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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Monday, September 27, 2010

A new path for the Sunset Limited

Earlier this year, I proposed that the Sunset Limited be transfered to a consortium by an act of Congress. I will now expand on that idea by stating that there would be significant changes so that this route doesn't interfere with Amtrak's plan to combine the Sunset Limited and the Texas Eagle into a daily train between Chicago and Los Angeles and convert the San Antonio-New Orleans segment to a standalone daytime train.
Without further adieu, here is what will make a daily Sunset different from what Amtrak is proposing:
  • The new route will be restructured to be a daily route between Phoenix and Orlando
  • New and rehabilitated stations will be served along the line
  • The new Sunset will be part of a public-private partnership
  • There would be a marketing organization that will handle all promotion of the route
The rehabbed Sunset Limited--or Desert Limited if Amtrak retains the Sunset name--will serve Phoenix, giving that city its first regularly scheduled passenger service since the Union Pacific's purchase of Southern Pacific in 1996 forced Amtrak to use a southern route via Maricopa. The Phoenix location will serve as a precursor to regional rail service in Arizona, and it will be the temporary western terminus until the out of service SP tracks are restored. Once the tracks are modernized, the Desert Limited will be extended to Los Angeles. A side benefit will include the implementation of a complementary corridor connecting L.A. with Nogales.

When it comes to the stations, the New Sunset will serve Phoenix's historic Union Station, the Union Terminal in Jacksonville, and the planned Sunrail station in downtown Orlando as ways of standing out from Amtrak. Also, Phoenix Union Station will serve as a placeholder for all trains until a system is built up. Once that happens, overnight service will be shifted to a new station at Sky Harbor International Airport, leaving Union Station as the place to be for commuter and intrastate express trains.

The PPP idea stems from what is currently taking place in Germany. A joint UK-US venture called Locomore will launch an express route between Hamburg and Cologne next April. If Congress wants to the public sector to play a limited role in rail travel, a Sunset Limited PPP is the way to go because public-private partnership can do wonders for this country. As a matter of fact, we got a possible demonstration of that last fall when Seattle-based Cascadia Center for Regional Development took apart the flawed Amtrak report on the Pioneer, provided its own analysis, and talked to a private operator who could run the train for considerably less than what the national carrier is asking for.

Needless to say, Congress would have to compensate the three Class I carriers for having a second passenger operator on their rails, but it can be done. Aside from the hosts, residents in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida's panhandle would benefit because they would have their route restored, leading to complementary daytime service and corridor development along the line. Amtrak would also win because they would no longer have to deal with the missing link, and it could focus on other matters.

A standalone Sunset Limited organization could even handle marketing by indicating various points of interest. Partnerships with hotels, airports, cities, and local and national landmarks can also abound. A Sunset PPP can spark other organizations like the CCRD to develop PPP routes for other overnight service that Amtrak axed. It is not far-fetched to imagine an independent Desert Wind Organization providing route information for people who want to travel between the Midwest and the western United States.