Amtrak's Sunset Limited is the Rodney Dangerfield of a railroad that has for most of its business been a Rodney Dangerfield itself. No respect, even though the Sunset is America's oldest name train: It first ran in 1893.
It was that way even before Amtrak. Its operator, the vehemently anti-passenger Southern Pacific Railroad, stripped it of sleeping cars and dining service in the mid-1960s in an effort to drive away what little business was left on the New Orleans - Los Angeles run. Eventually SP rescinded when regulators allowed it to operate the train tri-weekly instead of daily.
The Sunset remained tri-weekly even after other Amtrak long-distance trains, namely the Coast Starlight and San Francisco Zephyr, were upgraded to daily. Consequently, ridership has remained low, even though the train serves several major markets en route, including Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix. Amtrak critics constantly cite it for having the highest per passenger operating losses.
In its centennial year, 1993, the Sunset got its moment to shine, when the train was extended almost 1,000 miles east to Miami, making it North America's first coast-to-coast passenger train. But the glory was short-lived, as five months after the inaugural cross-country run the eastbound Sunset Limited derailed on a bridge over Big Bayou Canot in Alabama. The accident claimed 47 lives, making it the worst in Amtrak's history.
The train never recovered from the disaster. Cost-cutting measures in the mid-1990s led Amtrak to move the eastern terminus first to Sanford, FL, and later to Orlando. Poor timekeeping over host railroads Union Pacific and CSX gave it a reputation for unreliability. Ridership suffered, particularly on the eastern portion, which never had a strong base of business to begin with.
After Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Amtrak suspended the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans because much of the track along the Gulf Coast had been destroyed. While CSX rebuilt the line, Amtrak never came back. Apparently, it never intended to.
This didn't sit well with elected officials serving areas along the route. One of them, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-FL, added a provision to the Amtrak reauthorization legislation that requires the railroad to develop a plan for restoring the service.
As AP writer Sarah Karush recently noted: "That case illustrates a central paradox of Amtrak: Despite decades of pressure to run the national passenger railroad efficiently and even profitably, its managers aren't free to make their own business decisions if Congress disagrees."
The history of Amtrak is littered with examples of powerful Senators and Congressmen using their muscle to force Amtrak to run trains that made little business sense. In the early days, Rep. Harley Staggers, chairman of the House Ways and Committee, pressured Amtrak to add trains such as the West Virginian, Shenandoah and Mountaineer to run across his sparsely populated home state of West Virginia. After Staggers retired and with him the trains he spawned, Sen. Robert Byrd pushed through legislation mandating the continuance of West Virginia's remaining train, the Cardinal, which, like the Sunset Limited, runs tri-weekly.
Amtrak says it will comply with the law and develop a plan for restoring the Sunset east of New Orleans (It is also required to develop plans for restoring two Western trains that were axed in the 1990s.). But the question remains: Why engage in exercises such as these when scarce resources, i.e. could be better deployed elsewhere?
If, as President-elect Barack Obama says, "we are the change we seek," then our representatives in Congress will have to step up to the plate and exercise leadership instead of just hankering for pork to bring back to the folks at home. Rep. Brown does her constituents little favor by bringing them a train that provides infrequent, slow and unreliable service.
This does not mean there is no demand for passenger rail on the 500-plus miles between New Orleans and Jacksonville, FL, the missing link in Amtrak's southern transcontinental route. But it has to be designed in a way that will attract, rather than repel riders, and if Amtrak has better opportunities in other markets it should be free to pursue them first.
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