Fred Frailey Blog

Is a daily "Sunset Limited" worth $750 million?

  • Comments 24

Union Pacific has told Amtrak that changing the Sunset Limited’s frequency from triweekly to daily will cost the government-supported company about $750 million in capital improvements. It’s fair to say the vice presidents at Amtrak headquarters in Washington, D.C., are reeling from sticker shock.
 
Here’s the back story: Earlier this year, Amtrak’s board of directors approved daily operation of the Sunset, with an eye toward an October inauguration. The stars seemed lined up in the heavens because the existing equipment pool could cover the trips, and revenue gains were estimated to cover the higher costs. The idea was to reorient the train into a Los Angeles-Chicago service via San Antonio, Texas, with a section also running daily between San Antonio and New Orleans. The Texas Eagle already provides connecting service daily between Chicago and San Antonio.
 
Hold it right there, said Union Pacific. We’ve got plans to run a lot more Z (or express) freight trains across the Sunset Route in times to come. Plus, every time you switch the Chicago-LA cars from the Texas Eagle onto the New Orleans-LA Sunset at San Antonio, or vice versa, our freight trains grind to a halt for a considerable period.
 
To test the impact of a daily Sunset on UP operations, the railroad did a re-dispatching study, using Rail Traffic Controller software. It assumed train volumes from pre-recession 2007. And it stipulated one significant requirement: There could be no delay to the Sunset or to any UP freight train.
 
Union Pacific came up with an estimate of $400 million in capital improvements necessary to achieve seamless operation of a daily Sunset west of San Antonio. Between San Antonio and New Orleans, more study is necessary, but Amtrak people are of a mind that the bill for infrastructure improvements, particularly in the Houston area, will come to about $350 million.
 
So there you have it. Some UP people I’ve communicated with feel very strongly that this will be (or should be) Union Pacific’s take-it-or-leave-it position. Others are more open to a dialogue. But right now the take-it-or-leave-it faction appears in control.
 
Here’s how I suspect this story will play out: His past behavior suggests that Amtrak President Joe Boardman has no stomach whatsoever for confrontion. So don’t count on his negotiating with UP’s chief executive, Jim Young. Odds are that Amtrak will take this to the Surface Transportation Board for adjudication. The STB will take a sword and cut the baby in half, ruling that Amtrak must make some capital improvements but nowhere near the $750 million. And about the time the Obama girls graduate from college, you and I will be able to enjoy daily service on the historic Sunset Limited.

Enjoy the photos from my recent trip, smoke stop at Del Rio, Texas (top), and from the westbound Sunset west of San Antonio. Fred W. Frailey

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  • Surprise, surprise Amtrak Joe makes a totally groundless assumption (a daily-each way- extra train on a largely single track will cause no more schedule interference than a 3 day intrusion!) and on that basis, his rubber stamp board pronounces a virtually done deal. For some reason this ego centeric behavior by Amtrak which ignores input from essential partners, customers, and we, the stockholders, just goes on and on. Oops, my distain is showing.

  • Well, if the STB cuts the baby in half (isn't government helping itself just wonderful - as in, STB helps Amtrak) the result will be a $375 million subsidy for this train from the Union Pacific customers.

    This will increase their cost of doing business, harm the US economy and kill jobs.

  • OH please, guys, this is just more of the anti-passenger attitude of the UP. $750 million so that two passenger trains a day don't mess up their flow of traffic. I wonder who the UP wants to charge for who ever is forcing  its trains to sit for hours at a time on its northbound main south of Steger Road in Steger, IL. I guess they're getting ready to put Dick Cheney back on the board.

  • It amazes me that BNSF seems to be able to get its trains and Amtrak across their rails effectively every day. UP is going to have mostly a double track between LA and El Paso fairly soon, and how much traffic they'll have between Sierra Blanca and New Orleans/Houston is probably an open question. It's really going to cost, according to the UP, $400,00,00.00 for one train in either direction a day, not including a New Orleans connection, between SA and LA ???

  • Perhaps my comment seemed too negative regarding Amtrak's decision making process but, my point is that Amtrak management has a history of making decisions by fiat and then being totally surprised when the other party essential to any action reacts in a less then cheerful and accommodating manner. In an adversarial negotiation process necessitated by this approach, the other party will respond in kind and so why not demand the kitchen sink? "Shovel ready" rail improvements like this and the SW Chief route problem may meet this new stimulus/capital fund bank proposal Obama is announcing on Labor Day.

