - 10:37 a.m.
2:30 p.m. 10:30 p.m.

Source Citation
Johnston, Bob. "Sunset route revamp put on hold: Union Pacific wants $700 million in upgrades for daily Los Angeles-New Orleans passenger service." Trains Magazine Dec. 2010: 20. General OneFile. Web. 9 Nov. 2010.
Document URL

Gale Document Number:A239816466

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