  • Sorry, The Sunset is a political football, it is not worth the bother. UP has all the cards, so if the Sunset is to be a daily operation, Amtrak will need to pay for a lot of capacity improvements. The regime might approve the payments if you-know-whose approval numbers in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are too low in late 2011.

  • I have a solution to the problem.  Build the additional capacity on the Sunset west of Houston with the $400 million from government/Amtrak funds.  Then, everytime the UP causes the Sunset Limited to be delayed due to signal failures, track failures, freight train equipment failures or dispatch screw-up, fine the UP $1,000,000.

    Let's see.  365 days per year at two trains a day...

    Not to just be snide-Is the $400 million necessary to meet the criteria of running both freight trains AND Amtrak on time, or is that the incremental cost to build capacity to run Amtrak in a system already built up to handle all freight on time?  Not that I know the numbers, it seems that $400 million would buy a substantial number of long passing sidings.  

  • First question anyone should ask is what level of delay does RTC show for 3 day Sunset at 2007 traffic levels?  RTC simulations are only useful when you have a base case to make comparisons.

    It's hard to believe that UP is running trains in the Sunset's slot only on the four days the Sunset doesn't run.

    I'd bet that $400/$750M buys a lot of improvement for both parties - most of which provide tiny increments in performance.  Amtrak needs to get their nose into the details of the RTC simulation....

  • If Union Pacific can't run eight more trains a week on an increasingly ungraded line between New Orleans and Los Angeles, I'd say they need to hire some new Train Dispatchers.

  • I think Amtrak needs Hunter Harrison on its BOD to work out the details.

  • It's counter intuitive that $400 million is required to add 8 trains a week. Depending on the assumptions you can come up with a big number for those 8 trains.  The real relavent comparison is what increase in delays would there be at 2007 levels of freight   with 6 Amtrak trains and with 14 Amtrak trains a week.  What does it take to keep those delays level with more passenger trains.  It's always amusing when they talk about line of road delays but never mention the far bigger delays getting and out of terminals.

    The whole point is that Union Pacific philosophically hates the concept of Amtrak.  Is it fair that BNSF is subsidizing all those passenger trains that are running daily on their railroad? Can BNSF say put up $X or your trains are going tri-weekly?  There's got to be one standard for all the railroads whatever that is.  Either congress defines Amtrak's rights or it's just one ad hoc decision after another.  

  • My opinion of UP will forever be colored by watching one of their slick corporate lawyers argue against construction of a recreational trail in the Truckee River Canyon, not because it would use any of their property, but because of hypotheticals like "a piece of metal might fly off a train and hit someone." Their apparent view was "we have that entire side of the river to ourselves now, and we want to keep it that way." Add to that the dismal UP record (relative to BNSF) of running Amtrak trains late, the insistence that the shadow of Picacho Peak State Park is the only spot in all of Arizona suitable for a new yard, and now this extortionate demand relative to the Sunset Limited. Vanderbilt's "The public be damned" attitude lives on! As a railfan, I suppose I ought to oppose reregulation, but the arrogance of the UP makes it seem like a fine idea.

  • Can you show us the raw components of the computer study along with the data?  Then we can see if the study was slanted by the existing practices.  What speed for their Z's?  Have they had a previous plan in place for increasing capacity, and now see an oppurtunity to use other than their own funding for some of that?  Can you show us the OTP of each entity that hosts AMTRAK as a comparison?  Does it really appear that UP is less than  user-friendly?  

  • I think the most sad commentary in all of this is that the UP of the 1970 and early 1980's would have made the Sunset daily without asking for any extra money.  The UP seems to be a railroad that was subverted (in terms of management styles) from the inside by the corporate culture of first the Missouri Pacific (remember their corporate arrogance in the1970's and toxic hostility towards Amtrak---at that time UP would add a Fast 40 SD40 on front of the CZ/Desert Wind to keep in on time while MP would do everything possible to delay the InterAmerican, etc.) and then the SP  The UP has changed from the friendly-proud road of the 70's to the angry-arrongant road of today.

  • Any possibility of 4 times-a-week operation LAX to NOL for maybe a bit less than 750M?

Is a daily "Sunset Limited" worth $750 million?